Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Sun Yat-sen (孫中山 aka 孫逸仙) has been hailed as the Father of Modern China, is revered by both Communist and Nationalist Chinese governments, and is a saint in the Cao Đài faith (along with Victor Hugo and Nguyen Binh Khiêm).

He was born Nov. 12, 1866, in Cuiheng (Choy Hang) Village, Xiangshan county, Guangdong province. He died March 12, 1925, in Beijing of liver cancer. Chinese portrayals of Sun often mythicize his life and accomplishments, while the works of many Western academics have tried to minimize his contributions to the Chinese Revolution. Whatever the reality may be, I don't think that his legacy in Chinese politics can be denied.

Sun's register name (the name listed in the Sun family register, and by which his family would have formally called him) was Sun Deming (孫德明). Sun Yat-sen, the name by which he is known to most people, was derived from an alias which he took while living in Japan. It was purportedly taken from a plaque over the gates of the palace of Nakayama Tadayasu (father-in-law of the Meiji Emperor). Nakayama is written with the characters 中山, which is Yat-sen (Zhongshan) in Chinese.

At age 13, Sun was sent to live with his older brother in Honolulu, where he attended prep school at 'Iolani. In fact, two days ago (when I had originally wanted to make this entry, but couldn't due to a burned out power supply), a bronze statue dedicated to Sun was unveiled in honor of his 142nd birthday.

Like many Chinese students educated abroad, Sun was influenced by the ideals of equality and democracy. From these concepts, he derived his Three Principles of the People (三民主義). He was also open to a wide variety of other political and social concepts, which has lead some to label him as an opportunist, but that makes him seem like someone who jumped onto the revolutionary bandwagon at the last minute, which was anything but true. From at least 1894, he was involved in organizing groups to reform China, and continued his work abroad after going into exile in 1895 after plans for an uprising in Canton was leaked to the Qing government.

Sun was elected the provisional President of the Republic of China in 1911. It has been said that he was elected as a compromise candidate due to his lack of prominence in the various political camps among the revolutionaries. I think it can also be argued that he was selected because he was perceived as being impartial, due to not having actually been in China for so long.

He ceded the presidency to Yuan Shikai in return for the support of the Beiyang Army. Yuan forced the abdication of the last Qing emperor, but his increasingly dictatorial actions forced Sun to attempt a second revolution in 1913. The revolt against Yuan failed, and Sun was forced into exile again.

Sun married Soong Ching-ling, the middle sister of the (in)famous Soong Sisters in 1915, while in exile in Japan. He was still officially married to his first wife as he could not divorce her since it would have offended popular sentiment. In any event, after Yuan's death in 1916, China devolved into a familiar state of warlordism. Sun returned to China in 1917 to work on reunification. He established a military government in Canton in 1921, and embarked on what was his original plan of using the South as a base for the overthrow of the Qing, except this time it was for the overthrow of the various warlords.

It was during this period that Sun and the KMT received much needed support from the Comintern, and forged the CCP-KMT United Front. The PRC has honored Sun as one of the pioneers in the Communist revolution for this reason. I'm not particularly familiar with Sun's political theories, but I believe that though he subscribed to socialism, he was critical of Marxism.

Sun died before he could see the unification of China, but I wonder what China would have been like if he could have been alive to shape it's development?