Hu Shi the Literary Avante Garde

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Hu Shi the Literary Avante Garde
Throughout china’s history it had been socially constructed under Confucianism. In the early 20th century, times were changing fast and managing a society under the old ways of Confucian had become unpractical. Beginning around 1917, Chinese intellectuals began to engage each other in serious discussion and debate on culture, history, philosophy, and related subjects — all with the concern to the problem of China’s weakness and the possible solutions to that problem. This period of intellectual debate is called the May Fourth Movement. Hu Shi was one of the leading May Fourth intellectuals. Hu graduated from Cornell University and studied philosophy under John Dewey at Columbia University. He is well-known for his advocacy of literary reform for modern China. His article, “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform,” which appeared in The New Youth magazine, proposed the radical idea of writing in vernacular Chinese rather than classical. For the average Chinese the classical style was incomprehensible. This was a major sociological problem and needed to be changed so everyone could understand. Until Hu’s article was published, no reformers or revolutionaries had conceived of writing in anything other than classical Chinese. Hu offered a realistic means of improving communication, promoting social criticism, and reevaluating Chinese literacy.

In a speech given at Beijing University July 1917 Hu Shi talked about the importance and urgency of the reform of Chinese literature: “Both language and writing issue from the mind. Language issues through the mouth and writing issues through the pen. In western countries, spoken language and writing are generally close to each other, but not in our country. In our country, the spoken language and writing have nothing to do with each other. To say “eating,” the spoken language uses the word chifan, while writing uses the word shi. To say “walking,” the spoken language uses the word zoulu, while writing uses the word xing. This is why our literature cannot flourish and why we must quickly reform our writing” (Jiang, 58). This quote gives a clear explanation of how the Chinese language has become unpractical in modern times. The verbal language when speaking does not match the way it is written. This system of literacy is out-dated and very confusing. He emphasizes that there needs to be change.

In order create a new system for literary reform one must understand the reasons why the old system does not work, and what needs to be done to fix it. The construction of Chinese language in terms of how it is spoken and the way it is written was very different from each other. This made it difficult for the common person to learn how to read and write. It also made class distinctions of the well educated elitists over the common people. It was a marker of prestige and higher education. Hu lays the blueprint for literary reform by publishing eight viewpoints in his innovative article A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform. The first point he makes states one must write with substance. He believes that the Chinese language during this time lacked “genuine meaning.” People spoke in “tones, rhythm, words, and phrases (Hu, 357)” that lacked feeling and thought behind what was being said. By thought he “means insight, knowledge, and ideals…literature becomes more valuable if it contains thought, and thought is more valuable if it possesses literary value (Hu, 357).” Therefore substance is essential to avoid superficiality.

The second point made is to never imitate the ancients. In terms of the method of literary reform Hu stresses that modern literature must not be reformed with ancient writing ” (Jiang, 58). In his speech in Beijing Hu states “In order to carry out literary reform, we have to keep the history of literature in mind. Each age has its own literature. We must not talk about the present according to the past; we must not go back to the...
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