August 16, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Why the Name Hu Shih Deserves to Be on One of Cornell’s 600 Buildings

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On the evening of June 21, I joined thousands of other first-year Cornellians in a battle to access the crowded housing portal to see our housing assignments. After finally getting access, many of us flooded Discord chatrooms with messages along the lines of “What is a Hu Shih?” upon winning the lottery for a brand-new air-conditioned room. 

Once all the dust had settled, questions like the one mentioned earlier remained in our heads. Though I will be a fellow Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hall resident myself, I also wondered about the origin of the name “Hu Shih Hall,” the building adjacent to mine. The answer was easy to find. After just some simple Google searching, I quickly learned the significance of Hu as an individual and realized how fitting (and even overdue) it was to name one of Cornell’s over 600 buildings after Hu Shih 1914. 

According to Cornell’s official news release, the buildings of the North Campus Residential Expansion were named after “deceased Cornellians with inspirational, groundbreaking careers and who reflected the history of Cornell’s diversity.” This is so true for Hu — so true to the extent that it actually surprised me to learn that Hu Shih Hall is the first building on campus to be named after an international alumnus/alumna, and also the first to be named after an individual of Asian descent.

With regards to his career, Hu is well known as a Chinese diplomat, scholar, philosopher and reformer. While not everyone will agree with his ideological or political views, Hu’s influential legacy is felt today by all Chinese communities on the planet, at least in the way they write. 

Imagine if you lived today speaking our current modern English, but everything you read and wrote was in Old English that far predated Shakespeare’s works. In China, starting from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC), spoken Chinese began to evolve much faster than written Chinese, and eventually, the spoken language (known as vernacular Chinese) had become completely distinct from the written standard of Classical Chinese. The majority of the Chinese population, uneducated in Classical Chinese, could understand very little of written or printed texts.

In the early 1900s, Hu Shih became a pioneer and a staunch advocate for the use of vernacular Chinese in writing, and his campaign helped change the way all Chinese write today. As a result of the difficult reform led by Hu, reading and writing became so much easier for ordinary Chinese, and a large portion of the Chinese population emerged out of near total illiteracy in the past decades. Such is the scale and significance of Hu’s legacy; in my opinion, no words can exaggerate Hu’s contribution as a language reformer. 

Yet he was also a key contributor to China’s modern liberalistic thinking and was exceedingly influential during China’s New Culture Movement, the equivalent of China’s Enlightenment Period. He took numerous leading intellectual and social roles in the turbulent yet consequential period of Chinese history, including Chinese ambassador to the United States (1938-1942), chancellor of Peking University (1946-1948), and president of the Academia Sinica (1957-1962). The social ideals that he championed, such as liberalism, individualism and democratic institutions are, in my eyes, still more than relevant in today’s world. And the way I read it, his pedagogical ideals echo profoundly with what Cornell embraces. 

Hu’s devotion to Cornell as an alumnus is also worthy of celebration. According to the official account of the Cornell University Library, by donating some 350 classic Chinese books in 1911, Hu laid the foundation for the Cornell University Library’s Chinese collection and the subsequent creation of the W. Wason Collection, a collection that has eventually become an envy of almost all American institutions.

For such an influential alumnus who made significant philanthropic contributions to Cornell, it appears to me that Cornell should have celebrated his life and legacy even more and even earlier on our campus. The naming of the Hu Shih hall is a good start and represents a well-deserved recognition of an alumnus of Asian descent.  As Ryan Lombardi, Vice President for Student and Campus Life, put it, “Attaching these inspiring stories to spaces where Cornell students spend their most formative years ties them to the University’s rich past from day one, and it will remind them of the possibilities ahead as they become our future leaders.”

I hope that many of the 430 new Cornellians who have arrived in Hu Shih Hall and the thousands more who just settled into North Campus have been prompted to learn about some of Hu Shih’s stories and ideas. One of the many ideological and philosophical concepts Hu cherished was individualism. In Hu’s opinion, everyone in a community or a society has the freedom to develop a lifestyle of individualism, where people are free to forge their own paths but are still social beings influenced by the actions and thoughts of others. In one of his famous poems in vernacular Chinese, he wrote:

Once intoxicated, one learns the strength of wine,
Once smitten, one learns the power of love:
You cannot write my poems,
Just as I cannot dream your dreams.

I hope that every Cornellian living in Hu Shih Hall cherishes their own, individual dream; yet through the power of love, (maybe aided a bit by the strength of alcohol), they enjoy a lifestyle of true individualism — independent yet socially intertwined.

Kevin Liu ‘26 (he/him) is an incoming freshman in the College of Engineering. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.