In May of 1917, a little over a year before the end of WWI, Hu Shi discovered that Edith Clifford Williams had kept all the letters he had written to her over the course of their friendship. At the time, Hu was 25 years old, finishing his time as a Ph.D. student of philosophy at Columbia under John Dewey. Edith was 31, staying in Ithaca with her father. Hu would go on to become one of the most influential Chinese intellectuals of all time, and Edith would establish herself as an abstract artist at the forefront of the American avant-garde movement.
Even though they had only been friends for a few years, there were more than a hundred letters in the bundle. Hu borrowed them to read at home. “These hundred-odd letters have recorded the tremendous changes that took place in my thoughts and feelings in those two years,” he wrote in his diary. “Here, more than anywhere else, lies my true self.
A month later, at the end of the semester, Hu returned to China.
Hu Shi and Edith Williams kept writing to each other for the rest of their lives, which spanned World War I, World War II, and the Chinese Communist Revolution. Through these letters emerges a story about two people separated by war, politics, and culture, but found a way to stay connected in spite of it all.
tldr; going through a chinese intellectual’s chat history reveals how falling in love makes life better but also more complicated.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Hu met Williams sometime in the late summer days of 1914. In one of their earliest encounters, Williams took Hu as her guest to a friend’s wedding after learning that he had never seen a “Western-style” wedding. Hu took copious notes on the ceremony, paying special attention to the vows. Hu noted the groom promised “to love and to cherish” his bride.
That same month, Hu published an article titled “Marriage Customs in China” in the Cornell student paper. He wrote about the Chinese tradition of arranged marriages with the purpose of pointing out “the rationality of the system, not to defend or vindicate it, but to give the reader a better understanding of it.” Hu himself had been betrothed to Jiang Dongxiu, a girl from his hometown, since the age of thirteen as part of an arranged marriage.
In his article, Hu pointed out the advantages of arranged marriages. These marriages assured youths of their “life companions,” sparing them the draining experience of courting one another, he claimed. They imposed “upon the young people a duty to be constant, faithful and pure,” which often led to “duty-made” love, which, by his judgment, was just as genuine and worthy as the “self-made” love of the Occident.
The dramatic differences between Chinese and American society led Hu to think of them as embodiments of a diametrically opposed “East” and “West.” In his first letter to Edith, dated November 2, 1914, Hu tried to define their different takes on social and familial relationships, saying that the “Oriental view” was characterized by “altruistic toleration,” sometimes past the extent of one’s own benefit. Hu insisted, however, that “Oriental” toleration was rooted in love, not cowardice, and came out of free will. He described the “Occidental point of view” as prioritizing “the duty towards ourselves…we must never compromise, for our ideal.” Hu then explained his own decision to remain on the “Oriental” side in his family relations:
These are the two sides of the shield. I have adopted both. In my family relations, I have so far been on the Oriental side. This is largely due to the fact that I have a very, very good mother to whom I owe everything. My long absence from her has already weighed very heavily on my heart and I can never have a hardened heart against her. I may—this is my hope—be able to change her views gradually when I shall live with her.
Hu’s mother, Feng Shundi, was 18 when she gave birth to him in a small town near Shanghai. She was an illiterate peasant girl with bound feet, 32 years younger than her husband, Hu Chuan. Hu’s diary refers fondly to the time they spent together as a family, with Hu Chuan teaching both wife and son to read. When Feng was twenty-three, Hu Chuan died, leaving her with three-year-old Hu and two step-sons older than herself. Despite a chronically stressful financial situation at home, she prioritized Hu Shi’s education, paying extra so his teachers would explain the texts they taught, instead of teaching only by rote memory, as they traditionally did. Feng left no written records of her own, so it has become impossible to retrieve her in her own words. But we know from Hu’s writing that she had a tremendous influence on him during his formative years. He felt tremendously indebted to her for his education, his achievements, and his later success.
