Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was the preeminent leader of China's republican revolution. He did much to inspire and organize the movement that overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and through the Kuomintang party paved the way for the eventual reunification of the country.
Sun Yat-sen was born on Nov. 12, 1866, into a peasant household in Choyhung in Kwangtung near the Portuguese colony of Macao. His early education, like his birthplace, established him as a man of two worlds, China and the West. After a rudimentary training in the Chinese classics in his village school, he was sent to Hawaii in 1879 to join his émigré elder brother. There he enrolled at an Anglican college where he studied Western science and religion. Upon graduation in 1882, he returned to his native village, but he soon was banished for defacing the village idols.
Though he returned home briefly to undergo an arranged marriage, Sun spent the formative years of his late teens and early 20s studying in Hong Kong. He began his medical training in Canton but in 1887 returned to Hong Kong and enrolled in the school of medicine attached to Alice Memorial Hospital under Dr. James Cantlie, dean of the school. After graduation in June 1892, he went to Macao, where Portuguese authorities refused to give him a license to practice.
By the time Sun returned to Hong Kong in the spring of 1893, he had become more interested in politics than in medicine. Appalled by the Manchu government's corruption, inefficiency, and inability to defend China against foreign aggressors, he wrote a letter to Li Hung Chang, one of China's most important reform leaders, advocating a program of reform. Ignored, Sun returned to Hawaii to organize the Hsing-chung hui (Revive China Society). When the Sino-Japanese War appeared to present possibilities for the overthrow of the Manchus, Sun returned to Hong Kong and reorganized the Hsing-chung hui as a revolutionary secret society. An uprising was planned in Canton in 1895 but was discovered, and several of Sun's comrades were executed. Having become a marked man, Sun fled and found refuge in Japan.
The pattern for Sun's career was established: hastily organized plots, failures, execution of co-conspirators, overseas wanderings in search of sanctuary and financial backing for further coups. Sun grew a moustache, donned Western-style clothes, and, posing as a Japanese, set out once again, first to hawaii, then to San Francisco, and finally to England to visit Cantlie. There he was kidnaped by the Chinese legation and held captive pending deportation back to China. Rescued at the last minute through the efforts of Cantlie, he emerged from captivity with an international reputation enhanced by his own account of the event, Kidnapped in London (1897). Before leaving England, he frequented the reading room of the British Museum, where he became acquainted with the writings of Karl Marx and of the American single-tax advocate Henry George.
In July 1897 Sun returned to Japan, where he adopted the pseudonym Nakayama (Chinese, Chung-shan). He also attracted the support of prominent Japanese Sinophiles, liberals, and adventurers who hoped that Japan, by promoting political change in China, could build an Asian bloc against the West. On the other hand, Sun failed to consummate an alliance with the followers of the radical monarchial loyalist K'ang Yu-wei, who also found asylum in Japan after the failure of his Hundred Days Reform. After the failure of the Waichow uprising in October 1900, Sun spent 3 years in Yokohama, establishing a relationship with the growing number of Chinese students who flocked to Japan for a modern education. From 1903 to 1905 he renewed his travels, recruiting adherents among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, Hawaii, the United States, and Europe.
Sun returned to Japan in July 1905 to find the Chinese student community stirred to a pitch of patriotic excitement. In league with other revolutionary refugees such as Huang Hsing and Sung Chiao-jen, Sun organized, and was elected director of, the T'ung-meng hui (Revolutionary Alliance). Though based upon a merger of the Hsing-chung hui and other existing organizations, the T'ung-meng hui was a centralized body, meticulously organized, with a sophisticated and highly educated membership core drawn from all over China.
By this time Sun's ideas had crystallized into the "Three People's Principles"—nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood. These became the ideological basis for the T'ung-meng hui. When Sun returned from another fund-raising trip in the fall of 1906, his student following in Japan numbered in the thousands. However, under pressure from Peking, the Japanese government expelled him. From March 1907 to March 1908 Sun staged several uprisings from Hanoi, where the sympathetic French had given him a base, but once again Manchu pressure prevailed, and he was compelled to flee to Singapore.
