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Hu Shi on "Tolerance and freedom"

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Never burned at the stake (Wikipedia)

Hu Shi published "Tolerance and freedom" in 1959, the year in which the KMT began persecuting ideological dissidents and suppressing criticism of the government. According to Professor Chou Chih-p'ing of Princeton University, the essay was meant to encourage the government and intellectuals to tolerate dissenting views.

Notably, throughout "Tolerance," Hu Shi alludes to the similarities between organized religion and totalitarian government, an idea (perhaps first) observed by Bertrand Russell in Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.

Tolerance and freedom

by Hu Shi / translated by Julian Smisek

Seventeen or eighteen years ago, I saw, for the last time, Mr. George Lincoln Burr – a great historian at my alma mater, Cornell University. He and I spoke about Lord Acton, an English historian who spent his whole life preparing a work called The History of Freedom, only to die before it was completed. Mr. Burr said many things during our last visit together, but to this day, I am incapable of forgetting one line in particular. He said: “The older I get, the more I feel that tolerance is more important than freedom.”

It has been over ten years since Mr. Burr died, but the more I think about this line of his, the more I feel that it is an indelible motto. I myself have found that the older I get, the more I feel tolerance to be more important than freedom. At times, I feel that tolerance is the entire foundation of freedom; without tolerance, there is no freedom.

I am still an atheist to this day. I do not believe there is a god that has its own will. Likewise, I do not believe in the immortality of the human soul. However, there is a fundamental difference between my brand of atheism and that of the Communist Party: I can tolerate the existence of religions that do believe in god, and can sufficiently tolerate those people who sincerely believe in a religion. The Communist Party itself advocates atheism, but wants to exterminate all belief systems that include a god. Their prohibition of deistic religions reveals the same childish, arrogant, and intolerant attitude that pervaded the country fifty years ago.

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that while although the vast majority of people in this country, society, and world believe in a god, they have the generosity to tolerate my atheism – my disbelief in god and the immortality of the soul. It’s great that no matter if I’m home or abroad, I can safely express my atheistic views. I have yet to be thrown in jail, stoned, or tied up, with wood piled around me and burned to death. Amazingly, I’ve been able to enjoy more than forty years of tolerance and freedom. I feel grateful for the lovely, tolerant attitude that this country, society, and world have shown me.

I have always felt that I should pay back society’s tolerance by maintaining my own tolerant attitude. Although I myself don’t believe in god, I sincerely forgive people of all faiths, and can sincerely tolerate—and even respect—religions that include a belief in god.

I show society a tolerant attitude because the older I get, the more I understand the importance of tolerance. If society lacked its capacity for tolerance, I would absolutely have not had the freedom to spend the past forty years boldly and publically advocating atheism.

The histories of religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and political freedom all show us that tolerance is most difficult to obtain, and most rare. A notable instinct of humankind is that people tend to like that which is similar to themselves, and dislike that which is different; A person doesn’t like faiths, philosophies, and behaviors that are different from his own. This instinct is the origin of intolerance. Intolerance is merely one’s inability to tolerate ways of thinking or faith that differs from one’s own. A religious group always believes that its faith is correct and infallible. Therefore, they also always believe that those faiths with other beliefs are heresies, pagan, and most certainly wrong. Similarly, a political group believes its political convictions to be correct, without error, and therefore, that those with different political views must be wrong, and should be designated enemies.

The persecution of heresy, the oppression of dissidents, the banning of religious freedom, and the suppression of free thought all stem from a deep belief in the infallibility of one’s ideas. Those who believe their beliefs to be infallible, find those of others to be intolerable.

As an example, let’s look at the history of Europe’s Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others started a movement to reform Christianity. Originally, this movement arose out of dissatisfaction with all sorts of intolerance and limitations practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. But, after attaining victory in Central and Northern Europe, the leaders of the Protestant movement began to gradually walk down the path of intolerance. Like the Catholic Church, these leaders did not allow others to criticize their new religious dogma. In Geneva, John Calvin became a dictatorial religious authority, labeling the scholar Michael Servetus—a man who dared to have independent thoughts, a man who dared criticize Calvin’s religious dogma—a heretic. Calvin then had Servetus set atop a pile of wood, chained to a stake and slowly burnt alive. This happened on October 23rd, 1553.


The tragic history of the martyr Servetus deserves to be remembered and reflected upon. The Protestant Reformation originally strove to obtain freedom and freedom of conscience for Christians. So why were Calvin’s new followers willing to roast a reformer with independent ideas? Why did Calvin’s disciple, Theodore Beza, (who later succeeded Calvin as Geneva’s dictatorial religious authority) declare that “freedom of conscience is the devil’s doctrine”?

The basic reason is a deep belief that “I can’t be wrong.” A religious reformer like Calvin believes his inner conscience to represent the will of God. He believes that the product of his mouth and pen represents God’s orders. How then could anything be wrong with his opinion? Is it even possible for him to be wrong about anything? After Servetus was burned alive, many people criticized Calvin. In 1554, Calvin issued a paper defending his actions. Without hesitation, he wrote: “As these are the words of God himself, you should not doubt my authority to strictly punish heretics. Such work brings glory to God.”

The words of God himself. How could they be wrong? A battle for God’s glory? How could that be wrong? This “I can’t be wrong” attitude is the root of intolerance. If it’s impossible for my deep beliefs to contain any errors, my views are righteous and people who oppose me are heretics. If my views represent the will of God, the views of people who oppose me must be of the devil’s doctrine.

Here is the lesson given to me by the history of religious freedom: Tolerance is the root of freedom; those who lack the magnanimity to tolerate “dissidents” will not admit that “alien” religious beliefs should be able to enjoy freedom. Moreover, an intolerant attitude leads to the habitual thought that “our beliefs can’t be wrong.” Therefore, the toleration of “dissidents” is the most difficult magnanimity to cultivate.

Similarly, in discussions of political thought and social problems, intolerance is common, while tolerance is always precious.

As I said before, I should adopt a tolerant attitude to pay society back for tolerating me. Today, I often think that we should admonish ourselves: If we wish for others to forgive our opinions, we must first cultivate a level of magnanimity sufficient enough to tolerate and forgive others. At the very least, we should do our utmost to never take what we advocate as the absolute truth. Those of us who’ve received training in experimentalism [pragmatism] do not believe in “absolute truth,” so we especially cannot “take what we advocate as the absolute truth.”

March 16, 1959

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Comments on Hu Shi on "Tolerance and freedom"

Westerners may yawn at this article, but Hu Shi has been newly discovered in mainland China. He's inspiring a new generation of intellectuals and citizens to learn about key concepts of peaceful coexistence, successful governance and, yes, harmonious society. And to mourn the sixty years so brutally squandered. Thank you for your masterful translation.

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