John Dewey in China

Excerpts and full-text link to a master’s thesis (intellectual history) by Gary Pavela. Wesleyan University, 1970.

You may view the entire thesis here (click the link)



Table of contents and excerpts follow.

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Dewey’s Lectures in China, 1.

The Application of the Experimental Method to Social and Political Philosophy, 3

Experimental Method and Dewey’s Philosophy of Education, 11

The Initial Chinese Response, 21.

The Appeal of Experimentalism, 25


Scholasticism and Skepticism, 29

Weaning Away From China, 35

The Break with China, 38

John Dewey and the Supremacy of Experimentalism, 43

The Genesis of “Non-Political” Reform in China, 49

Experimentalism and Language Reform, 54

The May Fourth Movement and the “Triumph” of Experimentalism, 61


The Fate of Experimentalism. 65

Li Ta-chao, 75

Ch’en Tu-hsiu, 82

The Chinese Student Movement, 94





Through John Dewey America is offering her best to China and she is saying to the Chinese through him : you cannot avoid social reform and you want social reform. Will you have it by the method of education, of self-discipline, of experiment and of method? Or will you have it by submitting yourself to the terrors of the doctrinaire or to the spurred boot heel of the autocrat? The question is still yours to answer.

C . F . Remer, Millard’s Review July 3, 1920

Editor’s note: footnotes below are linked to each chapter. Click here for the full listing.


John Dewey’s series of lectures in China during 1919–1921 could not have taken place in a more significant period of modern Chinese history. The pressure of Japanese aggression and the blatant failures of the warlord government had, just prior to and during Dewey’s visit, stimulated an “awakening” of many Chinese students and intellectuals . Most notably, the Versailles settlement (in which the Western powers recognized Japanese intrusion into Shantung Province) provoked an angry response from thousands of young Chinese who, on May 4, 1919, took to the streets of Peking, attacked a “pro-Japanese” minister of the warlord government and, by mustering popular support, helped assure that Chinese officials would not sign the Versailles treaty.

The Chinese students, whose “most important purpose” was to “maintain the existence and independence of the nation,” [l] had not limited themselves to street demonstrations . From the very beginning of what was later to be called “the May Fourth Movement” they sought a doctrine which would provide a means to national wealth and power . Not surprisingly, therefore, Western “isms” of all varieties were discussed and leading Western thinkers invited to China to expound them.

John Dewey, who was asked to lecture in China by several Chinese educational organizations, was one of the more forceful exponents of Western learning ever to visit that country. His social and political philosophy, as asserted to the Chinese, indicated that the warlord government in Peking could not be changed by “political” means and that lasting change could come about only by gradual reform of Chinese institutions . More specifically, Dewey insisted that the experimental method [2] of science should be applied to social and political problems . That method, which required that theories be regarded only as hypotheses and insisted upon studied caution seemed, to Dewey, to offer the only viable solution to the crisis which confronted the Chinese.

Dewey’s views were well presented in China, mainly as a result of the efforts of his Chinese disciple, Hu Shih. Hu had studied under Dewey at Columbia University and, during his stay in America, had developed an almost complete attachment to the values of the modern West. In the two years prior to Dewey’s visit, Hu Shih (who had returned to China in 1917) became a leading advocate of Dewey’s philosophy and helped arrange for the visit of his former teacher. Even after Dewey returned to America, Hu tirelessly continued to expound his teacher’s viewpoint.

The philosophy advocated by Dewey and Hu was initially popular in China. In the immediate context of events in 1919 — in which students could force the government to reject the Versailles treaty, but failed in other efforts to reform the political structure itself — there were few other alternatives . Significantly, even Chen Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao, editors (with Hu Shih) of the influential New Youth magazine, [3] and eventual co-founders of the Chinese Communist party, endorsed Dewey’s program for their country. However, Dewey’s influence began to wane even before the American philosopher left China in 1921 and, as a result, Hu Shih was increasingly isolated as he continued to expound Experimentalism . In particular, Hu could do little as his colleagues on New Youth, as well as increasingly large numbers of Chinese students, became infatuated with quick “fundamental solutions” — solutions which were appealing because they assured that China’s “equivalence” with the West could be achieved “en bloc,” in a relatively short time.