Sun's fortunes had reached a low point. The failure of a series of poorly planned and armed coups relying upon the scattered forces of secret societies and rebel bands had undermined the prestige of the T'ung-meng hui in Southeast Asia, and in August 1908 Japanese authorities banned the highly successful party organ, the Min Pao. Receiving scant encouragement upon revisiting Europe, Sun found that Chinese opinion in the United States was turning against his promonarchial rivals. After a triumphal tour through New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, he returned to Japan via Honolulu. Ten days later he was expelled once again. He went on to Singapore, then to Penang, from which he was ousted for an inflammatory speech. Sun returned to the United States and was en route from Denver to Kansas City on a successful fundraising tour when he read in a newspaper that a successful revolt had occurred in the central Yangtze Valley city of Wuchang.
President of the Chinese Republic
The revolution had occurred in Sun's absence. The instigators were low-ranking army officers in units sympathetic to the T'ung-meng hui. Sun continued to travel eastward across the Atlantic and through Europe to solicit diplomatic and financial support for the revolutionary regime. By the time he arrived back in China on Christmas Day, rebellion had spread through the Yangtze Valley. A tumultuous welcome greeted Sun, and in Nanking, revolutionary delegates from 14 provinces elected him president of a provisional government. On Jan. 1, 1912, Sun Yat-sen proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of China.
However, the revolutionists lacked the power to dethrone the Manchu ruler in Peking. Only Yüan Shih-kai, strongman of North China, could accomplish this. Sun, therefore, agreed to relinquish the presidency in exchange for the abdication of the Manchus and Yüan's acceptance of a republican form of government. Yüan gave his assent and was duly elected by the National Assembly in Nanking and inaugurated in Peking on March 12. Yüan thereupon maneuvered the provisional government into moving to Peking instead of transferring the capital to Nanking. Sung Chiao-jen, parliamentary leader of the T'ung-meng hui, attempted to check Yüan's power through the National Assembly. He brought leaders of the T'ung-meng hui and four smaller parties into a federated organization called the Kuomintang (National People's party). Sun Yat-sen, however, having little taste for such parliamentary maneuvers, set about to promote his program of people's livelihood. As newly appointed director of railroad development, he spent the autumn and winter of 1912 touring the rail lines of China and Japan and developing grandiose plans for the future.
Meanwhile a bitter power struggle was under way in Peking. In the national elections of February 1913, the Kuomintang won control of the Assembly. On March 20, Yüan's agents assassinated Sung Chiao-jen at the Shanghai railroad station. Sun hurried back and demanded that the culprits be brought to justice. Yüan, backed by a "reorganization loan" from a foreign consortium, took political and military steps against the Kuomintang. This precipitated scattered but ineffectual resistance, the so-called second revolution. Sun denounced Yüan; Yüan removed Sun from office and on September 15 ordered his arrest. By early December, Sun was once again a political refugee in Japan.
Preparations for a Comeback
Sun now began to work for the overthrow of Yüan. On June 23, 1914, he replaced the Kuomintang with a new party, the Chung-hua ko-ming tang (China Revolutionary party), based upon a personal oath of allegiance to himself. However, Yüan was undone by his own miscalculations rather than by Sun's plots. His attempt to replace the republic with a monarchy touched off revolts in southwestern China followed by uprisings of Sun's followers in several other provinces. Sun hopefully returned to Shanghai in April 1916, 2 months before Yüan's death.
The disintegration of centralized authority opened the gates to warlordism. Power first fell into the hands of Tuan Ch'i-jui, who dissolved the Parliament and convened his own provisional assembly in its place. Sun responded by forming a military government in Canton in league with naval chief Ch'en Pi-kuang, Kwangtung warlord Ch'en Chiung-ming, and other southern military leaders. A rump parliament was convened. However, failing to secure independent military power, Sun was forced to withdraw from the Canton government in May 1918. This need to rely upon warlord support continued to plague him.
