Hu Shih: Speak Only When You Have Something To Say

Hu Shih: Speak Only When You Have Something To Say

By Yiyan Han (c), 2021-03-04

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Mr Hu Shih (胡適) was one of the leaders of China’s New Culture Movement in the early twentieth century. Because, for a few thousand years, lay people in China could not read nor understand the scholarly writings in classical Chinese without specialist training.


There are vast amount of articles already out there that have studied and commented on Mr Hu’s great work and gigantic contributions in science and literature, and his main interest was mostly on liberalism, redology, philosophy of education. (1)  In this short essay, I like to describe one or two things about his leadership in the Movement, and, in particular, his influence on modern Chinese writing, led by his own examples. This gives you a “peep view” on a couple of his great work over one hundred years ago, and also shows what a kind of man he was!


In 1917-8, in his articles in New Youth, he called upon all Chinese writers to take notice of the following important message when writing: (1)

Speak only when you have something to say,

what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it,

what is your own and not that of someone else,

and in the language of the time in which you live.

This was a plain and clear signal that the Chinese language began to be modernised from then on, and it may be regarded as the very starting point, in my humble opinion. This still is very much relevant to all writings world wide today. Also it has been my way of thinking and writing, even before reading the above message of his.


Mr Hu led by example, and was the very first scholar to write poems in modern Chinese, i.e. in today’s Chinese language, and he published eight such poems in New Youth in 1917. (2)  Here I would like to show you the one published later on October 10th, 1920 (3), the national day of the Republic of China (now Taiwan), as an example with my own English translation:

Dream and Poem

Just the ordinary experience that we all have,

and the daily scenery that we all watch,

by chance, when they occur in our dreams,

extraordinary movies start to play, of innumerous!


Just the ordinary emotions that we all have,

and the daily languages that we all speak,

by chance, when they are used by a poet

extraordinary verses of countless will be created!


Know the impact of alcohol once thou are drunken,

Know the power of love once thy heart is stolen:

Thou can’t compose the poems of mine,

as I can’t have the dreams of thine.


Postscript: This is my “empiricism of poems”.

「夢與詩 //都是平常經驗 /都是平常影象

偶然涌到夢中來 /變幻出多少新奇花樣!

//都是平常情感 /都是平常言語

/偶然碰着個詩人 /變幻出多少新奇詩句!

//醉過才知酒濃 /愛過才知情重 ——

/你不能做我的詩 /正如我不能做你的夢。



On 24 February 1962, Mr Hu died of a heart attack, a great loss to the Chinese literature and philosophy, and much more. The late president Chiang Kai-shek wrote an elegiac couplet to mourn over his death, and my translation is as follows.

Exemplar of the traditional virtue in the new culture

Model of the new thinking with conventional morals


This is an excellent description of Mr Hu as a person he was. He bravely fought hard for the intellectual independence of every one including himself, and defended vigorously the individual emancipation and political freedom. However, he was rather conservative and kept traditional morals in his own personal life. Mr Hu had a family arranged marriage, similar to the marriages of many literati at the time. And he and his wife, Ms Jiang Dongxiu (江冬秀) who wasn’t well educated, had been together ever after since. Whereas most of those literati got divorced and married with other young and educated women. (4)


And the epitaph on his tombstone in the Hu Shih park, near Academia Sinica in Taiwan, reads in my translation:


This is the tomb of Mr Hu Shih, born in the 21st year before the Republic of China, and died in the 51st year of the Republic. He is now at rest in peace here, after had worked relentlessly for the progress of science and culture, for the freedom of thinking and speech, for the dignity of the nation, and devoted his entire life for the happiness of mankind! We believe that the light shed on the world by this philosopher will never fade, though his corpse will eventually disappear, and the mausoleum might be permuted.



Mr Hu Shih had been a free spirit since young, and here is the best description of his thought using his own words that I translate in the following:

The hundreds feet of high wall of palace,

and the conventions of thousands years

never ever forbid the heart of youth!






(2)    例如: 指鸣, 胡适:锁不住一个少年的心《中国青年作家报》2020年09月01日, 08 版


(3)    例如:梦与诗/1586273


(4)    例如: