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CHAPTER 6
Nothing but Culture: The Pen War Between
Hu Shi and the Conservative Xueheng School
1 A Critique of Hu Shi’s Theory
of Baihua Writing
Generally speaking, the “New Chinese Literature” began from 1917 with
the publication of Hu Shi’s “A Preliminary Proposal for Literary Reform”
in the first issue of The New Youth. This signaled a fundamental change in
Chinese literature, the first significant change since the late Qing Dynasty.
Hu’s “Proposal” was thus of epoch-making significance in the history of
Chinese literary criticism.
Even though he used the word “reform” in the title, Hu essentially
called for a revolution from a language perspective and argued for replacing wenyan with the current baihua. His theory might therefore be more
justly termed a theory of baihua literature. It was well received by such
prominent scholars as Chen Duxiu, Fu Sinian, Liu Bannong, Qian
Xuantong, and Zhou Zuoren. Their contributions strengthened the theory and made it more systematic: their responses and polemical papers are
included in Hu Shi’s edited multi-volume Anthology of New Chinese
Literature: Theory Construction.
Hu Shi is the most prolific and the most published author on the theory
of this literature. First, it was he who coined the term baihua literature;
second, he actively promoted and defended it; and third, he was an ardent
believer in baihua literature. He practiced what he advocated by publishing the first volume of baihua poems—Collection of Experimental Poetry—
in the history of Chinese literature, and A History of Chinese Philosophy
© The Author(s) 2018
Y. Gao, The Birth of Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55936-4_6
127
128 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
(first volume), also the first of its kind in a modern sense. Fourth, he
elaborated comprehensively the concept of baihua literature through his
articles and books, such as “On Literary Revolution,” “On the Historical
Concept of Literature,” “On Building up a Literary Revolution,” “On
Literary Revolution Movement,” “Forced to Join the Lingshan Rebels,”
“On New Poetry,” “On Short Stories,” “Introduction” to A History of
Baihua Literature, “An Autobiography: As Told by Hu Shih,” and Chinese
Literature in the Recent Fifty Years.
Hu Shi’s theoretical promotion of baihua as an effective literary language was so successful in its own right and also led to the success of the
May Fourth New Culture Movement. Even Hu Shi was surprised by this
twofold success, admitting: “When I was conceiving this movement in
1916, I thought that it would take twenty or thirty years at the minimum
to see any result. It became mature with such speed that I was even surprised” (“Autobiography” 333). Its success is largely attributed to his
instinct in finding the pivotal factor in the reform—namely, the language.
While he knew that all literary revolutions in history started with a change
in the medium of representation, he didn’t offer any reasons for believing
in the power of baihua.
The earlier stage of the baihua movement was strongly opposed by conservatives, among whom the translator Lin Shu was the most vociferous,
although he failed to offer convincing reasons for his criticism: “I know that
it is entirely wrong to abolish wenyan but I don’t know how to spell out the
reasons” (“Reasons” 92). Hu Shi was amused when reading this sentence
and later mocked Zhang Shizhao, a famous traditionalist scholar, by imitating Lin Shu: “I know baihua is no good but I don’t know how to spell out
the reasons” (“Again, Zhang Shizhao Rebels” 743). Hu’s mockery was
rather like a pot calling the kettle black, because he couldn’t come up with
irrefutable reasons even if he argued that his promotion has “historical evidence, social needs in mind and the vision of beautiful baihua literature all
people will appreciate” (“Again, Zhang Shizhao Rebels” 743). Zhang
Shizhao and Lin Shu couldn’t make their case for the lack of linguistic
knowledge, without which they were unable to pinpoint the real reasons.
Later, Hu Shi attributed the quick success of the literary revolution to the
ineffectual opposition. It is true that the opposition was weak because there
was no effective linguistic help from the wenyan system. What makes the pen
war interesting is that the baihua champion, Hu Shi himself, didn’t understand the core reason for his success.
1 A CRITIQUE OF HU SHI’S THEORY OF BAIHUA WRITING 129
That baihua prevailed over wenyan, in Hu Shi’s understanding, was
because wenyan was half-dead as a language and baihua full of vitality.
Defending his idea of “half-dead wenyan,” he argued, “There are many
wenyan words still in use, but there are many discarded as well”
(“Autobiography” 310). A review of his “A Preliminary Proposal” indicates that among the elements of wenyan that were falling out of use
included casual grammar rules, indiscriminate use of idioms and proverbs,
overuse of allusions, and unnecessary focus on parallelism of words and
sentences. The “vitality” of baihua, by contrast, was embodied in its comprehensibility, as
[t]he words are easy to say, to read and to hear. Wenyan can never be used
for public speech, lecture or note-taking. What is needed today is a language
that can be read, listened to, sung, and written. We don’t have to do a mental translation when we read it. We don’t have to transcribe it when we make
a baihua speech. When we sing baihua songs, even the illiterate understand.
(“Autobiography” 314–315)
The most crucial factor was its simple grammar. Hu Shi ensured that
baihua had a grammar that is simple, sensible and logical, not obnoxious or
full of the indirect expressions of wenyan grammar, nor cluttered with vague
grammar rules as was common in wenyan writing. It is so easy that you don’t
have to go to school or engage a tutor to acquire it. (“Autobiography” 335)
These are the reasons he argues for the abolition of wenyan. However,
he misses the fundamental reason for the abolition. Whether a language is
dead or alive shouldn’t be judged by its level of difficulty but by its usability.
An extensively used language, even if it is extremely complex, irrational, and
defective, is still alive. In contrast, a language, no matter how simple and
sensible, is dead if not in use. A living language cannot be abolished just as
a dying person cannot be saved. According to modern linguistics, language
activities are social in nature. No one can create or change a language by
themselves. A language’s existence is, rather, determined by an agreement
among its social interlocutors. And language is a system, established through
social practice and observed by its users. Like all systems, it is rather stable.
Hu Shi is aware of stability in language, as he acknowledges that “Vocabulary
in a language is the most stable and conservative in the world, and
even more so than religion” (“Autobiography” 307). He elaborates on
130 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
the conservative nature of language: “Language resembles religion in that
it has to be part of common people’s life, but when it becomes social and
accepted by everyone, it tends to be conservative and unwilling to change”
(“Autobiography” 07).
As a language system, wenyan includes some words that people no longer use, but this doesn’t mean that wenyan as a language is dying or dead.
All languages evolve, so changes in vocabulary happen all the time.
Likewise, baihua also has many words no longer in use, but we cannot
declare that it is a dead language. Hu Shi called for the replacement of
wenyan without realizing that it is a system with its own mode of discourse, too traditional to suit modern life. Similarly, baihua represents a
new system of thought, congruous with its contemporary social developments. His theories of language matched people’s wish for the abolition of
the entire traditional system of thought. This is why the baihua movement
became so successful within a short span of time, leading, in turn, to the
success of the May Fourth New Culture Movement.