Following a fruitless quest for Japanese assistance, Sun established residence in the French concession in Shanghai. There he wrote two of the three treatises later incorporated into his Chien-kuo fang-lueh (Principles of National Reconstruction). In the first part (Social Reconstruction), completed in February 1917, Sun had attributed the failure of democracy in China to the people's lack of practice in its implementation. The second treatise, Psychological Reconstruction, argued that popular acceptance of his program had been obstructed by acceptance of the old adage "Knowledge is easy, action is difficult." Sun proposed the transposition of this to read "Knowledge is difficult, action is easy." Once the knowledge, provided by himself, had been made available, the people should have no difficulty putting it into practice. The third part (Material Reconstruction) constituted a master plan for the industrialization of China to be financed by lavish investments from abroad.
Sun's preoccupation with literary endeavors did not exclude him from political schemes. Once again he reorganized his party, this time as the Chinese Kuomintang. He also kept a hand in the political intrigues of Canton. When the city was occupied on Oct. 26, 1920, by Ch'en Chiung-ming and other supporters, Sun named Ch'en governor of Kwangtung. Sun returned to Canton in November and laid plans to counter the Peking government with a rival regime that would attract foreign support and serve as a military base for an eventual campaign of national reunification. In April 1921 the Canton Parliament established a new government and elected Sun president.
Having brought the neighboring province of Kwangsi under control, Sun now took sides in the altercations of the northern warlords by forming an alliance with Chang Tsolin and Tuan Ch'i-jui against Ts'ao K'un and Wu P'ei-fu and preparing to send troops into Hunan and Kiangsi. However, Ch'en Chiung-ming opposed Sun's grandiose nationwide goals, preferring to wield regional power in a decentralized federation. Sun responded by assuming direct command of his troops in Kweilin, but Ch'en undermined his efforts from Canton. After driving Ch'en from the city, Sun resumed preparation for the northern expedition, but Ch'en recaptured Canton and forced Sun to flee to a gunboat in the Pearl River. There, in the company of a young military aide named Chiang Kai-shek, Sun tried unsuccessfully to engineer a comeback.
Never one to be discouraged by failure, Sun returned to Shanghai and continued his plans to retake Canton via alliances with northern warlords and the exertions of his forces in Fukien and Kwangsi. He undertook, moreover, to breathe new life into the faltering Kuomintang and to set in motion a thoroughgoing reorganization of the party. Of equal consequence was Sun's decision to accept support from the Soviet Union, a mark of his disappointment with the Western powers and Japan and his need for political, military, and financial aid. Part of the agreement provided for the admission of individual Chinese Communists into the Kuomintang. On Jan. 26, 1923, in a joint manifesto with Sun, Soviet envoy Adolph Joffe guaranteed Russian support for the reunification of China.
Meanwhile Sun's military allies were paving the way for a return to Canton. By the middle of February 1923 Sun was back again as head of a military government. On October 6 Michael Borodin arrived in Canton, having been sent by the Comintern in response to Sun's request for an adviser on party organization. In January 1924 the first National Congress of the Kuomintang approved a new constitution which remodeled the party along Soviet lines. At the top of a tightly disciplined pyramidal structure was to be a Central Executive Committee with bureaus in charge of propaganda, workers, peasants, youth, women, investigation, and military affairs. Sun's Three People's Principles were restated to emphasize anti-imperialism and the leading role of the party.
One significant departure from the Soviet model was the creation of the position of Tsung-li (party director), to which Sun was given a lifetime appointment. The most controversial development was the election of three Chinese Communists to the Central Executive Committee and to leadership in the organization and peasants bureaus. Party conservatives were shocked. To prevent further polarization, Sun placed ultimate authority in his own hands via the establishment of the Central Political Council.
Even the most disciplined party, Sun realized, would be ineffectual without a military arm. To replace the unreliable warlord armies, Sun chose the Soviet model of a party army. The Soviets agreed to help establish a military academy, and a mission headed by Chiang kai-shek was sent to the U.S.S.R. to secure assistance. The new school was located on Whampoa Island 10 miles downriver from Canton. Sun appointed Chiang commandant, Liao Chung-kai party representative, and other close followers as political instructors.
