October 25, 1940
Hu Shih, Ambassador of the Republic of China, lectured in Avery Hall on "The Modernization of China and Japan, a Comparative Study of Cultural Contact and Response." Emphasizing that "freedom of contact and choice are essential for cultural transformation," Dr. Hu attributed Japan's early rise to modernity and China's later "permanently overthrowing her old civilization" to persistence in Japan of a "feudal militaristic ruling class...anxious and able to adopt a Western system of militaristic industrialization." By comparison, he said, China, having abolished feudalism 21 centuries before, needed a "slow, sporadic and wasteful" process of diffusion and assimilation among its many cultural constituencies to create a modern society "from lip-stick to literature."
A pragmatist philosopher and philologiest, in addition to his diplomatic career, Dr. Hu joined students for coffee in the Aula the following day, and, according to The Miscellany News, told them how "China's literary renaissance originated in a controversy over a poem written to commemorate a young lady's rescue from the waters of the Cayuga."
"'It happened at Ithaca, New York,' he said, 'where Chinese students were accustomed to spend the summer in the Cornell Summer School.... A charming Vassar freshman, Miss Sophie Chen, appeared that summer, and as there were very few Chinese students in America, she became immediately the center of attention. Among her escorts was Mr. Sze Zen, whom she afterwards married.'
"'One day a picnic was arranged on Cayuga Lake, and one of the frequent thunderstorms came up, endangering the party. They made haste to get to shore, but he boat capsized before the party could land, throwing the food and the picnickers into the water. They rescued themselves, and built a fire on the shore, and enjoyed what was salvaged from the picnic. The occasion was one which Mr. Zen thought worthy of perpetuating in poetry, and he therefore wrote a poem celebrating the occasion and the rescue of Miss Chen.'"
Sent a copy of the poem, The Misc. continued, Dr. Hu commented that "the poem could not be called a good one, since it was composed partily in the ancient dead classical language, and partly in the modern common speech. The conflict between these two vocabularies created a devided style which Hu Shih found unsatisfactory." A Chinese student studying at Harvard and under the influence of the conservative cultural critic Irving Babbitt rallied many others when he sided with the poem's use of the ancient language, "the only one of them joining Hu Shih being Sophie Chen of Vassar.
"Within tweny years, a new literary language had been established, which is spoken and understood from the deserts of Mongolia to the tropical shore of Kwantung. Four hundred million people now read a literature in a living speech which Dr. Hu Shih told the Vassar girls is by far the most perfect language for the conveyance of human thought ever developed by mankind." The Miscellany News