When he was 13, Hu was betrothed to Jiang Dongxiu. Shortly after, Feng sent him to Shanghai to pursue a modern education, where he was exposed to Western social and political ideas. In this way, the year of 1904 embodied two directives that would be in tension with each other for the rest of Hu’s life: to modernize and Westernize his ideas, while simultaneously governing himself and his family affairs according to Chinese tradition. One of the deepest confusions of Hu’s life was the loyalty he felt he owed to his parents for raising him and supporting his modern education through difficult circumstances and the fact that that same education often pushed him towards refuting or rebelling against the values his parents had so wholeheartedly subscribed to.
Embedded in his first letter to Williams was deep confusion between his desire to justify his actions as a product of rational self-determination and his personal belief that fulfilling social and interpersonal responsibilities was a fundamental trait of virtuous behavior. Hu worried that his sense of interpersonal responsibility was a mark of his own “backwardness.” Edith immediately responded with skepticism of his portrayal of a diametrically opposed East and West: “Thank you for your note—I was much interested in it. Isn’t the point of view you speak of—whether Oriental or Occidental, based on the same seeking for the best attitude toward our fellow men, but in both cases with tendencies toward conservatism or liberalism[?]”
She disagreed with Hu’s rather rigid assertion that truth “admits no compromise” in the Western view, saying that tolerating and respecting “the sacredness of the ideals of others…does not imply compromise. Then, she included a quote from Lord Morley’s On Compromise: “Now however great the pain inflicted by the avowal of unbelief, it seems to the present writer that one relationship in life, and one only, justifies us in being silent where otherwise it would be right to speak. This relationship is that between child and parents.”
Williams herself struggled as the radical child of a traditional mother. A neighbor described her mother, Harriet Hart Williams, as “a tiny determined woman whom people recall as looking and acting like Queen Victoria. She was the keeper of etiquette, scolding young women if they pulled on their white gloves while boarding the trolley.” Meanwhile, Williams cut her hair short, traveled alone, and dated multiple men at a time. At the time of these letters, she was fighting with her mother over renting an apartment—she wanted to be able to live alone.
Williams could not have known the extent to which the quotes she presented would be significant to Hu—she may not have even known about his arranged marriage at the time. Soon after receiving Williams’ letter, Hu went to the library to borrow Morley’s On Compromise and copied another passage into his diary: “In an ordinary way…a parent has a claim on us which no other person in the world can have, and a man’s self-respect ought scarcely to be injured if he finds himself shrinking from playing the apostle to his own father or mother.”
That the writings of a nineteenth-century British liberal spoke so directly to his own concerns freed Hu from the burden of his fear that his deeply ingrained filial piety had no place in the Western world. In her first letter, Edith had sensed and responded directly to this internal insecurity of his, assuring him that the toleration of the perspectives of loved ones, particularly one’s parents, was not a troubling remnant of his “Oriental” and backward upbringing, but rather a universal human longing that had its proper place in the modern world.
Soon after beginning their correspondence, Hu began developing feelings for Williams. A series of love poems appear in Hu’s journal entries in 1915. He had a habit of prefacing love poems with elaborate explanations claiming that they were written strictly as literary exercises, but after reading them with his letters with Williams, it becomes clear that many were about her. In the postscript of a love poem dated to October 13, 1915, Hu wrote: “I am a temperate kind of person and I do not know what ‘love’ is. Yet this longing might be akin to what they write about in books.”
Hu likely saw no disloyalty in admitting to feelings for someone else while engaged to Jiang. By his own judgment, marrying Jiang Dongxiu was not choosing a life without love, but rather choosing the duty-made love of his people as opposed to “Western” self-made love. In this sense, his actions remained consistent with his goal of being “Occidental” in his social and political views, and “Oriental” in his family matters.
That said, he often tried to get Jiang to write him letters, perhaps to edge their duty-made love towards self-made love. Jiang’s unwillingness to learn how to read and write was one of the few complaints Hu often aired about Jiang. In a brief exchange about Jiang, Hu confided in Williams:
I have long given up the idea of finding intellectual companionship in [Jiang]. Not without a sigh of reluctance, of course! As you say, ‘it seems strange, and yet as if it mattered very little somehow.’ Who knows? I only know that I shall do all I can to make her happy—how successful I don’t know. There was a time when I tried to urge her to acquire a better knowledge of reading and writing. But that was impossible—for numerous reasons. But I am an optimist. My mother can neither read nor write, but she is one of the best women that I know.
