Hu Shih and Chinese language reform

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Hu Shih 胡適 (Pinyin Hú Shì [1891-1962]) is widely regarded as one of the most important Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century.  As such, he is known as the "Father of the Chinese Renaissance".  In my estimation, Hu Shih was the single most influential post-imperial thinker and writer in China.  His accomplishments were so numerous and multifarious that it is hard to imagine how one man could have been responsible for all of them.

Before proceeding, I would like to call attention to "Hu Shih:  An Appreciation" by Jerome B. Grieder, which gives a sensitive assessment of the man and his enormous impact on Chinese thought and culture.  Another poignant recollection is Mark Swofford's "Remembering Hu Shih:  1891-1962", which focuses on aspects of Hu's monumental advancement of literary and linguistic transformation in China.  For those who want to learn more about this giant of a thinker and writer, I recommend Grieder's biography, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1970) and A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit:  the half-century romance of Hu Shi & Edith Clifford Williams (Hong Kong:  Chinese University Press, 2009) by Susan Chan Egan and Chih-p'ing Chou.

To name just a few of Hu Shih's countless achievements, he made fundamental contributions to the study of the history of Chan / Zen in China, he was responsible for pathbreaking clarifications resulting from textual research on The Dream of the Red Chamber (China's most famous novel), and he was the first scholar to comprehensively examine the evolution of Chinese philosophy from a nontraditional standpoint.  As someone whose interests straddle India and China, I was particularly struck by Hu's radically insightful chapter on "The Indianization of China:  A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing", which may be found in the volume of Harvard Tercentenary Publications titled Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1937), pp. 219–247.  As a Chinese scholar of the modern era, Hu Shih was unmatched for his breadth of knowledge and boldness in formulating new approaches to old problems.

Hu Shih was also a diplomat, having served as China's ambassador to the United States from 1938-1942 and to the United Nations (1957).  Speaking flawless English, Hu was an excellent representative of the Republic of China.  He was chancellor of Peking University (1946-1948) and president of Academia Sinica from 1958 until his death in 1962.

In the test of time, however, I predict that Hu Shih's most lasting and transformative gift to China will be his elaboration of a theoretical and practical basis for the establishment of the vernacular as the national language for all the people, in contrast to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, which belonged to the tiny percentage of literati who had mastered it during the previous two millennia and more before his time.  Naturally, there were other reformers (such as Chen Duxiu [1879-1942]; like Hu Shih, he was also from Anhui Province) who were promoting language reform around the same time as Hu Shih, but his statements concerning the essential problems that had to be faced and the requisite solutions for overcoming them were the clearest and most systematic program for creating China's new national language.

From the time I began studying Chinese language and literature, I was keenly aware of Hu Shih's awesome essays on how to remake written Chinese.  The first that I became familiar with was his "A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform", which was published in New Youth in January, 1917.  In it Hu laid out eight guidelines for effective writing:

  1. Write with substance. By this, Hu meant that literature should contain real feeling and human thought. This was intended to be a contrast to the recent poetry with rhymes and phrases that Hu saw as being empty.
  2. Do not imitate the ancients. Literature should not be written in the styles of long ago, but rather in the modern style of the present era.
  3. Respect grammar. Hu did not elaborate at length on this point, merely stating that some recent forms of poetry had neglected proper grammar.
  4. Reject melancholy. Recent young authors often chose grave pen names, and wrote on such topics as death. Hu rejected this way of thinking as being unproductive in solving modern problems.
  5. Eliminate old clichés. The Chinese language has always had numerous four-character sayings and phrases* used to describe events. Hu implored writers to use their own words in descriptions, and deplored those who did not.  *(VHM:  chéngyǔ 成语 ["set phrase"])
  6. Do not use allusions. By this, Hu was referring to the practice of comparing present events with historical events even when there is no meaningful analogy.
  7. Do not use couplets or parallelism. Though these forms had been pursued by earlier writers, Hu believed that modern writers first needed to learn the basics of substance and quality, before returning to these matters of subtlety and delicacy.
  8. Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters. This rule, perhaps the most well-known, ties in directly with Hu's belief that modern literature should be written in the vernacular, rather than in Classical Chinese. He believed that this practice had historical precedents, and led to greater understanding of important texts.

