Nationalist China: The Departed Traveler
While serving as China's wartime Ambassador to the U.S. (1938-1942), Scholar-Philosopher, Dr. Hu Shih received $60,000 from his hard-pressed government to use for propaganda. He returned the money with the remark: "My speeches are sufficient propaganda and do not cost you anything."
Independence of mind and forthright expression marked the course of his life. Born in Shanghai, his father was a geographer, his mother an illiterate peasant (who chose his wife for him when he was eleven). Hu Shih was an intellectual prodigy, won a Boxer Indemnity scholarship to Cornell (where he was called "Doc"). He went on to study at Columbia under the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey and became one of his outstanding disciples. Hu Shih once said that philosophy was his profession, literature his entertainment, politics his obligation. Literature was much more than just enjoyment: on his return to China in 1917, he crusaded for the paihua (vernacular language) movement, which gave that vast land a written language corresponding to its spoken tongue, thus breaking the ancient literary monopoly of the mandarins and making reading and writing accessible to the people.
During his first 20 years as a teacher, mostly at Peking National University, Hu Shih sharply attacked the one-party government of Chiang Kaishek, but when the choice had to be made between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists, the philosopher and the Generalissimo were reconciled. In debate at the United Nations and on lecture platforms everywhere, Hu Shih spoke boldly and forcefully against Red tyranny. Frequent ill health inclined Hu Shih to nine years of scholarly retirement in New York and Princeton, but in 1958 he again returned to Formosa to serve as president of the Academia Sinica, Nationalist China's renowned research institute. He also worked out a complex interpretive system of population analysis, which convinced him that the current estimates of some 700 million mainland Chinese were wrong and that 300 million was a closer approximation of the actual figure.
Last week, in his headquarters near Taipei, Dr. Hu Shih, 70, presided at a cocktail party in honor of new Academia fellows. Suddenly, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. His death severed one of the notable links between his present-day, divided nation and the hopeful, revolutionary years of a half-century ago when Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China. Like his country, Hu Shih's own family was split: one son is on the Communist mainland, another in the U.S. For his many friends, Dr. Hu Shih's epitaph could be taken from one of his own poems:
Again the thin clouds
Again the brilliant moonlight after the clouds
But no more the travel companion of last year.