Sun Yat-sen, Part I
A few weeks ago when I returned from my trip to Taiwan, I
mentioned in another link that someday I would do a little bit on
Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese Republic. He’s a
pretty interesting figure, seeing as he was born a peasant, but
after reading up on him in more detail, he’s really not as “heroic”
as I initially thought. However, there are elements of his story
that certainly are worth noting when one looks at the China of
today, and that’s what history is all about, right?
[Note: There are different ways of anglicizing all kinds of
Chinese names. I’m going with those most common in the
Originally named Sun Wen, Sun Yat-sen was born of peasant
parentage on November 12, 1866, in China’s Guangdong
province, near present-day Macau. He was a smart little boy,
schooled by missionaries, and by 1879, having won a contest
because of his proficiency in English, he traveled with his mother
to Honolulu, where he entered Iolani College.
At 18, Sun returned to China, whereupon he enrolled in the
College of Medicine in Hong Kong. By 1885, however, vastly
influenced by foreign and Western thought, he had decided that
his goal in life was to overthrow the Manchu leaders of the
Ching Dynasty. [Also labeled “Qing,” this dynasty lasted from
A key period of time was the war of 1894-95 between China and
Japan, which was to have a profound impact on the history of
China for the next 100+ years. China lost Korea and Taiwan,
while Japan asked for huge war reparations. Meanwhile, Russia,
France and Germany, which had convinced Japan to return other
territory to China, asked for payment as well. These later three
were particularly interested in securing mining rights.
China, which had never been a big debtor nation, was suddenly
swamped, and the public finances were basically under the
control of foreign banking interests. [Very similar to Germany in
the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty following World War I.]
As for Sun Yat-sen, having picked up his medical degree (so he’s
now Dr. Sun), he observed how corrupt the Ching Dynasty was,
while at the same time foreign powers were increasingly treating
China with little respect. So the good doctor decided to attempt
an overthrow of the Chingsters, but in 1895 his first attempt at
Canton failed and he escaped to Japan.
Thus began a long odyssey, with Dr. Sun traveling all over the
world, trying to raise funds for his revolutionary ideals. In 1896,
for example, he was arrested in London, but then released, an
episode which gained him a large following in the West as a
rising star on the political scene. In 1905, while in Tokyo, he
became head of what was labeled the Revolutionary League, a
group of Chinese students seeking to set up a true Chinese
What exactly were his ideas for revolution and a new China?
Three simple principles: nationalism, people’s rights or
democracy, and prosperity (also called People’s Livelihood).
He actually was only calling for a constitutional monarchy at the
start, thinking that this was all that was required to remove the
warlordism that had been the norm in China for centuries.
Well, by 1911, Dr. Sun was involved in ten, count ‘em, ten failed
attempts to overthrow the government. If you saw the film, “The
Last Emperor,” you’ll also recall that this was the time of the
child Manchu ruler (just five-years-old in 1911). Of course most
of the time Sun was overseas when the coup attempts were
occurring, so he escaped punishment, while his good friends
were attempting to carry out the work (many of whom were then
But in the later part of 1911, the situation began to change as
rumors swirled that the great powers were set to partition China.
Prior to this period, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and Britain
had all carved out their own spheres of influence with the
warlords, but a new dispute arose over customs revenues, as well
as the issue of who would finance the national railroad project.
The Manchus sought foreign capital and Sun decided that this
was taking things too far, as it was assumed that the outside
powers would continue to entrench themselves in the land.
There was another key figure at this point in history, a general by
the name of Yuan Shi-Kai. Yuan, too, decided it was time to
turn on the Ching Dynasty, so on October 11, 1911, while Dr.
Sun was off on a fundraising tour of the U.S. (he still liked
America at the time), General Yuan led a revolt of an army
garrison in the city of Wuhan (also called Wuchang), setting off
a revolution that toppled the Manchus.
On January 1, 1912, at Nanjing (Nanking), having negotiated
beforehand with Yuan Shi-Kai, Sun Yat-sen was named
provisional president of the Chinese Republic. Sun had no plans
of staying on beyond a brief transition period and by March, he
resigned and Yuan assumed power.
What Dr. Sun deserves a lot of credit for is the fact that in a brief
amount of time a rudimentary parliament was established,
representing almost all the provinces, while compromises were
struck such that China avoided a crippling civil war, as well as
foreign intervention. But then it all began to go downhill, and
that’s where we’ll pick up the story next week.
“The Columbia History of the World,” edited by John A.
Garraty and Peter Gay
“China: A New History,” John King Fairbank and Merle
“China: A Macro History,” Ray Huang
“Twentieth Century,” J.M. Roberts