1. xū yán zhī yǒu wù 須言之有物
2. bù mófǎng gǔrén 不摹仿古人
3. xū jiǎngqiú wénfǎ 須講求文法
4. bùzuò wú bìng zhī shēnyín 不作無病之呻吟
5. wu qù làndiào tàoyǔ 務去濫調套語
6. bùyòng diǎn 不用典
7. bù jiǎng duìzhàng 不講對仗
8. bù bì súzì súyǔ 不避俗字俗語

In April of 1918, Hu published a second article in New Youth, this one titled "Constructive Literary Revolution – A Literature of National Speech". In it, he simplified the original eight points into just four:

  1. Speak only when you have something to say. This is analogous to the first point above.
  2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. This combines points two through six above.
  3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. This is a rewording of point seven.
  4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live. This refers again to the replacement of Classical Chinese with the vernacular language.

1. yào yǒu huà shuō, fāngcái shuōhuà 要有话说, 方才说话
2. yǒu shéme huà, shuō shénme huà; huà zěnme shuō, jiù zěnme shuō 有什么话, 说什么话; 话怎么说, 就怎么说
3. yào shuō wǒ zìjǐ de huà, bié shuō biérén de huà 要说我自己的话, 别说别人的话
4. shì shénme shídài de rén, shuō shénme shídài de huà 是什么时代的人, 说什么时代的话

Sources:  here, here, and here.

Shortly after I began the study of Chinese in 1967, I became thoroughly familiar with these succinct, programmatic statements by Hu Shih on how to go about the important task of vernacularizing written Chinese.  I studied these two essays of his intently, and they constituted an integral part of my own approach to Chinese.  But it was only five days ago when listening to a talk by Carlos Lin that I was made aware of an even earlier essay by Hu Shih on the matter of how to reshape Chinese language in the modern age.  This was his "The Teaching of Chinese as It Is", which is part III (the conclusion) of "The Problem of the Chinese Language".  It appeared in The Chinese Students' Monthly, 11.8 (June, 1916), 567-572.  The journal was published by The Chinese Students' Alliance in the United States of America and was distributed from Ithaca, New York.

In 1910, at the age of 19, Hu Shih had been selected as a "national scholar" and sent to Cornell University to study agriculture with funds from the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program.  In 1912 he switched majors to philosophy and literature.  After graduating from Cornell, he went to Columbia to study philosophy under John Dewey, which accounts for his lifelong attachment to the concept of pragmatic evolutionary change.

Here are the opening three paragraphs of his 1916 article:

I am of the opinion that most of the faults which have been attributed to our language are due to the fact that it has never been properly and scientifically taught. Its critics have been too hasty in their condemnations, and have failed to realize that languages are more conservative than religions and cannot be made and remade by sensational agitations and destructive criticisms. I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it. In the meanwhile, the teaching of Chinese as it is constitutes a far more urgent problem, because it is the language which records our past and present civilization, which is the only means of inter-provincial communication, and which is the only available instrument of national education.

There are a few generalizations which I consider to be of great importance in discussing the problem of teaching Chinese as it is. The first of these is that what we call our literary language is an almost entirely dead language. Dead it is, because it is no longer spoken by the people. It is like Latin in Mediaeval Europe; in fact, it is more dead (if mortality admits of a comparative degree), than Latin, because Latin is still capable of being spoken and understood, while literary Chinese is no longer auditorily intelligible even among the scholarly class except when the phrases are familiar, or when the listener has already some idea as to what the speaker is going to say.

The second generalization is that we must free ourselves from the traditional view that the spoken words and the spoken syntax are “vulgar.” The Chinese word vulgar (see chart 2 (44) [VHM:  there he prints sú 俗]) means simply “customary” and implies no intrinsic vulgarity. As a matter of fact, many of the words and phrases of our daily use are extremely expressive and therefore beautiful. The criterion for judging words and expressions should be their vitality and adequacy of expression, not their conformity to orthodox standards. The spoken language of our people is a living language: it represents the daily needs of the people, is intrinsically beautiful, and possesses every possibility of producing a great and living literature as is shown in our great novels written in the vulgate.

