Hu went on to receive his Ph.D. from Columbia two years later. His thesis was on the development of logical thought in ancient China, a comparative analysis in which John Dewey's pragmatism (Dewey was his teacher at Columbia) figured most prominently as a theoretical model. Returning home to China, Hu Shi (now Dr. Hu) taught at Peking University, the intellectual center of China's literary renaissance movement. Hu is directly credited with sparking this renaissance, and Ithaca's Cayuga Lake figures rather prominently in this development. According to Hu's belief in the "immortality of words," a canoe ride on the lake changed the intellectual fortunes of an entire nation.
As the story goes, a party of Chinese Cornellians entertained guests from other campuses, including a female student from Vassar College. When the group decided to go boating on Cayuga Lake, a freak storm almost brought disaster upon them, resulting in their "thorough drenching." Subsequently, they built a fire on land to dry their clothes, and in true Chinese fashion, Hoong C. Zen (Class of 1916), a member of the group, composed a poem of traditional diction to commemorate the incident. Zen's antiquated style of expression so infuriated Hu Shi, to whom the poem was respectfully submitted for criticism, that Hu started a vigorous discussion about the pros and cons of contemporary modes of expression. The discussion resulted in his call for abolishing the terse and, as perceived by most Chinese, incomprehensible language of the traditional literati and substituting it with the vernacular language, which he claimed was much more suited to debating pressing contemporary issues.
The impact of this discussion, already started earlier in the 1890s but greatly amplified by Hu from Ithaca, was a complete paradigm shift in the way the new nation of China would henceforth communicate. In a magazine article published in China, Hu demanded that all literary matter be written in the common language of everyday use. The article propelled Hu, at age 27, into the top 12 most influential celebrities of his country. It is hard to underestimate the impact of this literary renaissance. When the Chinese minister of education in 1920 ordered that all textbooks and popular educational reading matter be rewritten in the vernacular tongue, an entire nation was finally able to access a regular, modernized education.