A year before their marriage, in January of 1917, Hu received a short note from Jiang when he was in bed with the flu, revealing a candid and intelligent voice underlying the grammar mistakes and wrong words. He wrote an appreciative poem in his diary to commemorate the event:
Her letter comes while I’m ill–
Less than eight lines of chitchat,
Yet it pleases me quite.
I know her not
Nor she me, yet
Why does she occupy my mind?
Destined to be joined,
Out of this bond grows affection.
We are no strangers
“Do you not love freedom?”
Know you not freedom self-relinquished
Is also freedom?
The more Hu’s relationship with Williams developed, the more he had to define for himself his feelings of physical and spiritual attraction towards Williams. By the time he left America, he had decided that his own ethical line fell between his emotions and his actions: he could be in love with Edith Williams, but in order to be a filial son, he would marry Jiang Dongxiu. “It is not easy for those who have reached the evening of life to change their ideas, as the young men of our generation can exchange new beliefs for old,” Hu Shi wrote in his diary before leaving America, likely thinking of his mother. “I will follow Easterners in my family affairs, but in my ideas on society, the nation and politics I will follow Westerners.”
Hu’s early faith in the ultimate compatibility of Chinese culture and modern values learned from the West remained a distinctive aspect of his early intellectual work. The ease with which he and Edith understood each other undoubtedly contributed to this faith. However, in the years after his return to China, Hu became increasingly convinced that traditional Chinese concepts of social responsibility placed oppressive limits on individual agency and had no place in the modern world.
tldr; hu and williams fell in love in new york, but hu chose to marry his arranged wife, deciding that although his ideas could be modern, he needed to abide by traditional norms in his personal life for the sake of his mother
Hu Goes Viral and Edith Goes Silent
“I can’t say that I look forward to our wedding with gladness,” Hu Shi confessed in a letter to Edith Williams written in November of 1917, a few months before his wedding. “It is with a sense of keen curiosity that I approach the eve of a great experiment—the experiment of living!”
Hu married Jiang Dongxiu on December 30th, 1917, a few months after his return from America. The negotiation between his dual allegiance to Western ideals and Chinese tradition was prevalent throughout his decisions about the wedding, as he describes in a letter to Williams, written in February 19th of 1918. This time, perhaps noticing Williams’ reticence and attempting to give her more space, Hu addressed the letter to both her and her mother:
My dear Mrs. Williams and Miss Williams:
I have been married over seven weeks and have not written you any report! I am happy to report that my wife and I are quite happy and we believe we can get along together well!
Though he often told his friends in private that he had agreed to the wedding solely for the sake of his mother, he still felt compelled to modify the ceremony to fit better with his own idea of modernity:
“…I had to devise my own wedding ceremonies, abolishing all the unreasonable elements in the old custom. We did not offer sacrifice to “Heaven and Earth,” which is the most important of all the abolished ceremonies. But we did pay our first visit together to our ancestral temple. On this matter, my mother and I had quite a few days’ arguments. But my mother, who had agreed to all my other changes, could not bear to see her only child forget his ancestors. On the very eve of our wedding, I yielded to my mother’s wishes and, on the third morning after wedding, my wife and I went to ancestor hall and bowed thrice to the ancestral tablets.”
For her part, Williams may have felt that their relationship was beginning to grow past propriety. We know that she struggled with her own growing feelings for Hu from letters she wrote during this time. She never sent them, but she gave them to him decades later. She was also preoccupied with stressful family finances and the task of taking care of her sick sister in the years that followed his departure. Even though they had written each other hundreds of letters while living in the same city, Williams did not write Hu a single letter for five years after his return to China.
During this hiatus, Hu Shi began the most productive period of his life. The excitement of the May 4th movement, a period of intense intellectual and cultural innovation and experimentation, was beginning to come to a head. In 1919, Hu spearheaded the baihua movement with his magnum opus, The History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1—the first book of its kind, both in its use of Western methodology and its use of the vernacular. The literary revolution was shockingly successful, even to Hu. Within ten years, textbooks, literature, and newspapers were all written in the vernacular, and classical Chinese (wenyan) was relegated to the field of specialists. Unlike other returned students, who were often seen as exotic and condescending, and thus regarded with some degree of suspicion, Hu presented a relatable face and a comfortingly moderate and optimistic outlook for China’s future.