[VHM:  emphasis added]

Hu Shih not only composed these succinct platforms for revitalizing written Chinese, he wrote a pathbreaking history of vernacular literature which demonstrated that China all along had the potential makings for written vernacular, but that it was continuously repressed by the towering prestige of the literary language.

Hu Shih also exemplified the principles he laid out for readily comprehensible writing in Chinese by penning his own pellucid prose.  I still remember vividly how it was always a breath of fresh air to read something by Hu Shih that was written in pure báihuà 白话 (lit., "plain speech") after slogging through the tortured, turgid bànwénbànbái 半文半白 ("semiliterary-semivernacular") of typical pedants.

Above all, I had the greatest admiration for Hu Shih for having written poetry in báihuà, and I memorized one of them that was titled "Lóng niǎo 籠鳥" ("Caged bird") that had this line, "Wǒ yào chūlái 我要出來" ("I want to get out!"), and I always felt that this was a metaphor for the constrainment of the Chinese people for the past two millennia and more.  (Unfortunately, I can't find this poem online now, but I did memorize it and I always thought it was by Hu Shih.)

I also recall a passage from one of Hu Shih's essays on how to live a meaningful "new life" in which he described a white bear (báixióng 白熊) in a zoo pacing back and forth (bǎiláibǎiqù 摆来摆去) all day long.  It was so easy to understand essays and poems written in báihuà (the vernacular) because they sounded like what one heard around one all the time.  That is why literacy is so much more readily achieved in báihuà than in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, because everything you hear about you reinforces what you read, unlike LS / CC where you have to learn a separate, dead language that you never hear in daily speech.

Thus we see that, from the very beginning of his efforts to infuse new life into Chinese civilization, Hu Shih astutely recognized the centrality of living vernacular language.  An apt summation of how he viewed the key role of language in the rebirth of Chinese civilization may be found in his The Chinese Renaissance: The Haskell Lectures, 1933, published by The University of Chicago Press and Cambridge University Press in 1934.

Many of the most celebrated Chinese scholars of the 20th century expressed thoughtful and informed opposition to the written language they had inherited.  In its place, they advocated alphabetization and the vernacular.  Hu Shih and his colleagues were doing this long before any Chinese government had adopted an official romanization and even before the adoption of vernacular as the official written medium.  This advocacy transcended political inclinations, with distinguished scholars like Hu Shih in the Republic of China and outstanding authors such as Lu Xun in the People's Republic of China all pushing for fundamental language reform, and doing so on the basis of profound knowledge of history, literature, and linguistics, such as Hu Shih's Báihuà wénxué shǐ 白話文學史 (A History of Vernacular Literature) and Lu Xun's (1881-1936) Ménwài wén tán 門外文談 (An Outsider's Chats about Written Language).

It has been a full century since Hu Shih uttered these words:

I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it.

We are now into the third generation since Hu Shih penned those remarks, but it has only been half a century since the PRC promulgated Hanyu Pinyin, devised by Zhou Youguang (1906-2017) and his colleagues, as the official romanization of China.  Where do we stand now with regard to Hu Shih's prediction concerning alphabetization?  Does emerging digraphia count as partial alphabetization?


  1. Nahema Patwari said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

    This is a beautiful post. thank you.

  2. WSM said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

    A good first step would be actually heeding Hu's call for a truly scientific, non-anecdotal and non-political study of the pluses and minuses of a move to alphabetization. I'm also not sure that thinking about this problem in a digital way (either all vernacular, or all literary) would be as productive as a more nuanced, analog approach which recognizes the complexity of the relationship between the literary and vernacular traditions: after all, the "great novels" Hu cites as proof of vernacular Mandarin's potency (assuming this being a reference to the usual suspects; here I'm thinking of Dream of Red Chamber/紅樓夢 in particular) draw as much of their power from the classical tradition as they do from reflecting the speech of the common man (the latter of which the Dream of Red Chamber succeeds at brilliantly).

    Some other elements of Hu's call to arms seem strange, such as the proposed rejection of parallel constructions – which seem to be an intrinsic feature of the language, and present at all registers – or quite obviously historically dated, such as his objection to "melancholy".

