Hu Shi, missionaries, and women’s rights


Before there was Li Yinhe, there was Hu Shi (Wikipedia)

Before there were dissident bloggers and sexologists, there was Hu Shi (1891-1962) – the father of China’s early 20th century literary renaissance. Born in Anhui Province, Hu received a PhD from Columbia University on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship. In 1917, he quickly returned to China and began teaching at Peking University. Critical of Chinese tradition, Hu championed the vernacular movement, women’s rights, and the values of freedom and democracy. After the Chinese Communist Party came to power, they labeled Hu an enemy of Marxist thought and banned his works for decades.

In the following essay, Hu Shi notes that missionaries, often considered the vanguard of the West’s cultural invasion, did actually bring some positive change to China.

Congratulations to the YWCA

by Hu Shi / translated by Julian Smisek

I often ask myself: why is China this messed up? Everyone has their own intelligent answer to this question, but my answer is: China is this messed up all because our forefathers were too unfair to our women.

This year, I traveled to China’s interior. I saw women with bound feet who did not look human as they walked around. Even their faces lacked normal complexion. I couldn’t help but turn to my companion and say, “our nation has really committed a serious sin, and descendants always pay for the sins of their ancestors. We don’t know just how bad it’s going to be!”

“Turn women into beasts of burden.” This phrase doesn’t do enough to describe the cruel treatment of women in China. It isn’t enough for us to turn women into beasts of burden – we must chop off two of their hooves and force them to suffer hard manual labor!

Looking at the rest of humankind, one is unable to find a second country with such a barbaric system!

Our virtuous sages and ancient classics offer absolutely no help. Confucian scholars have spent every day of the last one thousand years discussing benevolence and justice, and yet never spoke up for the inhumane suffering of their grandmothers, mothers, and sisters.

Suddenly, missionaries arrived from the West. Besides religion, they brought over some new customs and points of view. They also gave us quite a few lessons on morality, the most important being that women should be treated as humans.

The recently deceased Mrs. Archibald Little supported the liberation of Chinese women and founded the “Natural Foot Society.”

It could be said that the women’s liberation movement of the last few decades was entirely due to the influence of Western Civilization. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) is the best example. This year is the 20th anniversary of its foundation in China. I sincerely celebrate their many achievements over the last 20 years, and wish them continued success as the vanguard of China’s women’s liberation movement.

The YWCA is a Christian group, but at the same time is a group devoted to social service. Those of us born in this era can probably all understand that the highest expression of religion is its group efforts. Social service is religion. China’s ancients say: “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” The West believes that “serving men is serving God.” To seek your individual soul’s release from purgatory and its happiness in heaven is completely selfish. True religion is to do one’s best to work toward some group’s happiness.

“Paradise comes after death.” This is what the earliest religions thought. “Paradise is in your heart.” This was a big revolution.

“Paradise isn’t found in heaven or in your heart – it’s found here, in the earthly world.” This is today’s newest religious trend. If everyone works hard, we can achieve the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. This is religion.

I hope that the YWCA maintains the honorable practices of the last 20 years, using their religious spirit to continue efforts to liberate Chinese women and improve the lives of Chinese families. With some effort, we can achieve some results; Subtract some suffering, add some happiness. Bring paradise a step closer.

June 24, 1928

Links and Sources
  • Original Chinese text included in 胡适文存, vol 3, (Shanghai: 亚东图书馆, 1930) pp. 1171-1173.
  • Chinese text reproduced in Zhou, Zhiping, Joanne Chiang, and Der-lin Chao. Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese: China’s Own Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1993. Print.
  • Also see: “Stephen Owen to Inaugurate Hu Shi Liberal-Arts Lecture Series,”Peking University News.
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