Traditionally, language is viewed as a vehicle for thought. So, when an
invisible and intangible thought takes form, it has to rely on language to
come into being. However, modern linguistics maintains that thought and
language are inseparable because the study of thought depends on the
study of language. Scholars such as A. J. Ayer even contend that language
is thought and there is no difference between the process of thought and
its articulation. Xu Youyu gives the following reasons for this:
Firstly, any higher and complicated mental activities are connected with language. When processing complex logic, mathematical reasoning, pondering
over the questions in quantum physics, and theory of relativity, we must be
assisted with language and professional terms and symbols, otherwise, the
thinking cannot be completed … It is unimaginable that without language
people can think about such philosophical questions as “the existence of
God,” “kindness” and “essence.” Secondly … we have to consider language
and thought the same thing rather than believe that there exists a process of
translation between them. Thirdly, it is generally the same when one gains
knowledge in a certain field and can carry on effective thinking in the field
as one acquires the terms and language skills of the field. For instance, the
acquisition of professional terminology of physics and proficiency in using
them means the acquisition of physics knowledge. Likewise, the process of
learning daily language is to learn how to reflect and explain the process of
our daily life. (7–8)
1 A CRITIQUE OF HU SHI’S THEORY OF BAIHUA WRITING 131
Language is not a tool that humans can manipulate freely. When we speak,
we don’t control language; instead, we are “part” of the language system;
language speaks through us – we do not speak the language.
However, it is vain to deny the instrumental usefulness of language,
which is basically limited to the range of simple daily life. When we are
engaged in complex forms of mental activity, our language behavior in
these activities cannot be claimed as instrumental acts. Rather, language
itself is the process of the activity, because the language process is the same
as the mental process. Language activity is mental activity. A language’s
vocabulary can be divided into two parts: the practical and the ideological.
Practical vocabulary includes material nouns, verbs about daily life, certain
specific adjectives and prepositions. Practical vocabulary is more instrumental. Ideological vocabulary mainly comprises conceptual nouns and
conjunctions that are used to indicate judgment and relationships in grammar. Ideological vocabulary is relatively small in a language system but,
nevertheless, it clearly represents the characteristics of a nation’s cultural
spirit and mode of thinking. The difference between the two language
systems fundamentally lies not in formal signs, phonology, grammar, or
practical vocabulary but in ideological vocabulary. It follows that the difference between Chinese and Western thought can be demonstrated by
their respective ideological vocabularies. For instance, conceptual nouns
and terms such as “emperor and minister,” “three cardinal guides and five
constant virtues,” “loyalty-filial piety-moral integrity-brotherhood-­
loyalty,” “yin yang” (the two opposing forces in nature), “the five essential
elements in nature,” “the Tao,” “vital energy,” and so forth form the basic
framework of ancient Chinese thought and modes of thinking because
they constitute the central ideological vocabulary in the ancient Chinese
system. For this reason, it was impossible to transcend ancient Chinese
thought as long as wenyan as a system continued in use.
Examining Hu Shi’s baihua theory in line with this linguistic view, I liken
his linguistic approach to an ideological revolution, but find that his traditional instrumental view of language brings him to the edge of the essence
of language. Hu Shi finds that “The entire history of Chinese literature has
indicated that, since medieval times, language in China was no longer a useful tool. It could no longer fully express peoples’ ideas and thought”
(“Autobiography” 312). Here he is vaguely aware of the internal relationship between language and thought. The pity is that this thought seems
like a flash in the pan, vanishing in a second. Hu Shi also realizes the paramount importance of external influences on the ­development of Chinese
132 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
literature and culture: “What I meant by the input of new thought and
theories is basically to help solve practical problems we are facing today”
(“Autobiography” 342–343). However, he does not connect thought
with language, hence the division of the question into two separate issues.
For Hu Shi, baihua is neither a new language system nor a new mode of
discourse. It is not a new way of thinking but rather another new language
tool, as he asserts that, “with this new tool, we are able to talk about new
ideas and new spirit and so forth” (“Autobiography” 156).
In comparison, Wang Guowei offers a more rational understanding of
the nature of language during the dramatic transition years of Chinese
culture at the beginning of the last century. The opening paragraph of his
1905 article “On the Creation of New Terms” reads:
In the recent years, an apparent literary phenomenon draws my attention,
that is, the creation of many new phrases. A nations’ Language represents its
thought. The depth of thought is reflected in refined language just as coarse
language represents shallowness of thought. By looking into the quality of a
nation’s language, we can assume how refined a nation’s thought is. The
language in the Zhou and Qin dynasties was not sufficient for the times
when Buddhist scriptures were translated. Similarly, the recent language
seems insufficient for translating Western works. The difficulty in translation
doesn’t lie in the differences between languages, but in differences in
thought which characterizes a nation … Language represents one’s thought
and ideas. Thereby, the input of new ideas means the input of the new
terms. (40–41)
Wang Guowei recognizes the inseparable relationship between a nation’s
language and its thought. In this sense, the influx of new phrases and
terms marks the influx of new thought. Regrettably, he is not fully accepted
and understood in this regard, even today.
Closer analysis of Hu Shi’s modern baihua literature theory reveals that
Hu Shi does not differentiate between the two baihua movements in tandem,
and that he barely understands that the modern baihua he promoted is a new
language system. Hu Shi admits that he also notices the “Europeanization”
phenomenon in baihua writing: “In fact, the trend has started at the initial
stage of baihua literature … In recent years this trend has become more
obvious and bold” (“Introduction” 130). He states that “fully absorbing
the deliberate structures of Western languages is meant to enable our language to convey more complex thought and theory” (“Introduction” 132).
Obviously, this inverts the relationship between grammar, vocabulary, and
2 THE MODERNIST QUALITY OF THE RATIONAL CONSERVATIVE... 133
thought. He acknowledges that, “in the past two decades, baihua literature
has made our national language richer, fresher, more capable and expressive”
(“Introduction” 132). However, hindered by his deep-­rooted traditional
view of language as a tool, Hu is unable to see this more expressive “national
language” enriched by Western terms and concepts as a new mode of discourse and a new system.
Although well trained in wenyan, Hu Shi wrote in baihua before he
went to the USA to study, as is shown by his published articles, diaries, and
some letters. He recounts that “Editing the Ten-day Newspaper not only
gave me an opportunity to publicize and reorganize my thought dozens
of times, but also allowed me to practice baihua for more than one year”
(“Me” 85). Moreover, his overseas experience enabled him to think in
baihua as he translated English terms and concepts into baihua. Meanwhile,
wenyan limited him in expressing Western thought; hence his view that it
was a dying language. I tend to think that his experience with baihua
prompted him to promote it as an effective literary language.
In sum, Hu Shi’s proposal to abolish wenyan by replacing it with baihua was inspiring and resonated well with the unavoidable trend of social
development at that time, and his vision of baihua as a tool for publicizing
new thought to enlighten the people was effective and powerful.
Nonetheless, the reasons for his argument were rather superficial and did
not touch on the fundamentals of this controversial issue. Reviewing the
crucial roles that baihua played during the May Fourth Movement, it is
hard to deny its instrumental usefulness. Yet in terms of the May Fourth
ideological revolution, the modern baihua is not just a tool but a new
system of thought.