A young intellectual who attended one of Dewey’s lectures recalled: “We all assumed that [Hu] would be a model returned student, dressed in Western fashion and stiff as a ramrod, acting as though he were ten feet tall. But when he accompanied Dewey onto the platform he was wearing a long Chinese gown, and his manner was modest and deferential, not at all like most returned students, but rather resembling a traditional scholar.”
This quality would earn Hu the title of a “modern-day Confucius,” even though he explicitly railed against many Confucian traditions. His moderate, gregarious, and steadfast nature earned him respect across generations and his marriage to Jiang became a symbol of his personal allegiance to Chinese tradition. He became so popular that it was a common joke to begin sentences with the phrase “My friend, Hu Shi,” simply because it was used so often, and by so many. Con men pretended to be his relatives, using his name to have their opinions heard. His hometown produced “Professor’s tea” in an effort to trade on his name.
Despite his early success and fame, however, Hu’s first years in China proved to be very lonely. His mother died less than a year after his wedding, in 1918. In a heartbreaking letter to Williams written in March of 1919, Hu wrote: “My mother—whom you knew well through what I have told you—died of influenza last November! The loss was too great for me to bear. She was only 46 years old when she died. She had suffered everything for over twenty years merely for my sake, and I have never been able to offer the little happiness which I am only beginning to be in a position to give!”
It also could not have helped that Williams, formerly a reliable source of companionship and comfort, had not written him in three years.
By 1919, Hu was already beginning to experience the criticism of the “mob.” In a series of essays published in 1919 under the general title of “Problems and Isms,” Hu criticized what he saw as intellectually irresponsible fixation with ideology among his peers. “Isms,” he argued, were simply conceptual generalizations that originated from particular contexts. In an indirect warning against communism, he urged for his fellow intellectuals to devote themselves to solving particular problems, rather than philosophizing about theories.
Unfortunately for Hu, communism was steadily gaining traction in China during this time of mounting nationalism, attractive to intellectuals and youths alike for its penetrating theoretical analysis and persuasive call to action. Though he was still widely respected, Hu found himself increasingly alone in insisting that China had to learn liberal values from the West to survive in the modern world. Hu’s policy of “wholesale Westernization” would earn him a tremendous amount of criticism, even though he later dropped the term in favor for “selective Westernization.” For this belief, he would later be accused of being a pawn of American imperialism.
Despite the chaos, he still found time to write to Williams. In the letter, Hu apologized for his long silence, despite her much longer one. He told her briefly about the recent developments in his life and career, the success of the literary revolution, and his mother’s death. Soon after sending the letter, he wrote a poem in his journal titled “Should”:
Perhaps she loves me—perhaps she loves me still—
But she keeps telling me to love her no more.
Today, she fixed her teary eyes on me,
Saying, “Why do you still think of me?
Thinking of me, how do you behave towards her?
If you really love me,
You should love her with the love you love me,”
You should treat her with the tenderness you feel for me.
Every one of her words is right—
God help me!
If the poem is about Williams, it illustrates Hu’s difficulty in separating his self-made love from the duty-made love he wrote about with such certainty back in his days at Cornell—the love he felt for Edith seemed to be hindering his ability to devote himself fully to his wife.
Hu’s ideas on the meaning and place of “self-made love” in Chinese society had greatly changed between the time he admitted to “longing” for Williams back in 1915 and his lingering feelings for her in 1919. Among his seminal works on literary history and philosophy published in this period were a series of influential essays on women’s rights and modern love. In these essays, it becomes clear that Hu increasingly saw the traditional family structure that created “duty-made love” as oppressive and limiting on individual agency. His altered attitude toward love is apparent in one of his most famous articles, “The Question of Chastity,” published in 1918, which railed against the cult of chastity that continued to exist in Chinese culture. In the article, he described true chastity as a voluntary choice, and thus impossible without sincere love. This argument resonated deeply with young students, and the concept of “free love” was added to autonomy as a basic principle among May Fourth youths in their resistance to arranged marriage. “Freedom to love” became one of the loudest slogans from the May Fourth Era.
