NB. This article is a preview sample. Please do not quote or reference it in official publications.

John Dewey (1859–1952), a US philosopher and educator, lectured in China from 1919 to 1921 about democracy, his philosophy of pragmatism, and educational reform. His idea of associated living, based on the freedom of social groups to communicate and interact to further their common interest, was of particular relevance to China during these years. Dewey’s former student, Hu Shi, became a leading figure in Chinese education reform, and several experimental schools furthered Dewey’s methods.

The progressive and experimental ideas of the great US educator and philosopher, John Dewey (1859–1952), have had a tremendous influence on the field of education and social reform. His philosophies of pragmatism and democracy greatly affected Chinese thought and education in the 1920s. At the invitation of Hu Shi 胡适, Kuo Ping-Wen (Guo Bingwen 郭秉文), and Chiang Monlin (Jiang Menglin 蒋梦麟), three students Dewey taught at Columbia University in New York, each of whom became leaders in the field of Chinese higher education, Dewey visited and lectured in China from 1919 to 1921. During this sojourn John Dewey gave more than a hundred lectures on the topics of social philosophy and political philosophy, philosophy of education, ethics, experimental logic, trends in contemporary education, the history of philosophy, and types of thinking, and he lectured as well about his impression of China and Chinese culture. It is said that Dewey’s impact on Chinese education is more profound and far-reaching than any other Western philosopher’s. Hu Shi has asserted that Dewey was the single- most influential foreign scholar on Chinese thought.

In the United States, the school of pragmatism is usually associated with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. The nature of Dewey’s pragmatism is instrumental in understanding education reform in China in the 1920s. For Dewey, pragmatism is a method that enables philosophy to become more effective and practical, and it is deeply grounded in experiences that are modified according to environment. Throughout his lectures and speeches in China about pragmatism, Dewey also advanced democracy centering on the notion of associated living—in which social groups freely communicate and interact with each other so as to reach the greater mutual interest. Chinese intellectuals eager for democracy and guidance to save China from internal turmoil and foreign domination were receptive to Dewey’s philosophy; following Dewey’s lead, some of his Chinese students advocated his democratic thought and pragmatism to university, college, middle and elementary school students and teachers, and other intellectuals. Quite a few experimental schools were set up to promote Dewey’s educational philosophies.

On Educational Philosophy

In his lectures and speeches on education, Dewey underlined the need for a philosophy of education, in which he reexamined the idea of progressive education and education as growth. He identified several problems to be addressed when developing a philosophy of education:

  • How can the great mass of the people be provided the opportunities to gain access to education, making education a widespread possibility?
  • How do we balance literary and intellectual education with the practical education necessary for everyday human activities?
  • How can we preserve the best of our traditional cultural heritage and at the same time adjust to new changes in the environment and society?

Expanding upon these questions in his lectures, Dewey covered issues of subject matter to be studied, play and work in education, cultural heritage and social reconstruction, associated living, elementary and secondary education, vocational education, moral education, and science and education. In all these lectures, concepts of democracy and pragmatism prevail through his thought and argument. For Dewey, democracy must begin on the local level through communication fostered by associated living, and then it must be adjusted to meet new situations arising from the interchange. Only if people obtain critical and reflective intelligence can they participate and practice associated living. This factor, pertinent to the problem of mass education as outlined in the list above, reflects the democratic ideal for education of the general public, the civilians, which Dewey’s Chinese students endeavored to carry out in the early 1920s.

Dewey also gave multiple lectures on science as well as the relationship between science and education, since many Chinese intellectuals were optimistic that science would save China. The significance of science is not the accumulation of scientific knowledge, Dewey pointed out; rather, the significance of science is its method, the ways in which scientific knowledge is obtained, not the consequences of possessing it. That is to say, knowledge is important, but so is the independent ability to observe, to research, to inquire, and to invent it in a different context. The scientific method is one of experimentation, applying human action to connect the mind and the facts of nature. Dewey’s scientific method is pragmatic in nature, asserting that there is no true knowledge without doing. The child must be provided experimental experiences. The experimental experiences of daily lives in pursuit of science demonstrate Dewey’s advocacy of balancing the literary education and the education of everyday human activities, which many people might describe by saying “education is life.”

