When I’m in China, conversations with friends and colleagues often begin with their asking about the name of my university: Why is it called “The New School?” Most are not familiar with the university, but when I mention the name of John Dewey and the intellectual spirit associated with the university’s founding in 1919, there’s an immediate connection. Dewey traveled and lectured in China beginning in 1919, just as The New School was being established, and just as Chinese intellectuals were engaging in unprecedented forms of public engagement and education.

For Chinese intellectuals and students today, 1919 invokes the stirrings of the “New Culture Movement” and the foundations of the Chinese revolution more broadly. The New Culture Movement is closely associated with what became known as the “May Fourth Movement,” so named for the student protests in Beijing on that day in 1919 to reject the humiliating outcome of the Paris Peace Conference. The protest was over the terms that allowed Japan to retain territorial concessions that had been negotiated before the war by a discredited president of the fledgling Republic of China. (The Qing dynasty had fallen in 1911-12.) But the May Fourth Movement was less about geopolitics and much more about the vibrant intellectual pursuit and experimentation with new ideas–anarchism, Marxism, socialism, and much else.

John Dewey arrived in just a few days after May 4, 1919, and would spend the next two years teaching and lecturing at Chinese universities. Dewey had been invited by his former student at Columbia, Hu Shih, by then a prominent leader in the New Culture Movement. Hu, like others in the movement, advocated the wholesale rejection of Confucian culture and practice–first and foremost the educational precepts that stressed the close engagement with Confucian and other classical texts. In its place, Hu and those who would become the presidents and chancellors of China’s leading universities adopted many of Dewey’s ideas about education and its roles in constituting citizenship, democratic practice, among much else.

Several scholars have examined closely Dewey’s China lectures and his writings from China there in 1919-1921. What impressed Dewey perhaps most was the self-organization and mobilization under way in Chinese society at the time. As he wrote (pp. 97-8) in one of several essays during his time in China,

American children are taught the list of ‘modern’ inventions that originated in China. They are not taught, however, that China invented the boycott, the general strike and guild organization as means of controlling public affairs.

Mao Zedong official Portrait, 1923. © Zhang Zhenshi | Wikimedia Commons
Mao Zedong official Portrait, 1923. © Zhang Zhenshi | Wikimedia Commons

Dewey’s lectures were generally well received, in part because so many of the competing intellectual and ideological camps in China at the time could read his texts as supportive of their positions. But Dewey’s call for gradual reform over radical social change was seen as insufficient in the eyes of many among his audiences. Indeed, Dewey rightly predicted that Bertrand Russell’s arrival in China in the fall of 1920, to deliver lectures on Bolshevism, would far eclipse Dewey’s in their popularity. Mao Zedong never attended Dewey’s lectures, but would have been quite familiar with Dewey’s ideas from the intellectual circles in which he traveled the early 1920s. Many years later, Mao would proclaim that “Practice is the sole criterion of truth”– a quotation that “Maoists” in the 1960s would repress (along with Dewey’s ideas). Deng Xiaoping strategically revived Mao’s slogan in 1978, and it became one of the mantras of his developmentalist reform program that followed. Dewey’s works are widely read on Chinese campuses today.