2 The Modernist Quality of the Rational
Conservative Xueheng School
In the history of modern Chinese culture, both liberalism and radicalism
blazed a trail and were hailed as representing a new culture for most people,
who regarded the conservatism of the Xueheng School as a rigid deviation
from the track of modern Chinese culture. Xueheng is the name of a magazine, meaning ‘The Critical Review’. In contrast to popular positions on
the Xueheng School, I would argue that it represented modern conservatism or rational conservatism, an important component of modern Chinese
culture. The Xueheng School of thought was not a natural evolution from
traditional Chinese culture but a product of modern Western culture. Its
134 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
theoretical base was reinforced by Irving Babbitt’s new humanism in the
early twentieth century. Babbitt sharply criticized the modern Western
trend of blindly depending on science and technology to right social
wrongs, and attacked all forms of modernism. Instead, he advocated the
humanistic tradition and placed due emphasis on individual moral character
and human reason as the internal forces able to save modern society from
chaos and crises. Babbitt was deeply concerned about the New Culture
Movement in China and supported China’s campaign of learning from the
West, despite his warning that ancient Chinese civilization could be a moral
resource to ward off the problems of modern materialism.
Mei Guangdi and Wu Mi, two of the major contributors to the magazine, offered their ideas about the development of modern Chinese culture in line with Babbitt’s new humanism. In general, they had no
objection to the campaign of learning from the West in regard to technology, social system, and culture. Nevertheless, they were opposed to the
complete Westernization movement by arguing that Western culture was
not perfect, and that it placed undue emphasis on consumerism, the
major defect China needed to avoid. The Xueheng scholars were well
versed in both traditional Chinese culture and Western culture, and well
trained in both Chinese and Western academic traditions. Naturally, they
belittled Hu Shi and the like for their insufficient knowledge, Chinese or
Western, for their inability to choose and identify what China really
needed to learn from the West, and for the rash and irresponsible
Westernization campaign of the New Culture Movement. Mei Guangdi
criticized the campaign proponents for their lack of “a deep examination
of Western cultures due to their limited knowledge, hence an erroneous
proposal” (“Proponents” 73). In addition, Tang Yongtong criticized Hu
Shi and others for only “having a partial understanding of Western culture at the cost of losing the whole picture” (100). Wu Mi criticized the
New Culture promoters for “focusing on only one Western theory, one
type of articles, without knowing that the theory is discarded as poisonous dreg. They still promote it as the most representative of the whole
Western culture” (“On the New Culture Movement” 78). The Western
model included the universal trend for “modernization” and particular
forms suitable to European and US cultural traditions. The universal part
made China’s learning necessary, while the particular side required that
the learning be selective and purposeful, as necessary for the circumstances. According to Mei Guangdi, “To reform the traditional culture by
learning from others obligates one to have a thorough study of other
2 THE MODERNIST QUALITY OF THE RATIONAL CONSERVATIVE... 135
cultures first” (“Proponents” 77). He also suggested that evaluations of
other cultures should be made “because what works well in the West may
not be suitable in China. It is difficult to have a thorough understanding
of Western culture and more challenging to offer what should be adopted”
(“Proponents” 71).
More significantly, the Xueheng School argued for an integration of the
best of Western civilization and that of traditional Chinese civilization, as
declared in their magazine “Manifesto”: “The aim is to carry out academic
research, seek after truth, enhance the quintessence of our culture, and
adopt new knowledge” (New Knowledge 494). It opposed calls for the
abolition of traditional Chinese culture in order to build a new one by
learning from the West. In Liu Yizheng’s words, “The principle should be
the introduction of the genuine culture from Europe and America, and at
the same time, enhance the genuine Chinese culture” (869). Wu Mi in his
“On the New Culture Movement” offered a lengthy argument:
The so-called New Culture means nothing but Western culture, for short,
European culture. Since the last years of the Reign of Guangxu (1875–1908),
there is a wide concern about the intrinsic conflict between Chinese and
European cultures and a real worry that the popularity of European culture
signals the disappearance of the quintessence of Chinese culture. The New
Culture proponents prioritize the abolition of Chinese culture so as to create an environment for the input of European culture. Indeed, neither of
them is correct … The quintessential European and Chinese cultures can
benefit each other if in a conducive incorporation. As such, the enhancement of the best of Chinese culture and the promotion of European culture
will produce more brilliant works of, and on arts. (82)
With regard to building a modern Chinese culture, he believed that the
only way would be
To integrate the essence of Chinese and European cultures, and to melt
them into one. This entails us to conduct thorough researches of Chinese
ethics and moral cultivation, classical works in literature and philosophy and
those of the present times. We have to preserve, enhance and promote
those works; meanwhile we have to do the same to the European classical
and contemporary works in literature and philosophy through translation.
The European culture should be adopted for the best of Chinese culture.
(“New Culture” 88)
136 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
Free from the dualism of the East and the West, the old and the new, Wu
Mi offered his universal humanist view of Confucius and praised him as
“not only the highest representative of the Chinese nation and Chinese
culture, but … one of the few sages in the world throughout time” (“Value
of Confucius”). Wu was liberal toward world culture and sages as he warned
his contemporaries: “However, Confucius is not the only sage we need to
turn to. Jesus, Sakyamuni, Plato, Aristotle and many others are, in the final
analysis, just as sacred for us. There is no need to hold negative opinions
against any of them” (“New Culture” 96). To his understanding, the successful construction of modern Chinese culture involved the absorption of
the essence of Western and Chinese cultures.
There is no dispute between the Xueheng School and the New Culture
proponents led by Hu Shi over the need to build modern Chinese culture.
Mei Guangdi acknowledges that “Everyone knows the inevitability of constructing a new culture” (“New Culture” 76). Their difference lies in their
roadmaps due to their different concepts of culture. Chen Duxiu, one of
principal proponents of the New Culture Movement, maintains that traditional Chinese culture and Western culture are by no means alike in terms
of the mode of thinking and thought system. In fact, they often oppose
each other: “The Chinese and the Westerners belong to different races
with different systems of thought. A neat integration of the two is impossible unless we can merge the north with the south or mix water with oil”
(“Differences” 165). In his “Reply to the Swordsmen (Confucianism),”
Chen argues that “An acceptance of the new input of European culture
means an entire denial of the doctrines of Confucianism and vice versa.
There is no space for reconciliation between the old and the new” (281).
In his “A Vindication of The New Youth,” Chen is at his best, with these
words: “If you support Mr. Democracy, you have to oppose Confucianism,
codes of rites and ethics, concept of chastity, obsolete ethics, and old politics; if you support Mr. Science, you have no choice but to oppose the
so-called quintessence of Chinese culture and classical literature”
(442–443). This reflects the radical dualistic ideas of the New Culture
School, whose principle for building New Culture is making by breaking.
In contrast, the Xueheng School insists that there are some differences
in concepts between China and the West, but that there is also much that
is compatible because truth transcends nation, time, and region. Chinese
civilization has its merits, just as Western civilization has its demerits. Their
vision of a new and modern Chinese culture was one that integrates the
Western, the traditional, the new, and the old, as long as they are suitable.
