fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

The Meaning of John Dewey’s Trip to China, 1919-1921

     This year, in addition to teaching American philosophy in Taiwan, I have been researching John Dewey’s visit to China from 1919-1921.  The facts surrounding Dewey’s visit are fairly well known.  Dewey arrived in China at the height of the May Fourth Movement.  His former students invited him to tour and to give lectures throughout the country, and there are detailed records of his itinerary and the content of his talks.  I have focused primarily on how this experience influenced Dewey himself, and I have been reading his papers and personal letters in order to gain some insight.

     The real meaning of Dewey’s visit remains a question that neither history nor philosophy has conclusively settled.  According to historian Benjamin Schwartz, “the encounter between John Dewey and modern China is one of the most fascinating episodes in the intellectual history of twentieth-century China.”  After reviewing Dewey’s own experiences, I think it is fair to say that it was one of the most fascinating episodes in Dewey’s own intellectual development as well.  Of particular interest in this regard is the manner in which the relationship between Confucian institutions and democratic reform was debated in Dewey’s presence, and the way in which his own thinking might have evolved given his exposure to that debate.

     When Dewey arrived in China, he entered a scene prepared in advance by his Chinese students, Hu Shih (胡適) and Jiang Menglin (蔣夢麟), one in which the “learned doctor” (Dewey) was to assist in dismantling Confucianism and establishing democracy.  Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培), then acting President of Beijing University, introduced Dewey’s role as follows:

“Confucius said respect the emperor, the learned doctor advocates democracy; Confucius said females are a problem to raise, the learned doctor advocates equal rights for men and women; Confucius said transmit but do not innovate, the learned doctor advocates being creative.”

     There was legitimacy to the role that Dewey was given.  Early in their visit, John Dewey and his wife, Alice, toured old examination halls, where, for centuries, Confucian scholars produced “Eight-Legged Essays” in their notoriously exacting and austere style.  The Dewey children received the following description:

“We visited the old examinations halls which are now being torn down.  These are the cells, about 25,000 in number, where the candidates for degrees used to be shut up during the examination period… No one could approach them from the outside for any reasons.  Often they died.”

     They met women, “slow, rocking, hobbling,” whose feet had been bound into disfigurement; they noticed women segregated “in all public gatherings;” and they marveled at the shortage of female doctors in the country.  Dewey came to appreciate the degree to which the use of classical Chinese was blocking access to higher education.  He was exposed to the graft and corruption that infected every level of official government, prompting him to observe wryly that, “Status quo is China’s middle name, mostly status and little quo. He met with Reginald Johnston, Scottish-born tutor to the last emperor, Puyi (溥儀), and returned with a portrait of despair: “[The boy] is waited upon by the eunuch attendants who crawl before him on their hands and knees.  At the same time he is, of course, practically a prisoner, being allowed to see his father and younger brother once a month.  Otherwise he has no children to play with at all.”  Dewey’s Chinese students instructed him that all of this reflected the moribund state of the Confucian tradition.  Their case was not illegitimate.

     On reading Dewey’s writings from this period, his fondness for China and its people comes across palpably.  Also evident is how absorbed he was in the historical drama in which he was suddenly cast, one that he called “the most enthralling drama now anywhere enacting.”  Dewey had not planned to stay in China even one year, but the urgency of what was unfolding there held him in China for over two.  This gave Dewey more than just an opportunity to share his philosophy – it also gave him opportunities to learn from experiences unlike any he ever had.  His letters relate how deeply he appreciated this.  In justifying his second year leave from Columbia University, Dewey described living in China as “most interesting and intellectually the most profitable thing I’ve ever done.”  After only three months in Japan and one month in China, he wrote to his children, “[Your mother and I] agreed yesterday that never in our lives had we begun to learn so much as in the last four months.  And in the last month particularly, there is almost too much food to be digestible.”  Nine days later he observed, “For a country that is regarded at home as stagnant and unchanging, there is certainly something doing [here].  This is the world’s greatest kaleidoscope.”  Where Dewey fit into that kaleidoscope was not entirely of his choosing.  His students were thoroughly persuaded that the old Confucian-centered culture and tradition had to be critically examined and changed, and Dewey embodied every new direction of thought to the students – a new hope for intellectual enlightenment and guidance.

