Restless Mind: Hu Shi and Sinified Liberalism in Modern Chinese Intellectual History

Xia Lu

Beginning of the article

here is no way that Hu Shi and his impact on, if not contribution to, the development of liberalism in modern China can be elucidated within a single essay ; nor does the author claim that this current piece of work will surpass previous studies. In light of the study of the social history of political thought, a methodological approach initiated and further developed by the late Ellen Wood (2011, 2012), I consider three aspects of Hu Shi and liberalism in China. First, I explore his espousal of liberalism in China and related attempts to Sinicize political thought in this process. Second, I examine his dealings with the KMT regime and his reflection on state–society relations in this process. Finally, I describe his reemphasis of liberalism in his last year and the legacy that he brought to the campus movement in Taiwan.

Anyone confronting a brand-new idea should follow a basic approach of absorption, that is, start by getting to know the idea in theory, then practice it in real life. In the process of coming to know and integrating an idea, the individual may from time to time refer to existing elements they already know before as a basis for absorbing new ones. This was surely what took place before Hu Shi espoused and converted to liberalism. In this section, I therefore seek to understand the intellectual background of Hu Shi’s childhood and his intellectual preparation for the new idea, laying down a further basis for his practice.

Hu Shi was born in Shanghai in 1891, the son of a minor official of the Manchu dynasty…


It is barely possible to grasp the process of promotion and development of liberalism in 20th-century China without considering Hu Shi and his life and works. During his 70-year-long life, Hu Shi first came to the stage of modern Chinese intellectual history as a returned US-trained elite academic focusing on literary revolution and reflecting on the history of ancient Chinese philosophy alongside Western-style scientific methods. In this academia period he wanted not only to change the way in which people speak and write but also the way in which they think and live. He subsequently became one of the most prestigious public intellectuals in modern China, actively engaging in political life and seeking to fulfill his ideal of “good governance” with a one-party regime. Despite interruption by the Japanese invasion and Civil War, Hu did, to some extent, help restore the centrally administered authority that is necessary for a developing country with a huge territory and a population seeking to modernize in a fast and effective way. In his last years, although he was considered a symbol and a channel of connection between the US and the Kuomintang regime – partly due to his being criticized by the academic community on mainland China, some of whom were former colleagues and students – he clearly distanced himself from the Kuomintang (henceforth KMT) regime and once again took up the flag of liberalism.


  • Introduction
  • Early espousal liberalism in China
  • Dealing with the KMT regime in a dynamic state–society relation
  • Legacy of Chinese liberalism in Taiwan – Free China
  • Conclusions : Wenxing

Key Words

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