Wu Mi argues:
2 THE MODERNIST QUALITY OF THE RATIONAL CONSERVATIVE... 137
The humanism of Mencius lays the first building block for our moral cultivation
and scholarly engagement. The introduction of Plato and Aristotle enables us
to do comparative studies. The introduction of major Western scholars since
them can also be integrated with the best of our culture, which will lay a solid
foundation for organizing and governing our society. That would be best we
can have: keeping the best of ours and acquiring the best from the West. Thus,
we would cherish the hope for the construction of our new culture. (Qtd in Yu
Sheng 195)
The Xueheng School values moral character, as is common in New
Humanism, which strengthens their emotional attachment to traditional
Chinese culture. Their belief in human reasoning enables them to defend
traditional Chinese culture in a rational manner. Moreover, they are also
rational in their criticism of the New Culture School.
In theory, the Xueheng School’s defense is more logical, and their criticism of the New Culture School’s one-sidedness seems quite sensible. But,
like their opponents, they are rather idealistic, academic, and purely theoretical without a real understanding of such practical issues as the mentality and psychological needs of the people; the special historical background
in China; the political, economic and military conditions; people’s acceptance of Western culture; cultural exclusiveness; the force of cultural
assimilation; and difference. Relatively speaking, the New Culture School
is more sensitive to social needs, richer in experience of social work, and
more in alignment with the times.
In my view, the argument of the Xueheng School is fair and moderate,
and its principle is flawless. However, under special historical conditions,
this fairness and moderation actually signify conservatism and partiality.
It is self-evident that modern Western civilization, with its overt emphasis on technology and science, had its defects, but the Chinese people
then favored it over traditional Chinese civilization, as it was “perfect” to
most people. The people’s choice was a realistic question rather than a
theoretical one.
The Xueheng School tried to rectify the New Culture School’s one-­
sidedness by defending traditional culture. Its defense logically determined
its choice of wenyan as its language tool. Its insistence on using wenyan
drew the most criticism. I see this as its fatal mistake. Another conceptual
error was that it regarded language as a mere tool. As Shao Zuping claims,
“One’s words reflect one’s mind, ideas and academic competence. The
success of the reflection totally depends on whether one has a clear mind,
impressive insight or strong academic competence … Writings instruct.
138 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
Whether the medium is wenyan or baihua, there will be no difference”
(124). With such a view of language, the Xueheng School tried to maintain the orthodox position of wenyan and opposed replacing it with the
modern baihua. However, language is more ideological in nature than
form. The classical and modern baihua resemble each other in form but
differ fundamentally at the ideological level. It is the right strategy for the
Xueheng scholars to use wenyan to defend traditional Chinese culture, just
as it is a mistake to express modern thought in wenyan, which assimilates
their modern ideas into the classical system, aligning them with the impenetrable diehard traditionalists.
The Xueheng School is a major component of modern Chinese culture.
Although it maintained a close connection with and opted for traditional
culture mentally, in nature it was detached from traditional Chinese culture and closer to modernism. As Sun Shangyang evaluates, “The new
generation of cultural conservatives represented by the Xueheng school
not only transcends the attachment on feudal monarchy as numerous traditional Confucian scholars did in the past, but also showcases a new line
of reasoning for keeping the tradition” (4). According to Li Yi, the
Xueheng scholars
Who have a wider vision, well-versed in both Chinese and Western cultures,
able to incorporate the classical with the modern, well engaged to reforming
Chinese culture. They are set to seek for truth, and promote the best of
traditional Chinese culture in an objective manner with insights … They
exist as a school of thought among modern Chinese intellectuals. (154)
The Xueheng School resembles the New Culture School since both are the
products of Western culture. However, the former was influenced by
Western conservatism and the latter by Western liberalism and radicalism.
The New Culture School’s advocacy for a clean break from and abolition
of traditional Chinese culture resulted from its Western influences. The
Xueheng School defended and reviewed traditional culture not out of
blind faith in it but for the purpose of finding ways for a transition to
modernity. In arguments and reasoning, they are more rational and complement the New Culture School.
The Xueheng School differed from the diehards of the old system as the
latter took classicism for its fundamentals, protected Confucian doctrines
and ethics, took a dogmatic position in its objection to modern culture, and
adopted an inimical attitude toward the radical New Culture School and
the conservative Xueheng School. In Shen Weiwei’s words, “The Xueheng
2 THE MODERNIST QUALITY OF THE RATIONAL CONSERVATIVE... 139
School’s conservatism emerges at the same time as liberalism and radicalism
in China. All three are the inseparable components…. It is run under the
same framework of (modern Chinese culture)” (4).
The debate between the Xueheng School and the Radicals was actually
not over the issue of tradition vs. modernity but a continued debate
between modern Western radicalism and conservatism. As Zheng Zhenduo
observes
The attack on new literature from Lin Shu and his colleagues is pure enthusiasm for the defense of traditional culture, because he believes in tradition, but
Hu Shi and his colleagues and Mei Guangdi and his look the same when they
heavily cite in their writing Western literary theories as their amulets. (13)
Lin Shu is a diehard traditionalist while Mei Guangdi, Hu Xianshu and
Wu Mi are classicists or new conservatives in opposition to liberalism and
radicalism. To a certain degree, the conservatives and the Radicals were dialoguing within the parameters of modernism. In fact, what the Xueheng
School objected to was not modern Chinese literature and culture but the
claims and positions represented by Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu and the like.
Modern Chinese culture didn’t evolve as they had advocated, although their
contribution cannot be underestimated. They laid out its roadmap but modern Chinese culture was the outcome of the integration of theory, claims,
ideas, and schools, among which the Xueheng played an important role.
The New Culture School castigated the Xueheng School for its diehard position on traditional culture. In their counterattack, the Xueheng
conservatives were just as self-righteous occasionally but overall they
were moderate in their tone and rational in their argument with something of a modern academic perspective. They were opposed to dogmatism and r­ adicalism, as illustrated by Mei Guandi’s letter to Hu Shi: “The
contemporary academic field should have the spirit of tolerance and
should acknowledge the value of opponents. Only by this can we break
academic autocracy” (“Letter” 167). Chronologically, the Xueheng
School came onto the historical stage with a middle-way position after
the diehard traditionalists were overwhelmed by the Radicals. However,
the Xueheng School became the new target of the Radicals. Being the
target forced it to assume responsibility for curbing the Radicals. Overall,
the Xueheng School was not against the New Culture Movement and
even acknowledged that it “has undeniable value” (Liu Boming 111).
That said, the Xueheng School took a harsh attitude toward the New
Culture School’s radicalism as Mei Guangdi condemned the Radicals for
140 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
being “too obstinate to be awakened to realize that you are bigoted in
your own academic work, but willing to vilify others without restraint for
their work” (“Proposal” 131). In fact, it was through opposing academic
autocracy of the Radicals and restraining their extensive publicity that the
Xueheng School’s significant role was acknowledged in the development
of modern Chinese culture.