  3. WSM said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    Also – particularly concerning the discourse on this blog – dismissing 半文半白 as "pedantic", or criticizing Xi Jinping's historical allusions as "pretentious", perhaps is not as constructive as would be trying to actually understand why such phenomena persist almost 100 years out from the May 4th Movement. Surely any move to alphabetization would require a dispassionate analysis of the state of the language as it is actually used?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 8:27 pm

    Reform is about change. Hu Shih, Chen Duxiu, and Zhou Youguang were reformers, and so was Y. R. Chao, whom I'll mention below.


    Earlier today, when I was preparing this post, I ran out of space, time, and steam, so I left out a few things I had intended to write about.

    After the three introductory paragraphs of Hu Shih's 1916 article cited in the o.p., he turns to the following questions:

    How can we teach Chinese as it is so that it may become as it ought to be? How can we so teach the now dead language that it may live again?

    Here are his suggestions, each with a brief paragraph of explanation which I omit here:








    It is interesting that Hu Shih's article is followed by an article on "Proposed Reforms" by Y. R. Chao (1892-1982), who is widely regarded as the leading Chinese linguist of the 20th century.

    Like Hu Shih, who was his lifelong friend, Y. R. Chao went to Cornell in 1910 on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship in 1910, where he studied mathematics and physics. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Harvard to study for a Ph.D. in philosophy, which he received in 1918 with a dissertation on "Continuity: Study in Methodology". Like Hu Shih and the other distinguished linguists mentioned in the o.p. and in this note, Y. R. Chao was strongly committed to alphabetization and vernacularization.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

    From Perry Link:

    Very nice, Victor. For me, 須言之有物 has always seemed brilliant. I think of it when I see pretentiously empty post-modernist "theory."

  6. Chris Button said,

    February 4, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

    This post made me think about a comment I made recently about debates over nomenclature concerning some Tibeto-Burman speaking groups on the Burma-India border:

    As with many groups, "Kuki-Chin" is an exonym (or rather two different exonyms sometimes combined as one) with the people often preferring to call themselves something entirely different. In the north, the name used is "Zo" or "Zou" depending on transliteration. This seems to work relatively well with some minor variations like Thado tending to pronounce the "z" as a post-alveolar fricative (the "z" originally comes from yod *j-). However, in the South we get transliterations like "Hyo", "Sho", "Cho", "Khxo" etc. While these are relatively inconsequential (of the "Kayin / Karen", "Bombay / Mumbai" nature), it can cause problems with people properly identifying with a word written "Zo". If you have ever needed an argument not to use an alphabetic/phonemic orthography, then this is it.

    I suppose I could have added Peking / Beijing to the comparisons above too.

  7. WSM said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 6:48 am

    Finally, I think we can't fail to point out the irony of 言之有物 being a thoroughly non-vernacular expression both in pedigree and construction. Even though doing so seems kind of a cheap shot – we're all products of our respective linguistic moments – it's a nice (perhaps inadvertent?) illustration of just how well the past, present, and future can co-exist quite peacefully without unduly antagonistic rhetoric.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    "Finally, …kind of a cheap shot…."

    Yes, indeed! The sort of trollish remark that certain bilious folk are predisposed to.

    Recommended reading:

    "De vulgari eloquentia" (On Eloquence in the vernacular; ca. 1302-1305), a Latin essay by Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265 – 1321)

    If you're still interested in how to promote the vernacular while immersed in a classical / literary medium / age after studying Dante's pioneering essay, I have many more suggestions for what to read concerning languages around the world, especially Chinese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    From Meng Lang 孟 浪, one of China's leading contemporary poets:

    Xièxiè nín chuán lái nín de zhè piān dàzuò de liànjiē.

    Jīnnián shì Zhōngguó xīnshī dànshēng 100 zhōunián, nǐ de zhè piān lùn Hú Shì yǔ Zhōngwén yǔyán (xiàndài Hànyǔ) biàngé de wénzhāng hěn yǒu jiàzhí, xīwàng kěyǐ yǒu Zhòng yìwén, ràng gèng duō de Zhōngwén dúzhě dú dào, huì shì hěn hǎo de wénxué jiàoyù.