It was also during this time that Hu attempted to get a divorce. Divorce was almost unheard of in China, and usually did not occur unless the wife had committed some unforgivable moral crime. Hu’s attempt at breaking off his marriage signaled a substantial departure from his previous desire to adhere to Eastern tradition when it came to his family affairs. It is impossible to know the extent to which his disillusionment with “duty-made” love was rooted in his own experience with his marriage to Jiang. However, when Hu attempted to cross the line he had previously drawn between his “Western” desires and “Eastern” actions, he found himself constrained by his new social responsibilities as a husband, father, and public figure. After a series of intense quarrels with Jiang, he gave up the idea.
Hu’s feelings for Williams lasted throughout the years. Williams deleted several portions of the letter when she typed it up after his death, but in what is left to us, we know that he wrote her in 1927: “Throughout these long years I have never forgotten you…I want you, above all to know how much you have given me…Never doubt that our simple friendship will ever be lost. It can’t.”
Williams considered his earnest words, which likely contained more obviously romantic entreaties, given her response the following month, which sympathetically but determinedly reminded him of his loyalties:
Just a word about us—I shall not write you (and I trust I shall not have in my heart) anything which is not loyal and considerate of your wife—who must really love you a very great deal.
It is not disloyal to recognize in you a rare friend, always mentally stimulating, of whom I am very fond. I want nothing else. You are both victims of an unfortunate system…She perhaps unconsciously, you with unflinching awareness.
She did not know that by that point, Hu had already tried, unsuccessfully, to break out of his unfortunate system.
tldr; after hu got married, williams stopped writing him for years. during this time, hu shot to fame as an intellectual and decided that “Occidental” love was objectively better than “Oriental” love. also, his mother died, and he tried to get a divorce, unsuccessfully.
From Friends to Lovers
Hu Shi stayed in America for five months in the summer of 1933, participating in a conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations in Canada, and giving lectures in Chicago. During this time, he visited Ithaca twice. It was during this time that, after 20 years of friendship, Hu Shi and Edith Williams became lovers. Our knowledge of the events that transpired between Williams and Hu during these visits comes entirely from Williams’ surviving letters. When Williams donated the letters to the Hu Shih Memorial Hall, she went to great lengths efforts to make sure there was nothing that would dishonor Jiang Dongxiu. In a note asking for a letter to be replaced with a new, typed version after she had already sent it in, she wrote: “I hope because of Mrs. Hu’s ignorance of English, that the delay in correcting this will have caused no harm.” Likely to protect Hu’s reputation, Williams retyped all of Hu’s letters from time, omitting various passages and replacing them with ellipses or her own summaries. Meanwhile, her own letters come to us completely unedited, found amongst Hu’s belongings decades after his death.
In reading Williams’ letters, we venture into an intimate realm in which we were never meant to be—her voice comes to us utterly uncensored and unashamed. At the time of their union, Williams was 48 years old, and Hu 42. In this letter dated to September of 1933, Williams struggled with the doomed blossoming of their love:
“Hu Shih, I love you! I am not proud of breathing, how can I be proud of that? I am very humble that you should love me—but at times, your love surrounds my thoughts like sunlit air. In spite of doubts, I must believe but how could there be advertisement of this that is not loathsome? If there is chance for us to be together living fully can you imagine our not merging like two streams long seeking the same valley?”
Enclosed in the same envelope was this letter, dated to the 27th, where she continues dreaming of their future: “Almost I cherish most our chuckles—with the world falling about our ears it is sweet to think that in the clear bubble of time we have played together—A second childhood, maybe for us who have had so little. Ah, we could grow old together, happily, happily!…”
One gets the sense that this union presented a tantalizing escape from the political tumult that was beginning to shake both their worlds. William’s mother had just passed away the preceding year, leaving Williams the large house, which she was struggling to sell in the midst of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, a politically divided China was unsuccessfully attempting to defend itself from Japanese attempts on the border. Hu was becoming increasingly alone in his advocacy for liberal ideals, and his insistent caution against war often resulted in accusations that he, along with Chiang Kai-shek, were simply playing a game of appeasement.