The triumphant “fundamental solution” in China was, of course, Marxism — and the initial success of that doctrine was secured, at its earliest stages in the founding of the Chinese Communist party by Ch en Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao in 1920 . For them, and for many other Chinese as well, the inherent gradualism in Dewey’s logical theory simply was not compatible with their intensely nationalistic aspirations. [4] They could not, and did not, adhere for long to a program of “step by step” reform to modernize their nation.



John Dewey arrived in China just prior to the student demonstrations on May 4, 1919. Fascinated by the transformation going on about him, he remained in the country for two years and sought by his lectures to exert some influence over the course of events. After carefully observing the particular problems of China, Dewey advised his audiences that scientific methodology should be applied to social and political problems and, since that methodology functioned best in an open society, that a new educational system should be designed to prepare the population for democracy. Above all else, however, Dewey insisted that the reforms which he advocated for China were to come gradually, by cautious and dispassionate analysis and action.

Dewey’s Lectures in China

In 1919, John and Alice Dewey traveled to Japan for a three month
vacation. While in that country, Dewey received a joint invitation from four Chinese educational organizations to lecture in Peking and other Chinese cities. He obtained a leave of absence from Columbia University, accepted the invitation and arrived in China on May 1, 1919. [1]

Dewey began a lecture tour in Shanghai two days after he arrived in China. Later, in June, he traveled to Peking to assume an eight month appointment (September to April, 1919–1920) as a visiting professor at Peking University. Finally, during the Spring and Summer of 1920, he taught at Nanking Teacher’s College and, during 1920–21, at the graduate school of Peking Teacher’s College . Dewey also traveled to other parts of the country and undertook several lecture tours, particularly in the Central and Southern Provinces [2]

The majority of Dewey’s lectures outside Peking were directly related to educational philosophy. In the capital, however, he delivered what came to be known as his “five major series of lectures .” They were:

I. three lectures on modern tendencies in education

II. sixteen lectures on social and political philosophy

III. sixteen lectures on philosophy of education

IV. fifteen lectures on ethics

V. eight lectures on types of thinking [3]

Dewey typed brief notes for each lecture (in Peking and elsewhere) and gave a copy to his interpreter beforehand . Also, the notes were given to selected recorders so they could check their reports prior to publication. For the Peking lectures, Hu Shih served as interpreter and adviser to his former teacher. His advice was particularly valuable and Dewey relied on him “as a tutor on Chinese history and current affairs.”[4/5] Dewey’s lectures received wide publicity and were frequently re-printed in Chinese newspapers .[6] Also, his Peking lectures were printed in book form and, by 1923, had gone through fourteen editions of 10,000 copies each. [7] Altogether, as one commentator noted at the time, “it may be guessed that by means of the spoken and written . . . words Professor Dewey has said his say to several hundred thousand Chinese.”[8]

The Application of the Experimental Method to Social and Political Philosophy

Throughout his lectures Dewey clearly recognized that Japanese imperialism posed the most immediate threat to China, [9] but he was especially concerned by the general social and political conditions which weakened the country and facilitated foreign aggression. In particular, latent traditionalism and the waste of human potential were abhorrent to Dewey and he was critical of memorization in the schools, [10] social abuses such as the extended family system [11] and the general apathy which seemed to prevai1 .[12] Similarly, he was appalled by the inefficiency and corruption of the warlord government and by the shortsightedness of local officials . [13]
Dewey’s observations convinced him that “the task of reorganization” in China was “appalling in its complexity.” [14] He was sure that political reform alone could not solve the problem [15] because, apparently, a change in government would only replace one group of tradition-bound autocrats for another. Instead, China seemed to need thorough reform “from the bottom up” — and Dewey thought he offered a methodology well suited for that task.Dewey summed up his methodology in one sentence . “It is the method of induction” he said ; “it starts with observed facts and continues into controlled experimentation .” [16] In more detail, he wrote elsewhere that the method contained five basic stages . First, an individual senses an incongruity “due to the fact that one is implicated in an incomplete situation whose full character is not yet determined.” Second, an attempt is made to develop a tentative interpretation which will clearly define the problem and suggest a possible solution. Third, “a careful survey of all attainable considerations which will define and clarify the problem at hand” is conducted and, fourth, a more precise hypothesis is formulated . Finally, of course, the hypothesis is actually tested and is judged by the result . [17]