    今年是中國新詩誕生100週年,你的這篇論胡適與中文語言(現代漢語)變革的文章很有價值,希望可以有中譯文, 讓更多的中文讀者讀到,會是很好的文學教育。

    Thanks for sending me the link to this great work of yours.

    This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of China's "new poetry". This essay of yours, which discusses Hu Shih and the reformation of written Chinese language (modern Sinitic), is very valuable. I hope that there will be a Chinese translation, which would allow more Chinese readers to read it. That would be good for education on literature.

  10. Jichang Lulu said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    I can't find a poem by Hu Shih that matches Victor's recollection, though I haven't looked more than perfunctorily. He does have some avian poems, like a famous one called 'doves' 鸽子, but the birds involved are at large.

    That doesn't mean the poem doesn't exist, of course.

    On the other hand, there is this one by Chen Hengzhe 陈衡哲, published in La Jeunesse / New Youth in 1919, that looks like a closer (though not perfect) match.

    All this talk of baihua poetry and Yuan Ren Chao reminds me of an earlier LL post, in the last comment to which I linked to Chao singing his own setting of 教我如何不想她, the Liu Bannong poem credited as the first original work to use the grapheme 她 for feminine tā.

    Chao also wrote songs to lyrics by Hu Shih (most famously 小诗) but I'm not sure if he recorded them himself. He also composed something especially for Victor: ㄅㄆㄇㄈㄪ aka the Song of Bopomofovo.

    (Was the system already called 'Zhuyin fuhao' in 1927 though?)

    Apparently he also wrote three-part choral works on the initials, the finals and the four tones. I would especially like to see how he handled (and notated) the tones, given the style of his other music (portamenti?).

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 9:31 am

    What Manzoni wrote about Dante's book:
    Al libro De Vulgari Eloquio è toccata una sorte… d'esser citato da molti, e non letto quasi da nessuno.

  12. WSM said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    It's actually interesting you mention Dante – I was thinking last night in re this post about his "Letter to Can Grande", where I believe he defends the use of vernacular Italian as proper for the "low topic" of a Comedy. Similar in some ways to Cao Xueqin's use of the vernacular, in Dream of Red Chamber, as a means to preserve the voices of women that otherwise would be lost…

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    @Jichang Lulu

    Thank you very much for mentioning Chen Hengzhe's poem. It's very similar to what I was thinking of, but maybe the poem I was thinking of was composed by myself (!), because I remember clearly that it had the line "Wǒ yào chūlái 我要出來" ("I want to get out!") and the title "Lóng niǎo 籠鳥" ("Caged bird"). Perhaps I, or someone else, wrote it inspired by Chen Hengzhe's poem, which I did read at that time.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    I too wish that more people would take Divine Dante to heart.

  15. liuyao said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 10:39 am

    Thank you for a timely post. I might have missed it, but there seems to be very little on the 100th anniversary of Hu Shih's essay. In two years (on May Fourth) there certainly will be a lot in the Sinophone world.

    One small thing: it was a little odd to read "outstanding authors such as Lu Xun in the People's Republic of China", though I could see what you mean.

    Hu Shih's writings always seem to me to be very modern, i.e. Modern Standard Mandarin, more than Lu Xun's for instance. Perhaps it is sheer indication of the enormous influence of Hu Shih. I'm curious if there is any study on the topolectal background of these authors and how it influenced their writings, which formed the basis of the new written language that we call MSM. One can find audios of Hu Shih's speeches, which would be hardly intelligible to the modern ear (which is not exposed to the variety of accents spoken back then on campuses in Peking).

  16. Alex said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 12:32 am

    " I hope that there will be a Chinese translation, which would allow more Chinese readers to read it. That would be good for education on literature."

    I agree with this. It wouldnt be hard for a good article to receive wide distribution via weixin

  17. Eidolon said,

    February 6, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

    "I'm curious if there is any study on the topolectal background of these authors and how it influenced their writings."