Given that China in the first quarter of twentieth century was in a critical and unstable state—in transition from the imperial Qing dynasty that ended in 1911/12 to the subsequent warlord control, unsuccessful Republican government, and the desire for liberal democratic government—democracy and science as two key ideas from Western culture were very appealing to Chinese intellectuals. Dewey believed that school is where the concepts and approaches of democracy and science should begin and grow. To address such concerns, Dewey reiterated that the aim of education in a democratic country is to create good citizens for the society. If the Chinese want to learn from the West, the learning environment of Chinese children must be broadened, and such an expanding process must not be done at the price of removing children from their cultural heritage. Rather, it is a cultural exchange: the old and new co-exist and co-develop to meet the new situation and environment in which Chinese select the appropriate Western culture to adapt to Chinese conditions. The responsibility of the school is to educate creative contributors to the reconstruction of society and culture.

On Social and Political Philosophy

In China, Dewey gave sixteen lectures on social and political philosophy at the request of Hu Shi. In his introductory notes, Hu Shi explained the significance of these sixteen lectures, for both China and the United States, as the single most important, coherent statement of a social and political philosophy based in pragmatism. The topics in this series range from function of theory, social conflict, social reform, systems of thought, communication and associated living, classical individualism and free enterprise, socialism, government, individual rights, nationalism and internationalism, the authority of science, and intellectual freedom. In these lectures, Dewey encouraged Chinese people to examine and inquire, and to think and ask what, how, and why when examining social phenomena. He explained to the Chinese that theory grows from social institutions, and that thinking occurs when people encounter problems and difficulties. One of the most-asked questions from the Chinese to Dewey involved knowing where to start to reform China under the then-current situation. Hu Shi was particularly affected by an idea about progress that Dewey had formulated in light of World War I: “Progress is not automatic; it depends upon human intent and aim and upon acceptance of responsibility for its production. It is not a wholesale matter but a retail job, to be contracted for and executed in sections” (Wang 2007, 37). Dewey’s pragmatism for social change and reform followed Jane Addams’ nonviolence and nonantagonism approach, and championed the concept of improving lives under an existing government or institution, rather than bringing it down by force. He gave the examples of the dynasty transitions in Chinese history, achieved by violent disorder, which he presented as evidence of an inefficacy of force that won’t accomplish long-lasting stability. Instead, Dewey preferred communication, associated living, and consensus to violent force; the former is the basis of a democratic society.

Under the associated living model, every person who uses his or her intelligence to guide actions becomes their own agent to advance individual intellectual freedom, and each individual would have the “opportunities for individual development, opportunities for free communication of feeling, knowing, and thinking” (Dewey 1973, 98). Dewey’s hope for Chinese to develop their critical intelligence was earnest, sincere, and optimistic. Again, his theories of social and political philosophy were closely tied to education, democratic education in particular, which believes that most people have the ability to be educated, are capable of learning, and should be able to express freely their ideas and thoughts.

Advancing Pragmatism in China

From college professors, teachers, students, social leaders, and governmental officials to the general public, Chinese people warmly welcomed Dewey’s visit, his philosophies, and the pragmatism method he advocated. Upon Dewey’s arrival at China, the Columbia graduates Hu Shi, Chiang Monlin, Kuo Ping-Wen, Chen Heqin 陈鹤琴, and Tao Xingzhi 陶行知, had already introduced his philosophies about pragmatism in local newspapers and periodicals and at conferences. At that time, Chinese intellectuals, under the leadership of Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 and Hu Shi, had started the New Culture Movement 新文化运动. From the perspective of critiquing and rethinking Chinese traditional culture and literature, Chen and Hu initiated the movement in different ways: Chen founded New Youth 新青年, a magazine in which Chen wrote articles to advance Western democracy and scientific development; Hu Shi focused his efforts to publicize and popularize the use of vernacular language (báihuà 白话) in higher education, for he believed that written language must be as simple as the oral language if the majority of populace were to have access to education. Hu Shi also wrote articles to introduce pragmatism to prepare for Dewey’s visit. Over the years, more and more people gained access to literacy and education, and had accepted different or even foreign ideas and methods. When Dewey arrived, there was a certain atmosphere of eagerness and readiness for foreign philosophers to deliver democratic ideas and scientific methodology. For certain reasons, Dewey’s most significant influence lies in the field of education, but not in the social or political area.