Final Days in Peking
However, the lure of warlord alliances remained strong. In response to an invitation from Chang Tso-lin and Tuan Ch'i-jui, Sun set out for Peking to deliberate upon the future of China. After a journey via Shanghai, Japan, and Tientsin, Sun and his party reached Peking at the end of December 1924. However, negotiations with Tuan Ch'i-jui soon collapsed. This proved to be the last time that Sun would be disappointed by his allies. Following several months of deteriorating health, he found that he had incurable cancer.
Sun passed his final days at the home of Wellington Koo. There he signed the pithy "political testament" drafted by Wang Ching-wei, urging his followers to hold true to his ideals in carrying the revolution through to victory. He also signed a highly controversial valedictory to the Soviet Union reconsecrating the alliance against Western imperialism. The following day, March 12, 1925, Sun died. He was given a state funeral under orders of Tuan Ch'i-jui.
Though the guiding spirit of the Chinese revolution, Sun was widely criticized during his lifetime. His involvement in warlord politics combined with frequent pronunciamentos heralding new ventures had won him the derisive epithet of "Big Gun Sun." After his death, however, he became the object of a cult that elevated him to a sacrosanct position. His title of Tsung-li was enshrined, never to be used by another leader (although Chiang Kaishek came close in 1938, when he dubbed himself Tsungtsai, or party leader).
During the years of Kuomintang rule (1928-1949), Sun's face looked out from portraits in homes and government offices and appeared on bank notes. His name, Chung-shan, was attached to every variety of public place. His writings became a national bible. This was anything but an unmixed blessing, since Sun was neither a systematic ideologist nor a practical political planner. His Three People's Principles had undergone many changes over the years. The target of his "nationalism" had changed from the Manchus to the imperialist powers. His "people's livelihood" had been loosely identified with socialism and with communism. His "democracy" had been hedged about by more and more qualifications, including the requirement of a period of party tutelage before it could become effective. His manuscripts, left behind when he fled from Ch'en Chiung-ming in 1922, were destroyed by fire. The published work that we know as the Three People's Principles, or Three Principles of the People, was transcribed from lectures delivered between January and August 1924. In practice, this provided neither a viable program for national construction nor a viable alternative to the more rigorous Marxist ideologies.
Sun Yat-sen has also been honored by the Chinese Communists, who stress the last period of his life and speak of his "Three Great Policies" of relying upon the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communists, and the working and peasant masses. The radical interpretation of Sun was carried forth by his widow, Soong Ch'ing-ling, who fearlessly accused Chiang Kai-shek of subverting her husband's teachings and, after 1949, was a prominent figure in the Communist government. His son, Sun Fo, though often at odds with the Kuomintang leadership, pursued a career in Nationalist politics and held a succession of administrative posts in the Nationalist government.
Further Reading on Sun Yat-sen
Sun Yat-Sen's Three Principles of the People is available in many Western-language editions; San min chu-i: Three Principles of the People (1964) contains a biographical sketch of Sun. The second and third parts of Sun's Chien-kuo fang-lueh (Principles of National Reconstruction) are translated respectively in his Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary (1927) and in his The International Development of China (1922).
The standard biography of Sun is Lyon Sharman, Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Its Meaning (1934). This is superseded in part by Harold Z. Schiffrin, Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution (1968), which carries Sun's story to the founding of the T'ung-meng hui in 1905. Sun's Three Principles are elucidated in Paul M. A. Linebarger, The Political Doctrines of Sun Yat-sen: An Exposition of the San Min Chu I (1937). His political and ideological relationship with the Russian and Chinese Communists is examined in Shao Chuan Leng and Norman D. Palmer, Sun Yat-sen and Communism (1960). Sun's early career is placed in perspective in Mary Calbaugh Wright, ed., China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913 (1968), which contains an essay on Sun by Harold Z. Schiffrin. Also useful for understanding Sun in the context of his times is Michael Gasster, Chinese Intellectuals and the Revolution of 1911 (1969). Additional perspective can be gained from the biographies of two contemporaries: Jerome Ch'ên, Yüan Shih-kai, 1859-1916 (1961), and Chün-tu Hsüeh, Huang Hsing and the Chinese Revolution (1961).