    There certainly has been. Both Hu Shih and Lu Xun were born in regions where the main variety of Chinese spoken was *not* Mandarin, but Wu. Both understood, intimately, the distinctions between their local languages and the national language. A close examination of Hu Shih's writings reveal that he was, in fact, keenly aware of the issues surrounding promoting a national vernacular while preserving local vernaculars. His own view can be generally expressed as support for multi-lingualism – having both a national language & literature, and a local language & literature. To him, local vernaculars were superior to the national vernacular for conveying the natural "spirit," and he called for the national language to take inspiration from local languages, so as to remain a more authentic voice. Indeed, the value of local vernaculars was an idea argued widely by Chinese language reformers, especially those who did *not* come from a Mandarin background, at the turn of the 20th century, and Hu Shih was no exception.

    Yet, unlike his support for the vernacularization of the Chinese language, we might observe, now three full generations after Hu Shih, that while China *did* go down the path of having both a national language, and local languages, it *did not* go down the path of having both a national *literature*, and local *literature*. That is to say, most Sinitic languages, like Wu, never ended up getting their own official orthography, and literature making use of these languages is generally rare. Further, the pressures of modern education, combined with wide spread Mandarinization, has resulted in an overall decline of proficiency in local languages, including Wu. The vision Hu Shih and others had of a balanced relationship between the national language & literature and local languages & literatures is, therefore, increasingly untenable, and like has occurred several times in past Chinese history, a round of sweeping language change appears under way in China today.

  18. James Nolan said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    Of the world’s two global languages, Mandarin is rivaled only by English but the status of English is, strangely, now being placed in doubt for political reasons. The European Union tends to equate the language of Britain with English and runs the risk of concluding that if Britain leaves the EU, the British can take “their” language with them as they walk out the door. Brexit should not be allowed to create unintended linguistic borders or obstacles. Under one-country-one-language rule now followed by the EU to identify EU official languages (which is administratively sensible and fair), English would no longer be used by the EU as an official language once England leaves (Ireland uses Irish and Malta uses Maltese; both can also use English but neither should be obliged to do so at the expense preserving of its own native language). Losing English as a means of communication and outreach would be an immeasurable loss to the EU. The EU needs to remember that a major language like English does not “belong” to any one country. See my blog post: Brexit and Standard English: A Discussion Paper. Proteus, 2016 Summer Volume XXX, No. 2; reprinted from Irish Legal News:

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 10:39 am

    By coincidence I was just this morning while on the train reading Michelle Yeh's long and interesting introduction to an anthology of written-on-Taiwan modern poetry in English translation (called "Frontier Taiwan"), which starts with Hu Shih's 1917 manifesto before getting into the history about how the modernist impulse played out in the distinctive and shifting-over-time political/linguistic/etc circumstances of Taiwan.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 10:44 am

    Should have put this in prior comment. One interesting tidbit from Yeh's history is that of course Mandarin was not the "vernacular" for many on Taiwan and after WW2 the local modern-poetry scene was dominated by mainland exiles because the KMT suppressed publication both in Taiwanese/Hokkien and also in Japanese, and it turned out a lot of locally-born poets had written published modernist/experimental poetry before the war in their fluent L2 Japanese (Japan having its own modernist literary movement at the time), but lacked sufficient fluency in MSM (as foreign a language to them as Japanese had been before they'd learned it in school) to write poetry in it. (The Japanese colonial authorities had continued to encourage the writing of traditional-style poetry in Literary Chinese, because of the high value Japanese culture placed on that particular tradition, but these were the guys who like Hu Shih didn't want to write in that form.)

  21. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    Excellent; thanks!

    4. bùzuò wú bìng zhī shēnyín 不作無病之呻吟
    "don't moan and groan if not sick" :D
    Only wish I had known to reference Hu Shih here re: the New Yorker article from a few weeks back…

    2. yǒu shéme huà, shuō shénme huà; huà zěnme shuō, jiù zěnme shuō 有什么话, 说什么话; 话怎么说, 就怎么说
    This is classic Chinese in forgoing all reference to a subject and his/her "wants," making particularly the latter half tricky to translate literally. Avoiding anything modal whatever: "However the words are to be said, say them so." Were it really always so straightforward…

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

    This post has been reprinted, with an introduction by the editor Geremie Barme, in China Heritage (The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology).

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