Dewey gave lectures to college students and faculty at National Peking University 北京大学, the Peking National Academy of Fine Arts 国立北平艺术专科学校, Jiangsu Educational Association 江苏省教育学会, and Nanjing Teachers College 南京高等师范学校. He even taught in several colleges, traveling and lecturing across eleven provinces along the east coast and within central China. His speeches had been published in school and local newspapers, government bulletins, magazines, and brochures—individually or in a collection. Perhaps the most extensive and powerful influence of Dewey’s pragmatism and educational philosophy lies in the reforms and new practices that Chinese adopted after his inspiring lectures:

  • Changing the aim of education—several educational conferences set up the development of democratic spirit as the new aim and principle of education.
  • School system reform—inspired by the US education model, the Chinese school system was reformed to follow a 6-3-3, 12-year pattern. Directed by Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培, the chancellor of Peking University, as well as Chiang Monlin, and Hu Shi, education was oriented toward cultivating personality and individuality, universal and civilian education, and promoting the idea of “education for life.”
  • Child-centered education—although this concept was arguable because some thought that Dewey’s focus on childhood interests and play would outweigh Chinese traditions of discipline and hard work (and, on the other hand, others deemed this a simplistic understanding of Dewey’s educational philosophy), many Chinese considered it an important principle in the practice of Dewey’s pragmatic education. Even Hu Shi had discussed this notion in his own writing.
  • Translations of Dewey’s works—Dewey’s books such as Democracy and Education, Experience and Education, The Child and The Curriculum, The School and Society, The Sources of a Science of Education, Freedom and Culture, Education Today, Reconstruction in Philosophy, My Pedagogic Creed, Schools of Tomorrow, and How We Think, among others, have been published in Chinese.
  • Change of teaching method—the pragmatism method was adopted. Even one of Dewey’s great disciples, William Kilpatrick, was invited to lecture on the teaching method in China.
  • Student self-governance as a mode of school discipline—Dewey gave several lectures on student self-governance as a way to increase individual responsibility. Both the May Fourth Movement 五四运动—a student movement protesting, among other things, the corrupted warlord regime’s weak response to foreign manipulation and domination that had culminated in 1919, the year Dewey arrived—and the development of intellectual social groups, which were heavily influenced by Dewey’s speeches, have stimulated the initiation and establishment of student self-governance in colleges and universities. Even the Federation of Educational Association has supported the practice of such discipline.
  • Experimental schools—the experimental schools that adopted Dewey’s pragmatism method are the great examples of Dewey’s extensive and profound influence in Chinese education.

Two modes of experimental schools are worth of mentioning here. First is Tao Xingzhi’s Xiaozhuang Teachers School 晓庄师范学校. Tao Xingzhi was also one of Dewey’s Chinese students at Columbia. Tao Xingzhi thought highly of Dewey’s pragmatism method in education, but Tao pushed Dewey’s “education is life” principle even further. He claimed “the society is school,” and that people needed to learn from their communities and societies, such as villages, factories, tea houses, street, or theaters. Tao emphasized not only learning by doing, but also the integration of teaching, learning, and doing. Tao Xingzhi later founded Xiaozhuang Teachers College in the countryside of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, to carry out his beliefs in pragmatism. Xiaozhuang was more than a school for Tao, it was a larger society in which students can learn life related skills and knowledge as well as examine and evaluate their effectiveness. For Tao, it is a “living education” or life-centered education. In addition, Xiaozhuang was a great example of civilian education, and Tao had extended Dewey’s impact from colleges to rural schools. Many students of this school were peasants, the most disadvantaged people in China. Tao’s Xiaozhuang Teachers College indeed realized civilian education that Dewey advised.