The Xueheng School, as stated above, was contingent on the advent of
the New Culture Movement. Therefore its value and significance certainly
depended on those of the New Culture School. They were the opponents
with the purpose of rectifying the Radicals’ errors. Indeed, it was their
correcting effort that made up their huge contribution to the construction
of modern Chinese culture. The radicalism of the New Culture Movement
was typically represented by Hu Shi as he thus bashed Chinese civilization
in comparison with Western civilization: “Nothing Chinese is good. It is
inferior in machinery, in political system, in people’s moral character, in
knowledge, in literature, in music, in art and even in body build and
health” (“Introduction” 515). This kind of nihilism invited sharp criticism
from the Xueheng School, with the intent to awaken the Radicals. In fact,
it was their criticisms that made the New Culture Movement develop
more healthily. Or, rather, it was their continued effort in pointing out the
Radicals’ loopholes that constrained the Radicals. Shen Weiwei grapples
with the significance of the Xueheng School in checking the Radicals:
As part of the world trend of opposing modernism, the Xueheng School is
influenced by American New Humanism at the initial stage of China’s modernization campaign, but later, it accepts the political, economic and technological features of modernization. Continually, it argues for the importance
and significance of cultural inheritance and warns about the possibilities of
the loss of humanism, moral integrity, and spiritual alienation as might be
the outcome of cultural radicalism and scientism. (6)
Gao Like maintains that “the tension of ‘history’ and ‘value’ as a dual
theme in modern Chinese thought brings forth two different trends:
learning from the West and surpassing the West (surpassing Western paradigms)” (282). On the previous page he writes:
For modern intellectuals, their awareness of the historical trend of modernization and the survival crisis of the Chinese nation and their innate sensibility of classical Chinese have become the two-dimension driving forces for
their value selection … It is the tension and the interactive relationship
3 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 141
between their awareness of the historical trend and value selection that
determine their ideological orientations. In short, the interactive tension
between “history” and “value” constitutes the basic structure of their concepts of Chinese modernization. (281)
The New Culture School promoted the paradigm of “learning from the
West,” whereas the Xueheng scholars called for the paradigm that transcends the West. The former believed that it was culture that made the
West developed and powerful without identifying the real cultural strength
behind its advancement. As a result, it brought in whatever was Western
and easily to hand. However, the Xueheng School took a more prudent
attitude toward Western culture. The debate and interaction between the
two schools not only determined the orientation but also constructed the
basic structure of modern Chinese culture. In this sense, the Xueheng
School should be acknowledged for its contributions to modern Chinese
culture.
3 Hu Shi and the Xueheng School on the Concept
of Language
The debate between the New Culture School and the Xueheng School can
be reduced to that between Hu Shi and the Xueheng scholars as the latter
basically targeted the former. In this section I shall explore their differences in their language views, theoretical claims, and ideology for the purpose of a more thorough understanding of the New Culture and New
Literature Movements.
The most outstanding difference between them was their choice of language. Hu Shi promoted modern baihua in theory and remained an active
practitioner, whereas the Xueheng scholars did the same with wenyan.
Previous studies claim that the language difference was superficial without
any substantial significance. In fact, their differences in theoretical claims
and cultural practice can be explained by examining their concepts of language, because these reflect their differences in thought and worldviews.
Neither Hu Shi nor the Xueheng scholars ever openly talked about the
role language plays in the process of thinking from a language perspective.
However, indirect sources reveal clearly the role that language played in the
process of their thought. According to Hu Shi, those who “use the dead
classical Chinese have to dress their message in the age-old allusions, and
have to rely on the century-old ancient Chinese to express their feelings”
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(“Literary Revolution” 46). Although he didn’t mention what language
should be used to express the message and feelings, Hu Shi, given the context, clearly preferred the modern baihua. Zhou Zuoren further explained:
“Thought is thought and language is language. When one wants to present
one’s thought in written form, one has to go through a process of translation. Inability to directly express oneself is the fatal setback of using classical
Chinese” (“Suggestions” 772). Zhou indicated that some people actually
think in baihua but choose to express themselves in wenyan.
However, Mei Guangdi retorted: “You mean that people think in baihua, and when they write it out, they use wenyan. The writing process is
the process of translation. How hypocritical and wanton! Scholars in the
past thousands of years never had such experience. How misleading and
deceitful!” (“Proponents” 72–73). Certainly, it is inappropriate to conclude that what Hu Shi said is “deceitful,” and that what Mei said is wrong.
This not only reflects their difference in ideas but also their difference in
mode and process of thinking. This can be seen as the difference in a personal language experience, but it makes more sense to see their difference
as typical of the time. Mei Guangdi’s preference for wenyan speaks for the
majority of traditional intellectuals, who grow up with wenyan training
and naturally think in wenyan. For them, wenyan is not only elegant in
form but also convenient to use, whether in thinking or writing. However,
most new intellectuals and the common people think in baihua, who feel
it is extremely troublesome to translate what is in their mind into wenyan
when writing. What appears crucial is that, with the continuous input of
Western concepts, wenyan proves less and less adequate for expressing
modern ideas. Arguably, this is the starting point of the divergence
between Hu Shi and the Xueheng School.
The process of the language formation of Hu Shi is representative of
the transition period of modern Chinese. In ancient China the separation
between the spoken language (baihua) and the written language (wenyan)
continued for thousands of years. However, baihua was mainly a daily
instrument for oral communication, whereas wenyan was used for writing, serving as a carrier and representation of thought and culture. In
other words, thought was mainly expressed through wenyan rather than
baihua. Therefore, traditional intellectuals mainly focused on reading the
classics and received wenyan training in order to shape their thought. Hu
Shi was no exception. At age three, he was taught to read books prepared
by his father. Later, the books he read included The Book of Songs, The
Book of Filial Piety, The Small Learning, The Grand Learning, Mencius,
3 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 143
The Doctrine of the Mean, The Book of History, The Book of Changes, and
The Book of Rites. He read All Men Are Brothers, a baihua fiction, when
he was nine years old (Hu Shi, “Forty” 45–50). Reading is the most
effective way to train thinking and writing ability. His early education
served both purposes.
However, unlike most intellectuals, Hu Shi liked reading baihua fiction
since his childhood, which generated a significant impact on his non-­
orthodoxy in both language use and theory. Hu acknowledged that reading fiction “helps me write more lucidly and sensibly” (“Forty” 50).
Obviously, he referred to baihua “lucidly and sensibly.” There is no question that reading baihua fiction augmented his baihua competence. His
baihua contributions to the Jingye Ten-day Periodical sharpened his mind
and language competence. Before long, as he admitted, “baihua becomes
my tool” (“Forty” 85). It also meant that he began to think in baihua. His
eight-year studies in the USA helped him to use baihua not only as a linguistic tool but also as an ideological system.