Dewey informed his listeners that the experimental method of science, when applied to man’s environment, had produced significant results. It had enabled the West in particular “to challenge the natural world and harness the forces of nature to serve man’s ends.”[18] Moreover, in response to those who endorsed “Eastern ethics” and decried the “materialism” of Western science, Dewey insisted that the conquest of the environment assured that men “have mastered and risen above the level of the material and achieved a life which nourishes the spirit.” [19] Specifically, renewed hope and confidence had been introduced into life, a new “honesty” had entered human affairs (based on an “objective” pursuit of truth) and cruel and useless traditions had been discarded . 20 Finally, science itself had become “ethical” or humanistic as its methodology fostered the material changes which facilitated the “all around growth” of each individual.

After asserting that scientific thinking was the most effective logical system, Dewey insisted that “social philosophy must incorporate scientific method .”21 First, the experimental method was necessary to a viable social philosophy because its inherent gradualism (its “distinguishing characteristic” of a “systematic organization of step by step procedures,”22 its emphasis on immediate problems and its concept of “hypothesis” formed the basis of what he called a “third philosophy” (as opposed to “extreme radicalism” or “extreme conservatism .”) This philosophy could facilitate growth without producing disorders which might engulf the world.

“Unlike other philosophies which either attacked or defended existing institutions in toto, the third philosophy which we are discussing acknowledges that it is better to work for progress in particular situations rather than to try to defend or attack existing institutions . But such progress is not automatic, nor is it progress en bloc ; it is cumulative, a step forward here, a bit of improvement there . It takes place day by day, and results from the ways in which individual persons deal with particular situations ; it is a step by step progress which comes by human effort to repair here, to modify there, to make a minor replacement yonder. Progress is a retail business, not wholesale. It is made piecemeal, not all at once. Nowadays there are men who propose grandiose schemes by means of which they would reconstruct the world once and for all . But I, for one, simply do not believe that the world can be reconstructed totally and on a once-for-all basis; it can only be reconstructed gradually and by individual effort . 24

In a more specific sense, Dewey felt that if “critical intelligence is called into play, and when scientific methods of investigating actual situations are substituted for sweeping generalizations . . . 25 men “should be able to see that society is composed of many groups of people, not merely individuals in the aggregate .”26 Such a view would permit reasoned change in society by assuring that social reformers would be regarded as representatives of societal groups, not as isolated “troublemakers .” In turn, “leaders of reform movements” would be able to adopt:

an attitude of inquiry in which they can dispassionately determine which needs of their society are not being reasonably met, which elements in society are not being afforded the opportunity to develop themselves and so to contribute to the enrichment of the total society, what sorts of abilities are being wasted or inadequately utilized . When leaders of reform movements can thus thoughtfully diagnose the ills and deficiencies of their society, reform becomes a matter of advocating methods for correcting ills and satisfying deficiencies, and not of revolution which undertakes to scrap the whole structure of existing institutional arrangements . Instead of regarding society as their enemy because it has insisted that they are its enemies, leaders of reform movements operating in this theoretical context can see themselves as helpful participants in an ongoing process of social reconstruction . 27

Finally, in a similar sense, a “scientific” social and political philosophy would assure that “growth” would not destroy old traditions which were still effective in solving problems . “In one sense,” Dewey noted, “the experimental method is progressive, while in another it is conservative in that it seeks to conserve all aspects of traditional culture which have been or can be proved to be true . . . the experimental method eliminates only those parts of the traditional culture which are proved worthless by experiment . . .”28 Basically, as Dewey noted elsewhere:

“In its large sense, this remaking of the old through reunion with the new is precisely what intelligence is . . . every problem that arises, personal or collective, simple or complex, is solved only by selecting material from the store of knowledge amassed in past experience and by bringing into play habits already formed . . . the office of intelligence in every problem that either a person or a community meets is to effect a working connection between old habits . . . and new conditions .”29

Clearly, Dewey informed the Chinese that if the methodology which had enabled man to conquer nature were applied to social and political problems, the prospects for human progress would be immeasurably enhanced . Hasty and ineffective generalizations would be discarded, he argued,and the freedom necessary to arrive at effective solutions to specific problems would be assured . Most importantly, growth would be facilitated in a manner neither wasteful nor needlessly destructive.