     As it happens, social and political philosophy was only a recent interest of Dewey’s in 1919.  His most well known Chinese student, Hu Shih, hoped very much that Dewey would further develop his ideas while in China.  Dewey’s initial discussions on topics such as the role of the individual, as researcher Barry Keenan observes, come across as little more than a “first-draft attempt to see how well pragmatism might be applied to politics.”  Certain lectures, such as Dewey’s early talk on “Freedom, Equality, Individualism, and Education in American Democracy,” critique the notion of “rugged individualism” and suggest that “democratic individualism” might offer an alternative, but apart from the vague suggestion that the latter individuals would mutually develop their potentials, there is little substance to his discussions. Some of his Chinese students were advocating more radical notions, such as replacing the individual “you,” “he,” and “she” with titles derived from the traditional “five Confucian relationships,” but Dewey proved more circumspect and cautious in his approach.  He actually feared that an abrupt reform of the family structure in China might lead to a sudden emergence of radical individualism, resulting in negative social outcomes.

     Over the course of his two years, two months, and ten days in China, Dewey’s thinking on social and political issues evolved.  It is no exaggeration to say that China was the seedbed for some of Dewey’s enduring ideas.  His writings suggest that, more than anything, China’s deeply embedded attitudes towards custom and tradition galvanized his thinking.  Dewey understood that a certain “conservative hugging of old traditions” was a Chinese tendency, but he also appreciated their “power of objective criticism and self-analysis” within the framework of maintaining tradition.  He trusted that the Chinese could reflect intelligently on their traditions and “create some new ones better adapted to the conditions of present life.”  In Barry Keenan’s assessment:

“[Dewey’s method] was in no way a wholesale rejection of tradition.  In fact it was in ways explicitly conservative, and Dewey called for Chinese reformers to retain a direct connection between the past and change.  Dewey’s views called for a re-evaluation of traditional customs and institutions, but not for their rejection.  Intensive study of the past was encouraged, so that the indigenous cultural traits and institutions relevant to contemporary needs could be discovered and conserved.”

     China’s more strident “New Culture” reformers dismissed Dewey for taking this more conservative approach, and Dewey was critical of them in return.  As he related in a letter to his friend, Albert Barnes, in September, 1920:

“The whole temper among the younger generation is revolutionary, they are so sick of their old institutions that they assume any change will be for the better – the more extreme and complete the change, the better.  And they seem to me to have little idea of the difficulties in the way of any constructive change…  [To] the liberals here anything is likely to be [as] true and valuable as anything else, provided only it is different…  Since the Chinese family system for example badly needs reform, the family ought to be completely done away with…”

     The Secretary of the Chinese Anarchist-Communist Association would soon express the opinion that “Dr. Dewey is successful here, but most of our students are not satisfied with his conservative theory.”  In the eyes of some of his students, Dewey was meant to be an unalloyed radical force that would assist them in overturning Confucian traditions, but Dewey proved to be more measured and nuanced in his approach.

     So, what exactly did Dewey learn and how did it change his later work?  This is the question that occupies my current research.  I am taking a close look at Dewey’s works that post-date his China trip, works such as Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Public and its Problems(1927), and Individualism Old and New (1930).  My observation is that, in these works, Dewey handles the topic of individualism in a manner not seen prior to his China visit.  It thus becomes apparent that Dewey gained a lot more from his China trip than is routinely acknowledged.  Having the opportunity to look into this possibility while in Taiwan has been a very rewarding experience: one that has prepared me to establish further links between American intellectual history and that of the early Chinese Republic in the future.

Good pieces need to be seen.


Picture of James Behuniak 江文思

James Behuniak 江文思

Jim Behuniak received his Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i in 2002.  He is currently Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Colby College.  He works in the areas of Chinese philosophy and American philosophy.  He is author of Mencius on Becoming Human (SUNY Press, 2005) and co-editor with Roger T. Ames of 孟子心性之學 Studies of Mencius on Feeling and Nature(Social Sciences Academic Press, Beijing, 2004).  He has authored several articles in Chinese and comparative philosophy for edited volumes and for journals, such as Philosophy East and West, Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy,Journal of Chinese Philosophy, and Asian Philosophy.  He was Senior Fulbright Scholar teaching at National Taiwan University in 2014-2015.

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