Sun Yat-sen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The status of Sun Yat-sen as the “Father of the Chinese Revolution” makes him unquestionably a figure of great historical importance. Indeed, both Chinas assiduously cultivate his legend. What kind of a man was he? Harold Z. Schiffrin’s lucidly written biography endeavors to present the real Sun by dissipating the mystical aura that has surrounded him. Schiffrin, a specialist in Chinese history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Academic Director of the Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, draws from an extensive amount of scholarly research, including his own earlier Sun Yat-sen and the Origin of the Chinese Revolution (1968). In general, it is a balanced coverage of Sun’s life, as well as an excellent summary of the tortuous revolutionary period. This makes the work a highly useful introductory history of modern China for the layperson.

It has been said that Sun’s greatness lies in what he symbolized, rather than in what he actually achieved. His life and work symbolized China’s quest for national resurgence. His success as a revolutionary leader however, may be subject to varying assessments. Schiffrin writes that Sun was endowed with such requisite qualities of personality as audacity, optimism, resilience, and self-confidence. He seemed to lack, however, that exceptional measure of abilities to make him truly equal to his great task. According to Schiffrin, Sun was only a reluctant revolutionary who did not possess the ruthlessness that marks a true revolutionary. Born of a typical peasant family in the Kwangtung province, he was exposed to Western influences early in life. A commercially successful older brother in Honolulu made it possible for him to attend a school run by the Church of England and, later, an American school in Hawaii. His brother summarily ordered the teenaged Sun home, however, when he expressed the intent to convert to Christianity. Sun was deeply attracted to things Western. Yet, the nationalist legacy of the Taiping uprising, conveyed to him earlier by a favorite teacher at his village school, also had a strong influence on him.

Sun continued his education in Hong Kong, while the Sino-French hostilities of 1883-1885 made him more fully aware of the grave problems burdening his country. It was at this time that the young Sun sensed the deep gulf between the patriotic, belligerent lower classes and the helpless, lethargic ruling class. Strangely, during this time of growing interest in politics and involvement in China’s national resurgence, Sun formally embraced the Christian faith, thereby greatly angering his brother. Was it a demonstration of personal independence? With the help of Westerners, including an American businessman, he was able to attend a medical school in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, upon his graduation in 1892, he discovered that his diploma was not acceptable to Hong Kong authorities, and that he would not be allowed to practice medicine in the colony. Thus reduced to the status of an herbalist, Sun moved to Canton to open a practice. It seems he became more and more disillusioned about a medical career, however, turning his energies instead toward politics.

Sun drafted far-ranging reform proposals and tried to interest leading statesmen of the Manchu Dynasty in them. These efforts were to no avail, and he soon abandoned in frustration his pursuit of official patronage. Sun felt ignored and slighted by the establishment because of his lowly social background. Schiffrin suggests that this was what led to his vow to overthrow it. Together with a small circle of associates he formed the Society to Restore China’s Prosperity. Appeals for financial support went out to overseas Chinese, particularly those on Hawaii, where his brother strongly approved of his nationalist endeavors.

China’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895 had a potent catalytic effect on the pace and direction of modern Chinese history, according to Schiffrin. In its aftermath, Sun launched his first conspiracy. He strenuously courted the support of the imperialist powers, especially Britain’s, by catering to their aspirations and prejudices. His conspiracy failed, as would several others later. He had, however, drawn attention and support. The Chinese government put a price on his head. Consequently, Sun went to Japan, where he enjoyed the hospitality of a number of influential persons. He was tireless in his efforts to mobilize support and raise funds. He toured the United States and then went to London, hoping to persuade the British government to assume “benevolent neutrality.” His efforts on the diplomatic front were less than successful. Moreover, he was subjected to a somewhat bizarre and frightening experience. He was kidnaped and detained in the Chinese legation. Only the last-minute intercession of friends...

(The entire section is 1977 words.)