“Diaries of Hu Shi: Studying Abroad” most directly records his life and
changes of thought during his studies in the USA, as he acknowledged:
“All these seventeen volumes record the entire history of the personal life,
inner life and mental changes of a young Chinese student for about seven
years” (“Foreword” to “Diaries”). What interests me is that most entries
are in baihua, a sure sign that he might have thought in baihua, and as
time progressed, more and more entries were written in English, especially
when treating important ideological issues. This is another sign that
English also played a crucial role in the formation of his modern thought.
Hu Shi accepted new ideas in English during his stay in the USA and
he thought in English. When he needed to express himself in Chinese, he
preferred baihua, despite the fact that wenyan was the official written form
of Chinese commonly accepted at that time. Normally, if Hu Shi anticipated a good reception of his new ideas in China, he would have to translate English into baihua, and then translate baihua into wenyan. Translation
between the first two languages is difficult but it needs a Herculean effort
to transact idea transference between the latter two because there exist no
equivalents for the new terms and conceptual nouns in wenyan. Similar
difficulties came up when translating from English into baihua, but it was
less daunting because he could create or borrow new terms as the modern
baihua was just fledgling. In fact, at that time, baihua as a language system
had not yet been established. However, in comparison with wenyan, it is
more flexible and able to absorb modern Western new ideas.
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Likewise, the representative conservatives such as Mei Guangdi and Wu
Mi were also returnees from the USA after completing their modern education. They were bilingual scholars. However, unlike Hu Shi, they used
English and wenyan. That is to say, when they wrote for a Chinese audience they used wenyan because of their formal training in wenyan, which
was the only language that gave shape to their thought. It was psychologically comfortable for them to use wenyan, and understandable for them to
firmly reject baihua, which they were by no means proficient in using.
Wenyan was not only the language form they identified with but also the
language they fondly cherished for aesthetic reasons. To them there was
no inconvenience in translating modern English concepts into wenyan.
Hu Shi sneered at them for their dependence on wenyan, “Because writing in baihua is too difficult a task they cannot finish, they prefer wenyan
for a reason” (“Literary Revolution” 51). That reason can be personal. Hu
Shi promoted baihua owing to his empirical inconvenience with wenyan,
just as Mei Guangdi and other conservatives’ opposition resulted from
their strict training in wenyan.
There was another reason for Hu Shi’s arduous promotion of baihua,
which he believed was the language for new literature, because “every
generation has its own literature” (“Historical Concept” 27). To him, literature evolved historically. He operated the evolutional view of literature
as a lethal weapon against the diehard conservatives: “We will count on the
historical view of literature to destroy the weapon of the classical literature” (“Brief History” 126). The weapon he found fatal was baihua.
On the basis of his historical concept of literature and the need to promote baihua as a literary language for modern China and to justify baihua
as a replacement for wenyan in building a new culture, Hu Shi offered a new
but bold explanation for the historical development of Chinese literature.
He assured us that “Since ancient times, all the best verse lines are written
in baihua” (“Reasons” 50). In “Forced to Join the Liangshan Rebels,” he
asserts that “The history of Chinese literature is merely a history of a metabolism of language forms, hence the constant replacement of ‘dead literature
by ‘living literature’” (146). He notes in “The History of baihua Literature”
that “This history remains central in the history of Chinese literature, for
without the baihua literature, the literary literature would be empty. Then,
it should be renamed as ‘The History of Ancient Chinese Language’”
(150). In order to justify his promotion of the importance of modern baihua Literature, he states: “The colloquial literature is always the orthodox
literature in China, which implies that a modern literature revolution
3 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 145
conforms to the trend of historical development … Whatever merits wenyan
has, so does modern baihua. The power of baihua is beyond the scope of
wenyan” (“Liangshan Rebels” 147). Some of his statements are fallacious
and inaccurate, and sure to invite criticism and debate, but his promotion of
baihua gained wide support.
Even though Hu Shi’s name is synonymous with the May Fourth baihua Movement for his theoretical and practical contributions, his understanding of the nature of baihua as an instrument is present throughout
his discussion of the functions of baihua. The modern baihua constitutes
the basic framework of modern Chinese or the national language, but Hu
Shi promoted it as a more effective medium to express new thought without realizing that it develops into a new system, modern and with its ideological implications: “Form and content have an inseparable relationship.
Confinement in form prohibits the free development of spirit, which hinders a sufficient expression of good content. We have to break (wenyan)
shackles to express a new spirit and content” (“New Poetry” 134). For Hu
Shi, language in nature is form, while content and spirit are outside of
language but can be expressed through language.
It was insightful for Hu Shi to promote baihua, although the reasons he
offered were less than convincing. It is true that the baihua movement
brought forth the emergence of Modern Chinese literature and the New
Culture Movement, and the transformation of the Chinese language from
its wenyan form to its baihua form, which finally became modern Chinese.
It is also true that the baihua movement facilitated the modernization of
Chinese society. However, his theories on baihua were not well wrought.
It is not surprising at all that the Xueheng School fired all its shots at his view
of language and literature. Shao Zuping refused to accept Hu Shi’s statement that baihua literature held a central place in the history of Chinese
literature, “As for literature, our poetry, ci [a type of classical poetry composed to musical tunes], qu [drama], fiction, and chuanqi [legendary s­ tories]
over a history of more than two thousand years are well established and
developed to purist beauty. And the lyrical narratives are complex or simple
in plot as needed” (121). A few pages later, he writes, “If writing enlightens,
then what difference does it make to write in wenyan or baihua?” (124).
Against Hu Shi’s declaration that “wenyan is dead,” he argues that “The
demise of a language is determined by its artistic achievements in literature
not by the time of its emergence” (125). For the Xueheng scholars, wenyan,
elegant, graceful and convenient, could serve all occasions and purposes.
Shao argued that both wenyan and baihua writings enlighten with truth,
146 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
but he didn’t clarify what truth they enlightened with. The question is not
how writing enlightens in general but what truth wenyan writing enlightens
in particular. Neither school acknowledged that wenyan was fraught with
feudal ideology and thought. That was the truth with wenyan. The Xueheng
scholars might have refused to acknowledge that, whereas the New Culture
School ignored the innate relationship between language and thought, or
they were never aware of it.
Historically the Xueheng School’s opposition to the May Fourth baihua Movement was unacceptable although its reasons were not entirely
erroneous. On the contrary, they often sounded more rational and sensible. As far as the implications of thought and culture are concerned, the
May Fourth baihua Movement was a language revolution that aimed to
replace the wenyan system. Rationally and sometimes emotionally, both
schools defended their language positions on the basis of language in general. It is no surprise at all that neither won.
Reviewing the debate on the baihua movement between Hu Shi and
the Xueheng School has led us to conclude that both sides understood the
May Fourth baihua movement as a language tool. Second, Hu Shi’s promotion of baihua was correct, although he often missed the crucial point
in his reasons and argumentations. The Xueheng scholars’ opposition to
baihua didn’t mean that they were opposed to modern Chinese culture.
