Sun Yat-sen

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Sun founded the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and led the Republican Revolution of 1911. He is honored by both the Communists and the Nationalists as the founding father of the Chinese republic.

Early Life

Sun Yat-sen was born on November 12, 1866, in the village of Cuiheng, some eighty miles from Canton. His family was highly respectable, conservative, and ordinary. His father, a thin, ascetic man with a reputation for honesty, was a small landowner who also worked as a tailor. Sun’s mother was conservative, observing ancestral rites, enduring bound feet, and teaching filial piety to her six children (Sun Yat-sen was the fifth). She was, however, literate, which was rare among Chinese women of the time. Sun apparently displayed a rebellious spirit from his early youth. He began attending his village school at the age of eight but also worked in the fields after school and during harvest season. By the age of ten, he had protested footbinding and criticized the traditional teaching methods of his school. A good student, Sun studied the Chinese language and the Confucian classics.

Sun’s village was in the area of China most affected by Western influence. Two of his uncles had gone to the United States during the California Gold Rush and never returned, his grandmother told him stories about Westerners, and his elder brother, Ah-mei, emigrated in 1872 to Hawaii, where he became successful as a shopkeeper and as a rice and sugarcane grower. Sun joined his brother in Honolulu in 1879, working in his shop. He soon became bored, however, and went to the Church of England boarding school at Iolani in 1880. There he quickly learned English and became one of the first Chinese to obtain a Western education, studying geography, mathematics, science, and the Bible. He apparently became a convert of Christianity in 1882 and thereafter was an enthusiastic admirer of Western ways. All of this alarmed his elder brother, who sent him home in 1883.

Sun did not fit into village life, however, as he had learned to despise the old ways. He earned the enmity of the villagers by attacking the worship of idols. His father therefore sent him to another Christian school in Hong Kong to forestall further embarrassment. Between 1884 and 1892, Sun attended Queen’s College, married a girl chosen by his parents, and earned a medical degree. His patron in medical school was the English dean of the college, James Cantlie. As the Western powers began to shear away China’s peripheral territories, Sun turned to politics, hatching plots to reform or overturn the Ch’ing (Manchu) Dynasty. By 1894, he had decided to give up the practice of medicine and devote his life to revolutionary activities.

Life’s Work

During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, which the Chinese unexpectedly lost, Sun launched his first overt attempts at revolution. He founded his first revolutionary party, the Hsing Chung Hui (“Revive China Society”), in 1894 among overseas Chinese and plotted an uprising against the dynasty in October, 1895. Before the revolt could be launched, however, the plot was discovered, the Ch’ing officials crushed the organization, and Sun fled the country, a price on his head. He spent most of the next sixteen years outside China, traveling around the world to raise money and popular support for his revolutionary activities from overseas Chinese.

Sun arrived in London in September, 1896, to visit his former mentor, Cantlie, and to raise support for his cause. On October 11, while walking near the Chinese embassy, he was abducted by the Chinese and held prisoner in the embassy. He was to be shipped back to China and executed. Eventually, he got word to Cantlie that he was being held prisoner, and Cantlie obtained his release by taking his case to the London newspapers. Overnight, Sun became famous. He spent the next two years in Europe, reading and studying Western political theory, including the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In 1898, he traveled to Japan, where he continued to build his revolutionary party and to argue against Chinese moderates who believed that the Ch’ing monarchy could be reformed. His organization launched an abortive attack on the dynasty after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Undaunted, he traveled around the world again, from 1903 to 1905, raising more support for his plans.

By 1905, Sun was back in Japan, where he founded a new revolutionary party, the T’ung Meng Hui (“Revolutionary Alliance”), with the goals of destroying the Ch’ing Dynasty, creating a republic, establishing full diplomatic relations with the world, and carrying out a social revolution. This was a significant political party, with branches in China and among overseas Chinese. Between 1906 and...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)