Chen Heqin and his kindergarten model is the second mode of experimental education. Chen Heqin is another Dewey disciple who spread Dewey’s pragmatism in pedagogy by starting experimental kindergartens. Chen Heqin worked with Nanjing kindergarten teachers and advanced the idea of “education is life,” as well as what he called “live education.” “Live education” expounds the idea that we need to provide children the appropriate environment for them to grow naturally; children must learn, obtain knowledge and skill, or grow through the direct experiences and from doing.

Influence and Implications

Dewey’s influence has declined since late 1920s for various reasons. When the Chinese Communist Party took control, Dewey’s philosophies were excoriated because of his disagreement with Communist doctrine. Since China opened her door to the world again in 1978 after nearly thirty years of isolation following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, more and more Chinese scholars have discussed, analyzed, and reevaluated John Dewey and his China visit. In the twenty-first century it is not difficult to find articles about Dewey or access to publications by Dewey on Chinese websites, although they focus primarily on his educational philosophies. Within the field of education, most are familiar with the idea of “learning by doing,” “education is life,” child-centered,” and “school is society,” which almost became a cliché (Clopton and Ou 1973).

John Dewey was a prolific author, and he wrote extensively, encompassing social, philosophical, cultural, political, aesthetic, and educational aspects. When studying John Dewey and his influence in China, it is important to remember him not only as a great educator, but also a great philosopher. He teaches us to discuss, examine, and express our thoughts on all kinds of societal phenomena through the lenses of philosophy, to keep a spirit of inquiry, and to develop our critical and reflective intelligence. Education is the means to achieve a democratic society based upon “associated living,” as Dewey clearly expounded. If “education is life,” as many intellectuals still claim it, then to review education we need to acknowledge that it is interconnected with other social or political issues, because “every facet of associated living has a potentially educative influence” (Dewey 1973, 173).

Further Reading

Berry, Thomas. (1960). Dewey’s influence in China. In John Blewett (Ed.), John Dewey: His thought and influence (pp. 199–232). New York: Fordham University Press.

Chen Heqin. (2003). Retrieved March 19, 2012, from

Dewey, John. (1944). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press. (Originally published 1916)

Dewey, John. (1920). Letters from China and Japan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.

Dewey, John. (1929). Characters and events. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Dewey, John. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Capricorn Books.

Dewey, John. (1973). Lectures in China, 1919–1920. (Translated from the Chinese and edited by Robert W. Clopton and Tsuin-chen Ou). Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Du Zuyi. (2003). Du Wei lun jiaoyu minzhu zhuyi [Dewey on education and democracy] Beijing: People’s Education Press.

Hall, David, & Ames, Roger. (1999). The Democracy of the dead. Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court.

Hoyt, Mei Wu. (2006). John Dewey’s legacy to China and the problems in Chinese society. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry, 3(1), 12–25.

Hu Shi. (1962). John Dewey in China. In Charles A. Moore (Ed.), Philosophy and culture—East and West. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Menand, Louis. (2001). The metaphysical club: A story of ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Shan Zhonghui. (2001). Xiandai jiaoyu de tansuo: Duwei yu shiyong zhuyi jiaoyu sixiang [The exploration of modern education: Dewey and educational thoughts of pragmatism] Beijing: People’s Education Press.

Wang, Jessica Ching-Sze. (2007). John Dewey in China: To teach and to learn. Albany: SUNY Press.

Zhang Rulun. (2002). The Fate of John Dewey in China. Lecture was given at Beijing University. Retrieved May 4, 2005, from

Source: Mei Wu HOYT. (2012). John Dewey and Chinese Education. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.