In fact, like Hu Shi, they also called for the construction of modern
Chinese culture, if by a different roadmap and strategy based on their
­classicist position. They refused the Radical abolition of all that was traditional and argued for the necessity of retaining and enhancing the best
that China had produced. To them, one such best aspect was wenyan, as is
manifest in the “Foreword” of the debut issue of The Critical Review
(Xueheng):
It is our highest hope to use our elegant Chinese (wenyan) to fluently express
Western ideas. It is also our belief that wenyan, if used adequately and creatively, demonstrates not only its power as a language but also presents an
author’s utmost talent. No need is seen to change its grammar and syntax to
destroy the beauty of its form. (Sun Shangyang and Guo Lanfang 494)
Third, the Xueheng School’s tenacious insistence on wenyan shows its
intention as an around-about way to defend traditional Chinese thought
as wenyan as a language system determines the range of one’s thought,
4 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 147
and as a means to assimilate Western ideas into the wenyan system. Fourth,
the Xueheng scholars’ superb proficiency in classical Chinese culture and
language impeded them from being fully open to modern Western
thought, although they accepted modern Western humanism and conservatism. Fifth, their headstrong insistence on wenyan prevented them from
becoming pioneers of modern Chinese culture but sent them down the
road of powerful opposition to modern thought. Sixth, although the
Xueheng scholars and Hu Shi were close in their formal education and
knowledge structure, their essential difference in their views on language
caused their sharply conflicting ideas regarding wenyan and baihua, as well
as other cultural issues.
4 Hu Shi and the Xueheng School on the Concept
of Cultural Construction
The New Culture proponents made their names through their iconoclastic opposition to traditional Chinese culture. They embodied their slogan
that there is no making without breaking. During the process of breaking
and making, Hu Shi was the most active in theory and practice, and he is
recognized as the most prominent figure in the history of modern Chinese
literature and culture for his enviable contributions and achievements. Hu
Shi was not only an enlightenment thinker but also a practitioner of what
he promoted in theory. In contrast, the Xueheng scholars, good at t­ heories,
were committed to rational thinking about cultural issues but with little
interest in applying theories to practice. They had ambitious goals but
were unwilling to offer any practical approaches for realizing them. Even
if they developed plans, they had no interest in implementing them. As a
formidable opposition force, the Xueheng School played an indispensable
role in the history of Modern Chinese culture and was recognized as an
integral part of it. However, opposition itself was not the goal: the ultimate end was to construct it. It was precisely over how to design and
construct modern Chinese literature and culture that Hu Shi and the
Xueheng School demonstrated their greatest disparity.
Hu Shi attached importance to rationality and even more to practice
and effectiveness. However, the Xueheng School mainly consisted of theorists and scholars who paid more attention to discussing problems from
a theoretical point of view and lacked practical experience. As such, the
goal designed by them was ideal and rational, but the implementation
148 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
lacked feasibility. In other words, their theory could not lead to the goals
they had set.
Hu Shi weighed the feasibility and outcome when he pondered the
question of building up a modern culture in China, and he believed that
turning to the West was the only way—hence he advanced the “complete
Westernization” slogan during the May Fourth Movement even though
he knew clearly that it was a mission impossible and that the wording was
highly controversial. However, he didn’t intend to take in everything from
the West but to accomplish moderate Westernization:
The highest goal might promise a moderate gain, and a moderate goal may
end up with some gains … The call for a complete Westernization will naturally lead to a compromise … Even a partial Westernization, when compromising with the inertia of traditional culture, will unavoidably make it
become a compromised Chinese-based new culture. (“After Word” 671)
A complete Westernization exposes obvious problems in theoretical
principles, which, however, is perfect in terms of implementation. Lu
Xun, a thinker and practitioner, knew the truth inherent in the art of
compromise:
For instance, if you say this room is too dim and needs to have a window in
the wall, people will definitely refuse. However, if you first propose to tear
the roof down to let light in, people will make a concession and are willing
to make a window. Similarly, without a more radical proposal, they are not
even willing to agree on a moderate reform. Back then, the reason for the
slow acceptance of the modern baihua was that proposals for using the
Roman alphabet to replace Chinese characters experienced some popularity.
(“Silent China” 13–14)
This clearly indicates that Lu Xun and Hu Shi as thinkers, founders, and
pioneers of modern Chinese culture and literature would transcend their
theories when they sought desirable outcomes.
In contrast, the Xueheng School was caught up in and confined to its
theory. The “Foreword to The Critical Review” states very concretely that
“The journal is committed to exploring academic issues, illuminating truth,
enhancing quintessential Chinese culture, and integrating new knowledge.
Criticisms will be conducted with a sound and fair view, free from partisan
positions and radicalism” (Sun Shangyang and Guo Lanfang 494). Mei
Guangdi, the leading scholar of the Xueheng School, thus advises:
4 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 149
Real scholars seek for truth for the sake of truth, and attach more importance
to self-confidence in discovering truth than presenting their worldly knowledge. Real scholars work for self-contentment rather than seek distinction
and immediate social reward. Therefore, they work industriously for their
whole life with high expectations for discovering truth. They don’t publish
their work without prudent verification. (“Proponents” 74)
Mei outlines the guidelines for his colleagues when engaging in academic
research. However, any cultural development, especially a tangible cultural
reform, as a process of incessant practice and exploration, cannot be conducted in a peaceful and leisurely manner as the Xueheng School designed
and predicted. Its attitude to the New Culture Movement reflects its pedantries and obstinacy in its traditional concept of culture and academic
work. As for the construction of the New Culture, Hu Shi was a “doer”
and a “go-getter” but the Xueheng scholars were mere “talkers.”
In relation to academic principles, the Xueheng School seemed more
prudent, objective, and reasonable, as stated in the “Foreword” of its
journal:
We are committed to perusing Western books to gain comprehensive knowledge to enable us to explore, articulate and prudently critique complex ideas
on the basis of a thorough understanding of what we read. We urge our
scholars to be fully dedicated to academic work with a humble attitude
toward research so as to avoid being fooled by one’s biased opinion and by
hearsay. (Sun Shangyang and Guo Lanfang 494)
Moreover, another leading Xueheng scholar, Wu Mi, asserts:
The goal of constructing a new culture dictates that we tax the utmost of
our talents to fully understand and integrate the cultural quintessence of the
Eastern and Western civilizations. Specifically, we must research, preserve,
promote and enhance our classics and contemporary works of philosophy,
literature and art, and must examine, translate, comprehend and research
Western classics in philosophy, literature and art. (“New Culture” 88)
Mei Guangdi not only sets the principles but also offers a strategy for constructing modern Chinese culture:
The same principle must be observed whether it is to reform our own
culture or to absorb from other cultures, that is, we must start with a
150 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
thorough study and a wise judgment in addition to a well-planned roadmap. Thus, there will emerge hundreds of masters before long with a
thorough knowledge of both Chinese and Western classics and contemporary learning, who will be willing to enlighten the common people. As
such, it shall surely generate a significant change of our culture in about
half a century. (“Proponents” 77)
Then it would be an ideal form of culture and perfect in terms of theoretical principles and strategy. However, it would only happen under ideal
conditions without taking into account cultural tradition, national mentality, politics, economy, military affairs, and so forth. Those variables are
least recognized by the Xueheng School. The so-called “thorough study”
is a very vague definition, and there will never be enough time for scholars
to thoroughly understand some fundamental questions before finding
solutions to the construction of modern Chinese culture.