One essential ingredient in the Experimentalist social and political philosophy which Dewey advocated in China was the need for a free and socially mobile society, or what Dewey termed “Democracy .” Authoritarian governments based on “eternal truths” inhibit free access to information, the formation of hypotheses and experimentation — all means by which society can be changed effectively . For example, before the scientific revolution could be successful it:

had to be fought for; many suffered for their intellectual independence . But, on the whole, modern European society first permitted, and then, in some fields at least, deliberately encouraged the individual reactions which deviate from what custom prescribes . 30

Dewey insisted that “the society which we desire is one in which there is a maximum opportunity for free exchange and communication . This is the ultimate criterion by which we judge the worth of any sort of institutional arrangement .”31 Accordingly, he praised the development of democratic institutions — the press and public forums, for example — which enhanced the free flow of information.

Above all, Dewey admired the democratic ideology which “counted individual differences variations precious” precisely because the sharing of those variations provided society a “means of its own growth .” 32

However; the ideal of “democracy” was essential to an Experimentalist social and political philosophy not only because it established a formal “freedom,” but because it created (in theory) the social conditions which facilitated communication . Dewey insisted that men are interdependent with their social surroundings . If, therefore, people were restricted to a particular social group they would be denied the freedom of association and communication so essential for individual development and the development of society as a whole. For example, educational “caste systems” are abhorrent since:

when people who have had the advantage of schooling depreciate workers and farmers, deride them as “yokels” because they are illiterate, or make fun of them because their accents or dialects are different, the latter may tacitly concur in the inferiority so attributed to them, and shy away from any effort to communicate with or associate with ‘their betters .’33

Fortunately, however, one means by which an ideal democracy can stimulate full communication is by the assurance, in part through the elective process, of direct social contact:

Democracy requires communication between the ignorant and the intelligent, so that those who are better endowed can better gauge the needs of the total society . . . those who exercise leadership need constant contact with the common people so that they may know the strengths and weaknesses of the social situation . Without such contact, their decisions may be purely academic, and their proposed policies may be so highly theoretical that they bear little relationship to the actual needs of society. Democracy thus educates the less capable along with the intellectuals ; it not only makes the ignorant more intelligent ; it also makes the intelligent become more intelligent. 34

Essentially, Dewey saw democracy as necessary to, and dependent upon, a social philosophy grounded in Experimentalist methodology. This “scientific” and “democratic” philosophy was justified to the Chinese by the result it could produce ; it was obviously “the most stable foundation on which a nation can be built.”35 However, democratic nations simply do not appear on their own accord . The methodology on which they are based must be appropriated by the entire population . Accordingly, the social and political philosophy which Dewey explained to the Chinese could not be complete without a philosophy of education.

Experimental Method and Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

The philosophy of education which Dewey presented to the Chinese was directly related to his social and political philosophy and his confidence in the Experimental method . He insisted in his lectures that “education must produce people who have the skills and dispositions that will enable them to live effectively in a democratic nation.*36 In order to achieve that goal, education must stimulate “scientific” thinking by structuring a learning situation which would enable the student to solve “problems” of relevance to him . The solutions to such problems should, of necessity, involve action and assure human growth and development . Finally, education must advance the “communication” vital to a democracy by helping the student to cultivate the “power to join freely and fully in shared or common activities .”37

Dewey noted with approval Horace Mann’s statement that “men are not born able to participate in politics ; they must be made able to do so .” 38 The quality which every citizen in a democracy most needed to be “made” to acquire was the critical habit of thought fostered by scientific methodology. Educational processes should “center in the production of good habits of thinking” 39 Dewey wrote, and good habits of thinking, of course, resulted from the scientific outlook . 40 According to Dewey, the most direct means to stimulate effective thinking was to create a situation in which the student, guided by the teacher, grappled with a specific problem of relevance to him. This was the “natural” means by which men learn to reconstruct their environment and, accordingly, “only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does [the student” think .”41 In one specific example, the teaching of history, Dewey made his “problem solving” approach explicit:

If someone were to ask me how I would go about arranging the history curriculum of the high school and upper elementary grades, I would suggest that before starting with history as such it would be a good idea to identify the important problems of present day society — problems in politics, social problems, economic problems, problems in diplomacy and others . Then explore each of these problems in its historical setting ; try to determine the origin of the problem; examine past efforts to deal with the problem ; find out what sort of situation caused it to become a problem . . . This approach is more flexible than the traditional one ; it makes more sense ; and it certainly contributes more to the solution of present problems. . When students concentrate on the study of an identifiable problem they will acquire a great deal of knowledge which applies to the problem, and in doing so will develop the ability to think critically and to judge independently. [42]

Whenever possible, since the student was not to be considered a “passive receiver,” Dewey called for dynamic participation in the educational process . “All thought and knowledge must be tested in the laboratory of experience” 43 he wrote, and students should be directly involved in the daily activities of the larger social group .”44 For example, students everywhere could conduct community surveys or investigate and publicize the abuses of local industry . 45

[start again p. 14]



[1] Chow Tse-tung, The May Fourth Movement, Boston, 1960, p . 73 .

[2] Throughout this thesis, the term “Experimentalism” will stand as “the primary designation of Dewey’s whole philosophy .” (Joseph Ratner,Intelligence in the Modern World, New York, 1939, p . 58 ). Specifically, references to Experimentalism will most often be to the social and political philosophy which Dewey associated with it. That philosophy requires action to solve particular problems in society, rejects “grandiose theories” and emphasizes gradual “step by step” reform.

[3] Dr. Huang Sung-k’ang notes that “this magazine was the most important progressive force and the only source of inspiration in the era of the Chinese cultural enlightenment up to the eve of the May Fourth movement in 1919 and, even than, it continued to act as an influential ideological medium . . . ,Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China, Amsterdam, 1957, p. 8 . (Hereafter cited as “Huang sung-k’ang”).

[4] In his chapter “Toward a Definition of Nationalism” in Nationalism Myth and Reality, New York, 1955, Boyd Shafter lists five definitions of nationalism. Among them are: “the love of a common soil, race, language or culture” and “a desire for the political independence, security and prestige of the nation.” Although Shafter argues that each definition is, of itself, “too narrow” he admits that “none of these definitions is wrong.” (p .6) In the particular case of modern Chinese nationalism (which Shafter says is unique, p . 4) and in the context of this thesis, the term nationalism or nationalist is used to mean “the love of a common soil or race, as well as intense desire for the political independence, security and prestige of the nation .”

Nationalism used in this sense does not necessitate an admiration for any particular government. Moreover, it is important to note, and it is commonly understood, that a nationalist can attack the traditional culture of his country for nationalistic reasons. (This had been demonstrated by Joseph R. Levenson in his Liang Ch’i-Ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China (Berkeley, 1967). Further discussion of this question can be found in the section relating to Ch’en Tu-hsiu.

Chapter one

[1] Hu Shih, “John Dewey in China,” Charles A . Moore, editor, Philosophy and Culture East and West, Honolulu, 1962, p . 762–763 .

[2] Keenan, Barry, John Dewey in China, His Visit and the Reception of his Ideas 1917–1927. (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation), Claremont Graduate School, 1969.

[3] Hu Shih, “John Dewey in China,” pp . 764–765 . (Groups I, II and III, as well as Dewey’s lectures on “The Development of Democracy in America” have been made available to me by Mr. Barry Keenan. See acknowledgements).

[4] Keenan, pp. 216–217.

[5] In the July, 1921 issue of Asia magazine Dewey referred to “A Chinese Friend, to whom I owe so much that he would be justified in arresting me for intellectual theft . . .” (John Dewey, “New Culture in China,” Asia, Vol. 21, No. 7, July 1921, p. 581). There can be little doubt that this “friend” was Hu Shih (as Keenan so notes on page 217).

[6] Keenan, p. 88.