With the passage of a few days, it seems that the reality of both their lives began to dawn. As she expressed in a letter written a few weeks later, she felt their “clear bubble of time” together drifting away:
Our small warm cluster of days still hold attention like a single light. It grows dimmer, this light, farther away. The sounds of the world beat louder and louder and the tramp of necessity thunders by and calls. One falls back into rank, one marches…It is but a little, remembered light.
They who had spoken so optimistically of individual freedom in their younger years were now tied to their posts in the political and social tumult of historical proportions that was threatening to break. The more unpopular Hu was in China, the more duty-bound he felt to return. Even Williams, with her self-proclaimed “tiny world,” felt too responsible to it to leave it behind. In that same letter from October, Williams relinquished her fantasies of beginning a life with Hu:
Hu Shih, we are still too young to live on memories—we are too old, I think to believe too much in dreams. It is because of this that loneliness stalks and shakes us terribly by the shoulders. It is the living now we are alive in, alone and companioned. So, frankly, you are gone. We both grow sane maybe and attend our various businesses (when have you not been indeed!) We will communicate perhaps—but I know the flood of work you will be absorbed in. Letters are difficult. After you get back do not try to write. It is better for you to rest a moment by simply looking in your mind at a happy cool space in time than to try to write. I shall understand, I always have. Find what refreshment you may, anywhere! Life will be taxing.
In April of 1938, Hu Shi took a train down the Hudson River between his public speeches, as part of his role as the Republic of China’s ambassador to the United States. Although he was tremendously popular among Americans, he himself did not enjoy it, and his affiliation with the Nationalists made him less popular amongst his fellow intellectuals and students back home, despite his fierce criticism of the Nationalists in the years prior. Meanwhile, the Second Sino-Japanese War was ravaging his country. While on the train, Hu contemplated his previous life as a young student at Cornell, and wrote a poem called “Returning to New York City from Albany”:
The four hundred-li Hudson River
Flows leisurely into New York Bay,
Like the years of my youth
On this River were once my poetry,
My dreams, my work, my love.
Some, disintegrated, flowed down with the blue river.
Those remaining stand with the green hills.
It is safe to assume that though he may have seen his dreams for China flow down with the river, his love for Williams stood among those hills.
tldr; hu and williams became secret lovers briefly, only to be torn apart by world events and the duties they felt to them.
Hu Shi’s life was, in many ways, exceptional. Though his intellect would likely have placed him among the great minds of any time, he came to have an extraordinary, even disproportionate influence on early Chinese attempts to modernize, as he was part of a very small group of people who were qualified to explain and introduce China to Western society and culture. His extreme popularity, and then extreme unpopularity, was a product of the combination of the political atmosphere and his own celebrity.
In other ways, however, Hu’s life was emblematic of his times. He struggled with the same issues of cultural inferiority, self-doubt, and urgent nationalism as his fellow countrymen at the turn of the 20th century. He weathered immense and sudden political and social change in his lifetime. He wrangled with the paradoxes and hypocrisies that occur when dramatically breaking with tradition, and, as a result, the beliefs of older generations.
Throughout his life, Hu’s concepts of modernization, Western values, and Eastern culture underwent significant changes and adjustments in response to different social, political, and personal situations. What never changed was his dedication to intellectual integrity, the responsibility he felt to serve his country, and his reluctance to hurt those he loved. Out of these personal desires and beliefs came the philosophies and ideas that continue to influence China today.
It is worth noting that even Hu Shi, with his policy of “wholesale westernization,” was not able to fully divorce himself from his preexisting desires, morals, and relationships. His successes and failures to reconcile these conflicting ideals and morals in his own life reflects the extent to which an imagined Western ideal could be made useful to Chinese society in the microcosm of his life. On a much larger scale, China is currently locked in a similar internal negotiation with itself. The “Western values” that do find a place in China’s future will be what Chinese people find useful in navigating the particularities of Chinese politics and the firm hold of social relationships. Meanwhile, people still fall in love first and ask questions later, much as they always have.