With regard to theoretical principles, there exist many loopholes in Hu
Shi’s theory on culture and literature. According to Li Zehou, “Hu Shi is
rather mediocre in knowledge of Chinese classics, Western academic
achievements, the depth of thought, breakthroughs of theory and other
aspects. In fact, he is far behind many of his predecessors and contemporaries. And many of his junior scholars outshine him in those aspects”
(95–96). This evaluation is, by and large, appropriate. Even so, Hu Shi is
considered to be a pioneer of the May Fourth New Literature Movement
and New Culture Movement, although the movements didn’t proceed as
designed and predicted by him. He secured an indisputable position in the
history of modern Chinese culture and literature more by his practice
rather than the depth and rigorousness of his theory. Tong Tekong comments thus on Hu Shi as a scholar:
If no more demonstrations were on the street, and the flags were put away,
Hu Shi’s few books wouldn’t establish him as a serious scholar. In fact, he is
good for nothing if we look at him as a scholar. He is not even qualified for
annotating the geographic classic A Commentary on Waterways (Shuijingzhu)
(Random Memories 46).
The most serious criticism the Xueheng School directed against Hu Shi
and the New Culture School was that they only had a superficial knowledge
of Chinese and Western culture. Tang Yongtong accused the New Culture
School of “merely focusing on one respect and losing the sight of the whole
4 HU SHI AND THE XUEHENG SCHOOL ON THE CONCEPT... 151
picture” (100). Mei Guangdi found the New Culture School guilty of
“having a shallow knowledge and understanding of Western culture. What
you laboriously select to introduce is ridiculous. Your selection is disrespect
to Western culture” (“Proponents” 73). Wu Mi blamed them for
only selecting the recent Western popular works of one academic school
without knowing that those works are currently seen as venomous garbage.
But, they treat them as the embodiment of the highest achievements of
Western culture. They waywardly create their own writing style, which is
neither fish nor fowl, and neither Chinese nor Western. (“On the New
Culture Movement” 78)
A few pages later, Wu Mi continues his comment on the New Culture
School, “They are only interested in introducing one type of theory
before having a thorough study and understanding of Western civilization. Their erroneous slogans are misleading, nothing new in them but
sheer novelty” (81). He defends his criticism of the New Culture proponents not because “they publicize new ideas, but because what they propose is one-sided, opinionated and harmful for Chinese people….
In short, I don’t criticize the New Culture Movement for its name but
for what they mean by it” (“On the New Culture Movement” 88).
These quotations by different Xueheng scholars share one opinion: that
the New Culture proponents generalize Western culture without a comprehensive understanding of it, therefore it is inevitable that their arguments are fallacious.
However, the quotations might as well reveal the Xueheng scholars’
misunderstanding of the New Culture School led by Hu Shi and the entire
modern Chinese culture. It is true that Hu Shi and his colleagues had a
partial understanding of Western culture and were subjective in terms of
making their choice of Western culture for introduction. That can be said
of the Xueheng scholars as well. Neither school was able to gain a thorough and complete understanding of Western culture. Even though the
Xueheng scholars in general outshined Hu Shi and his colleagues in their
mastery of the knowledge of both Chinese and Western culture, their limitations were also obvious. They were more academic in a strict sense of the
term, but they could not be the “judges” of academic significance and
value of all research in humanities in China, as the Chinese name of their
journal, Xueheng, implies (Xue means academic studies, and heng a
152 6 NOTHING BUT CULTURE: THE PEN WAR BETWEEN HU SHI...
Chinese weighing scale). Upset by the Xueheng scholars’ arrogance and a
lack of self-knowing, Lu Xun in his “An Annotation of Xueheng” likened
the journal to “the fake shimmer in a fake antique shop” because “even if
their weighing scale doesn’t have marks ready, they try to weigh the value
of other’s works” (377). In terms of the excessive assertiveness and the
lack of self-recognition of the Xueheng School, Lu Xun’s sneering comment was timely and appropriate, and it served as a morning call for the
school’s realization that its pride in its knowledge of even Chinese culture
was not firmly grounded.
Despite their limitations, the Xueheng scholars played a crucial role in
the history of modern Chinese culture. According to contemporary
scholar Kuang Xinian, they
Worked diligently to seek order and stability, call for seeking truth and
believing in the absolute in the mist of radical social changes and chaos
incurred by the void of values as the consequence of the collapse of tradition
and the disruption in history. They promoted for the reconstruction of values and faith wherein the Chinese people and themselves could place their
spirit. Discontent with the definition of modern Chinese culture as proposed by the New Culture School, they fervently defended the validity and
legality of tradition so as to bridge up the traditional with the modern and
to alleviate the tension between the present and the past. Their ultimate
objective was to transact a smooth transition from the traditional to the
modern. (187–188)
In fact, many similarities are found between the Xueheng School and New
Culture School. Mei Guangdi admitted, “Who doesn’t know the need of
constructing a new culture?” (“Proponents” 76)
Another Xueheng scholar, Liu Boming, acknowledged that the New
Culture Movement, “although imperfect, is definitely a memorable event
in history. A nation like ours with a deep civilization and ingrained in
traditional customs, is bound to go through tense upheavals before
becoming transformed into a nation with a new culture. Skipping chaos
for cultural transformation is unimaginable” (110). Moreover, the
Xueheng School didn’t completely deny the value and significance of the
New Culture Movement. In fact, it also called for learning from the West,
constructing a modern culture and a literary reform, although it differed
from the New Culture School in strategies and ways of implementation.
For instance, the New Culture School focused on innovation, creativity,
WORKS CITED 153
and reform, whereas the Xueheng School called for building a new
Chinese culture which would be too idealistic to be feasible. Liu Yizhi
summarizes its primary cultural strategies as “to introduce the real
European and American culture and to enhance the real culture of our
country” (869). Why real? Because, according to Wu Mi, “the real culture from the West and the quintessential culture of ours actually enlighten
each other…” (“On the New Culture Movement” 82). It might have
been insightful in theory and argument, and lofty in vision, but it was
impractical. It was impossible for even the Xueheng scholars to determine
what real Western culture was.
The Xueheng School frequently criticized Hu Shi for his efforts to
introduce Western culture to China and for his superficial understanding
of that culture. However, it was impossible for Hu Shi to introduce a more
authentic version of Western culture as the Xueheng School advocated. In
fact, what he introduced into China was a Western culture marked with his
own consciousness, just as the Chinese classics that Hu Shi promoted were
penetrated with Western spirit. What Hu Shi did was what China really
needed at the time, as the interactive process between Western culture and
traditional Chinese culture gradually gave shape to modern Chinese culture, a culture enlivened with creative spirit, national characteristics, and
modern spirit, and, most importantly, a culture that could never have been
imagined by the Xueheng School. History stood by Hu Shi and his New
Culture School.
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