Last modified on May 19, 2019, at 19:05

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen was the leader of the revolutionary movement that overthrew the Qing dynasty of China in 1911. He founded and led the Nationalist Party to victory and became the irst leader of the new Republic of China. However he never held effective power in China himself, because he was too trusting and naive in dealings with leading generals and politicians. His republican ideas and modernizing vision based on his philosophy of the Three Principles of the People proved central to China, and he became an iconic hero to the Chinese diaspora across the world.


Sun Yat-sen
Traditional Chinese 孫逸仙
Simplified Chinese 孙逸仙

Sun was born near Canton into a farmland owning family. He attended an Anglican boys school in Honolulu. There he came under Western influence and particularly that of Christianity. His father was a farmer who had been a tailor in Macao. At the age of 13, he was sent for an education to the Kingdom of Hawaii (then an independent country), staying with his prosperous brother Sun Mei, a merchant, between 1879 and 1883. For three years he attended Iolani College, run by the Church of England, and acquired good English. In 1883 he attended two terms at Oahu College (Punahou School); he possibly also attended St. Louis College, a Catholic institution. His lifelong Christianity was formed in large part by his years in Hawaii. He attended Queens College in Hong Kong briefly, and was baptized there by an American missionary.[1]

Sun studied Western medicine in Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong from 1886 to 1892. He then worked for two years at the Jinghu Hospital for traditional Chinese medicine in Macao, where he introduced numerous Western practices. His political awareness dates from the early 1890s: his hatred of Western imperialism and his admiration for Japan's successful of modernization, drew him again and again to Japan, where he gained numerous friends and supporters.

After this all his activities were focused on overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing a Chinese republic. Sun fled China in 1895 after an abortive revolt. He toured the world a few times to enlist aid from overseas to finance his activities. In 1905 Sun organized a revolutionary league. His political conceptions were based on the three people's principles: nationalism, democracy, and the people's livelihood.

Revolutionary, to 1911

After 1894 Sun Yat-sen increasingly became a revolutionary, in touch with anti-imperial elements throughout the Chinese diaspora. In 1894 he petitioned the Manchu viceroy Li Hung-chang (1823-1901) for a program of modernization but he was ignored. Sun's comprehensive plan for saving China drew upon many influences in his life - Christianity, Western learning, and the success of modernization in Japan, Hong Kong, and Hawaii. When his program was rejected, he felt he had no alternative but to become a professional revolutionary. In 1895, after the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war, Sun Yat-sen attempted his first revolution in Guangzhou: This was the first of his ten failed attempts. He escaped to Japan where he took the name Nakayama Shō (Japanese: 中山樵). He traveled widely in Asia, Europe and the U.S., preaching revolt and modernity, raising funds and recruiting followers. Several of his most ambitious revolts were staged with foreign assistance, one from Japanese-controlled Taiwan and one from French-controlled Indochina. The stunning triumph of Japan over Russia in 1905 energized his movement. In Tokyo, he appealed to the many Chinese students and organized his Tóngménghuì (Chinese: 中國同盟會; Wade–Giles: T'ung-meng-hui), or Combined League Society, in 1905. The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty overshadowed all other goals and tended to obscure the multiple goals within the movement. With a formal organization behind him he redoubled his fund-raising and propaganda campaigns. Hawaiian Chinese, particularly those in the Hilo region, contributed tens of thousands of dollars via small cash donations, the purchase of bonds, or the purchase of gold banknotes. Although a professed socialist, he worked well with capitalists and raised funds by promising businessmen future economic concessions.[2]

One important collaborator was Huáng Xīng (Chinese: 黄兴; Wade–Giles:Huang Hsing) (1874-1916), who in 1912 merged Sun's Tongmenghui (United League of China), into the new Kuomintang (KMT), or National People's Party. The two men formed a strong team. Sun provided ideas, funding and external contacts, while Huang was the man of action who served the Republic as Minister of War in 1912-14.

On October 10, 1911, while Sun Yat-sen was in the United States, revolutionaries in Hankou staged a tentative revolt, known as the Wuchang Uprising, when unexpectedly imperial units joined them. Suddenly all of China realized the incompetent and unpopular Qing dynasty was rapidly collapsing. Sun Yat-sen returned to a hero's welcome and was immediately appointed provisional president of the new Chinese Republic. However he was never good at political bargaining and feared the power of imperial army's norther commander Yuan Shih-kai. In return for Yuan's support of the revolution and Yuan's orcestration of the Emperors abdication Sun Yat-sen resigned the office of President in Yüan's favor and took a planning post in which he formulated ambitious programs for rail and industrial development. Sun remained leader or the KMT party which held majority control in the new government. China's new republican leaders bickered endlessly and Yuan—who wanted the imperial throne himself—bypassed the constitution, granting himself additional powers and used force (and international financial aid) to crush liberal parliamentarianism. Sun tried to oust Yuan by fermenting a second revolution in 1913. It failed and Sun again fled to Japan, along with other KMT party members, where his fortunes were at their nadir for years.

