Sun Yat-sen was, until the rise of Mao Zedong, China’s best-known revolutionary leader. Sun Yat-sen played an important role in stirring Chinese nationalism, provoking the overthrow of the Qing and forming the early Chinese republic. His ideas and political philosophy also shaped and inspired China and Chinese politics in the 20th century. Despite his enormous impact, Sun’s life as a revolutionary was filled with usurpation and disappointment. He spent much of his early career in exile outside of China, plotting the removal of the Qing from afar. Sun’s early attempts to foment a revolution in China failed, while his contribution to the successful revolution was peripheral and indirect. Yet when the revolution came, Sun seemed its logical leader. When he was finally in a position to form a republican government, a lack of military backing forced Sun to surrender it to Yuan Shikai. And after Shikai had undermined and betrayed the promise of a democratic republican government leading a unified China, Sun spent the last dozen years of his life working to restore it. When Sun died prematurely in 1925 China was still divided and republicanism was confined to the southern province of Guangdong – however Sun’s vision would eventually be fulfilled.
Sun Yat-sen was born a peasant in Guangdong province in 1866. At age 13 he was sent to study in Hawaii, where his brother had emigrated and prospered. Sun attended Christian schools in Hawaii and excelled in various studies. Fearing that Sun might convert to Christianity, his brother returned him to China in 1883. This return to the misery of peasant life, with its burdens of hard labour, heavy taxes and archaic religious and social beliefs, sharpened Sun’s revolutionary spirit. He moved to Hong Kong and returned to his studies, gaining a degree in medicine at age 26; while in Hong Kong Sun joined a Protestant Christian church and finally converted. Sun was by now a republican who supported the overthrow of the Qing, though he did not reveal this publicly. At some point in the 1880s Sun joined the Hongmen, a Chinese secret society declared illegal by the Qing. Though once comprised of criminals and gangsters, the Hongmen triads provided an ideal platform for political subversives like Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, who was also a member. By the start of 1894 Sun had quit his medical practice for anti-Qing politics. He became involved in existing reformist and literary movements and also petitioned the powerful Qing minister Li Hongzhang for political reform.
Lyon Sharman, historian
In late 1894 Sun, by now a target for Qing authorities, decided to return to Hawaii. Once there he helped form the republican group Xingzhonghui, or ‘Revive China Society’, recruiting other Chinese nationalists and expatriates. In the autumn of 1895 Sun and several of his colleagues returned to Hong Kong, then a British dominion, and begin organising an attempted takeover in neighbouring Guangzhou. Sun’s group had been infiltrated by Qing agents, however, and the Guangzhou uprising, launched in late October 1895, was easily quashed. Sun fled again, spending a decade in exile, mainly in Japan but also Britain, Europe, the United States and Canada. Much of this time was spent recruiting other Chinese, raising funds, drawing international attention to the Qing regime and formulating a political philosophy. In April 1905 Sun delivered a speech to Chinese students in Brussels, Belgium, where he first mentioned and discuss his Three Principles of the People.
By the middle of 1905 Sun had returned to Japan. In August he merged the Revive China Society with other nationalist groups to form the Tongmenghui (‘United League’). This group spent the ensuing years recruiting members, producing propaganda and starting nationalist newspapers. It was in one of these newspapers, Min Bao (‘People’s Journal’) that Sun Yat-sen first published a full account of the Three Principles: nationalism, democracy and the people’s welfare. Nationalism, Sun wrote, was necessary to deliver self-government and return China to the Chinese; democracy was required to ensure a new, equitable and accountable system of government; and the people’s welfare would ensure a more equitable distribution of land, chiefly through the national ownership and distribution of land. By the start of 1907 Sun and his followers felt themselves strong enough to challenge the Qing by organising uprisings in areas where Qing authority was weak. The Tongmenghui organised at least six unsuccessful uprisings in 1907 – in Huanggang (May), Huizhou (June), Anqing (July), Qinzhou (September) and Zhennanguan (December) – but all failed.
Sun played no direct part in organising the Wuchang uprising that triggered the 1911 revolution – however many of the dissident soldiers involved were certainly well versed in and sympathetic to Sun’s political rhetoric. Sun himself was in the United States when the revolution broke out, though he returned immediately to China. Nationalists formed a provisional republican government in Nanjing, and on December 29th Sun was elected as its president. Sun’s rise from revolutionary-in-exile to national president had taken just ten weeks – but his time in office was event shorter. With the Qing emperor still on the throne and the possibility of a military counter-revolution strong, Sun ceded the presidency to northern general Yuan Shikai, in return for Shikai’s military support for the revolution and the new republican government. Yuan fulfilled part of his promise, threatening to turn his armies against the Qing and forcing the abdication of the infant emperor Puyi. But unlike Sun Yat-sen, the general had no intellectual commitment to democracy, modernity or the new republic. Within a year Shikai had moved to increase his own power, at the expense of the national assembly. After a glimmer of hope in late 1911, Sun was once again a revolutionary, fighting to topple an anti-democratic ruler.
In August 1912 Sun reformed the Tongmenghui and other smaller nationalist groups into a new political party called the Guomindang. In July 1913 Sun and the Guomindang attempted a second revolution against Yuan Shikai, however this failed and led to Shikai’s forces capturing and occupying Nanjing. Sun again spent several years in exile in Japan, returning after Shikai’s death in 1916. By this point China was fundamentally divided, a patchwork of regions ruled by powerful local warlords. Sun and the Guomindang managed to seize control of the southern province of Guangdong, where they established a military government based in Guangzhou. It was there that Sun, his military commander Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang began preparing to reunify China, both by force and by persuasion. Sun died of cancer in 1925, his death triggering a power struggle and split in the Guomindang. On the surface Sun’s commitment to revolution seems unfulfilled: he never lived to see his vision fulfilled, nor did he ever become leader of a united republican China. However Sun Yat-sen’s legacy survived him, living on in both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, both parties incorporating different interpretations of the Three Principles into their own ideologies. When these parties later fell into civil war, each presented itself as the true party of Sun Yat-sen and his ideals, claiming the other to have misrepresented or perverted them. For this reason Sun is regarded by both nationalists and communists as the ‘father of modern China’.
1. Sun Yat-sen was born to a peasant family in Guangdong before relocating to Hawaii and Hong Kong for study.
2. A physician by training, he became involved in republican and revolutionary politics, both in China and abroad.
3. Sun founded several nationalist groups and organised numerous uprisings, hoping to trigger an anti-Qing revolution.
4. In December 1911 he was elected president of a new republican government, later ceding this to Yuan Shikai.
5. Sun spent the last years of his life forming the Guomindang, refining his political philosophy (the Three Principles of the People), forming a military government in Guangzhou and attempting to reunify China under a republican government.
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