[7] lbid., p. 72.

[8] Remer, C F ., “John Dewey in China”, Millard’s Review, XIII, No . 5, July 3, 1920, p. 267. Cited in Keenan, p. 88.

[9] Dewey, John, “Shangtung as seen from Within,” New Republic, Vol . 22, March 3, 1920, p. 14.

[10] Dewey, John, “The Relationship between the Organization and Admin- istration of Schools and Society.” Robert W. Clopton, Tsuin-Chen Ou and Chung-wing Lu, translators, Lectures by John Dewey in China (Center for Cultural and Technical Interchange Between East and West, University of Hawaii) . Unpublished draft, p . 254 (see acknowledgements) . Here- after cited as “draft” with designation “philosophy of education” or “social and political philosophy”.

[11] Dewey, “Social Conflict”, Social and Political Philosophy, Draft. p . 53.

[12] Dewey, “Transforming the Mind of China,” Asia, Vol. 19, November, 1919, p. 1104.

[13] Dewey, Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World. New York, 1929, p . 244.

[14] Dewey, “Young China and Old”, Asia, May, 1921, reprinted in Characters and Events, New York, 1929, p. 259.

[15] Dewey, “New Culture in China”, Asia, July, 1921, reprinted in Characters and Events, p. 272.

[16] Dewey, “The Development of Modern Science,” Philosophy of Education, Draft. p. 64.

[17] Dewey, Democracy and Education . New York, 1961, p. 150. (Keenen noted that Dewey’s course at Peking Teacher’s College “was based on Democracy and Education which Dewey used as a text.” p. 98).

[18] Dewey, “Trends in Modern Education,” Philosophy of Education. Draft, p. 34.

[19] Dewey, “The Authority of Science,” Social and Political Philosophy. Draft. p. 9. (my emphasis)[more content being uploaded]

[20] Dewey, “Science and the Moral Life,” Philosophy of Education. Draft. p. 2.

[21] Dewey, “Science and Social Philosophy,” Social and Political Philosophy. Draft . p. 34.

[22] Dewey, “Science and Knowing,” Philosophy of Education. Draft. p . 86.

[23] Dewey also makes this clear in How We Think: “Thoughtful persons are heedful never rash; they look about, are circumspect instead of going ahead blindly. They weigh, ponder, deliberate . . .(p .76)

[24] Dewey, “Science and Social Philosophy,” Draft . pp. 38–9.

[25] Dewey, “Social Reform,” Social and Political Philosophy. Draft. p . 74.

[26] lbid. p . 59.

[27] 1bid ., p . 73.

[28] Dewey, “Science and Knowing,” Draft . p. 89.

[29] Dewey in Ratner, p . 452.

[30 ]Dewey, Democracy and Education, p . 296.

[31] Dewey, “Communication and Associated Living,” Social and Political Philosophy . Draft . p . 93 .

[32] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p . 305.

[33] Dewey, “Communication and Associated Living,” Draft. p. 92 .

[34] Dewey, “The Development of Democracy in America .” (A series of three lectures delivered in Peking in 1919) Draft. p . 238.

[35] Dewey, “Communication and Associated Living,” Draft . p . 92.

[36] Dewey, “Trends in Modern Education,” Philosophy of Education. Draft . p . 26 .

[37]Dewey,,Democracy and Education, p . 123.

[38] Horace Mann cited by John Dewey (no reference) in “Development of Democracy in America,” Draft . p . 237.

[39] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p . 163. Dewey, “The Relation Between School Subjects and Society,” Philosophy of Education . Draft . p . 246 .

[40] Dewey, “The Relation Between School Subjects and Society,” Philosophy of Education . Draft . p . 246 .

[41] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p . 160.

[42] Dewey, “Geography and History,” Philosophy of Education . Draft. pp . 119–120.

[43] Dewey, “Vocational Education,” Philosophy of Education. Draft . p . 126.

[44] Dewey, “The Relationship Between Democracy and Education,” Draft. p . 178.

[45] bid

Specializes in higher education and mental health law. Past: University of Maryland Honors College Faculty. Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.

Specializes in higher education and mental health law. Past: University of Maryland Honors College Faculty. Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.