In 1910, when China was still under the reign of a Manchurian emperor, Hu Shih came to Cornell University to study agriculture. However, he was not a good student: he could not distinguish apple varieties. In his own words, he "could not tell apples from apples". Luckily for the future of China, he switched to studying philosophy and literature, where he made lasting contributions. Aside from his studies, he was deeply interested in America's political system and social life. After completing his Ph.D. study in philosophy at Columbia, he returned to China, taught at the renowned Peking University, and later served as its president.
China in the 1920's, shortly after the abdication of the last Qing emperor, was swept by conflicting ideas: traditional versus modern, Chinese versus Western, revolution versus incremental change. Amidst the whirlpool, Hu Shih always put reason before rhetoric, evidence before prejudice, and personal freedom before statism. His achievements of the next two decades were remarkable:
1. As a leader of New Culture Movement, he campaigned to replace the classical writing style used for official documents and scholarship with a plain-language writing system accessible to the general population. This fueled mass literacy in China.
2. As a professor, he wrote volumes about the history of Chinese philosophy. With interests in societal issues, literature, history, and religion, he published widely in those fields. As a scholar trained in modern research methods, he followed his principle, "hypothesize boldly but prove carefully," in his academic works. In newspaper and magazine commentaries, he introduced China to new ideas such as science, democracy, openness, tolerance, and, gender equality.
3. He was an effective and kind teacher and university administrator, tirelessly recruiting a talented faculty from China and overseas. He told the students to avoid fashionable "-isms" in order to concentrate on solving problems. He supported young scholars by lending from his collection of precious manuscripts and advancing
money from his own pocket. He promoted academic freedom and protected students and faculty who held unpopular political views.
For most of World War II, Hu Shih served as the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He travelled tirelessly in the States to promote Sino-American friendship and to seek support for China's defensive war effort against the Japanese invasion. Later in life, while holding top academic positions in Taiwan, he spent much time doing research in the United States. In total he lived more than 26 years in the States and visited his beloved Cornell campus many times. He loved Ithaca so much that it repeatedly appeared in his dreams.
Cornell University is justifiably proud of the social and scholarly achievements of the student who could not tell apples from apples. There is a Hu Shih Collection at the Cornell Libary, the university has established a Hu Shih Distinguished Lecture series, and there is a Hu Shih Fellowship in Chinese Studies for graduate students. However, there is no landmark to memorialize Hu Shih on the Cornell campus. Our plan to build a memorial bench has been approved by the Cornell Botanic gardens and a beautiful site has been selected for the project. We need your generous contribution to move the project forward. When you make a contribution, please let us know if you would like to hear about our progress or any future activities. Thank you!