Yuan Shi-kai died suddenly in 1916, and power fell to local military leaders who made themselves regional war lords. China had no effective national government from 1916 to 1927. Sun Yat-sen tried to collaborate with Chen Chiungming, the war lord in Guangzhou, seeking a new base of power there. Sun was ambivalent toward the student-led May Fouth Movement of 1919. Sun's return to China in 1919 and the re-assumption of revolutionary activities found him somewhat outdated. Youthful radicals no longer flocked to him, and some of his ideas were antiquated. Sun recognized the need for adjustments and a solid basis of support. Therefore, he added his own ideas to those of the May Fourth Movement and borrowed from the movement in return. As a result, his attacks on the Versailles Treaty gained attention, and Sun's denunciation of Western imperialism as the cause of China's malaise was widely accepted and gradually Sun regained stature as spokesman of the new Chinese nationalism that moved students, professionals and cosmopolitan Chinese in the coastal cities.

In 1922, failing to outmaneuver the Guangzhou militarists, Sun fled to Shanghai. There he met the Comintern agent Adolf A. Joffe, who had been sent by Lenin to seek possible allies for Soviet policy. They reached an understanding in 1923 whereby Sun Yat-sen received Soviet support for a United Front between his nationalist Kuomintang of China party and the Communist Party of China. However, Sun did not endorse Communism. Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin helped reorganize the KMT on the lines of "democratic centralism" familiar in Communist parties, with leadership securely in the hands of a small group. Fighting forces were equipped and trained, and Chinese Communists—who were encouraged to joined the Kuomintang as part of the United Front agreement—did their part in propaganda and organization to prepare for the military drive by KMT's army leader Chiang Kai-shek that was to make a Northern Expedition drive out the warlords. Late in 1924 Sun travelled to North China for a last effort at negotiation with the Beiyang warlord's government which had acquired some international recognition. However Sun Yat-sen became ill and died in Beijing on March 12, 1925.

Three Principles

In the early 1920s Sun announced an elaborated vision for China, the "Three Principles of the People" (San Min Chu I). The principles had been first sketched in 1905 and Sun's statements were not concise or systematic. His program was a political document for the KMT and all of China that became sacrosanct, beyond criticism and change.

The first principle, People's Rule—often translated as Nationalism—was long uppermost in his mind and appealed to the greatest audience. It emphasized the importance of restoring China's equality with the Western powers, who, he said, had made China their collective colony. All Chinese were now called upon to identify with the nation and transcend regionalism and localism. The second principle, People's Authority, often given as Democracy, expressed Sun's ideas about the organization of power. He believed that the people had sovereignty, but were still incapable of exercising it; therefore they must be guided by an elite—the KMT. Drawing freely on Western theories of republicanism, Sun was prepared to grant the people the four powers of election, recall, initiative, and referendum. The government of trained specialists would have five branches: legislative, executive, judicial, civil-service, and censorial. Finally, under minsheng or People's Livelihood, sometimes translated as Socialism, Sun drew on Henry George and other land reformers to argue that a tax on the unearned increment in land values would go far to solve China's fiscal and agrarian problems.[3] Sun's thought was eclectic and unsystematic, and his proposals were often better suited to meeting the tactical needs of the moment than to formulating long-range solutions. The third principle was an outgrowth of China's traditionalism incorporating ideas from socialism (the redistribution of private wealth to achieve equality) and capitalism (the government must represent the people in its effort to regulate capital).[4]

Sun was the foremost advocate of land reform in modern China. He called for "maximization of land use," particularly with the idea of averting famine by increasing agricultural production. He emphasized rapid mechanization, the adoption of scientific techniques (especially chemical fertilizer), solving the problems of flood control and pest eradication, the promotion of domestic industry and farm credit, and improvements in storage and transportation. His emphasis on land utilization was primarily economic and technical.[5]

Though a supporter of female education and an opponent of footbinding, Sun was unwilling to work for female suffrage against the wishes of his more conservative male supporters. Thus when the Tongmeng Hui merged with other parties to become the KMT, Sun accepted the exclusion of female members of the Tongmeng Hui from the new party and to ignore, at least temporarily, the issue of women's rights.[6]

Image and reputation

Sun Yat-sen became an iconic figure for both the Nationalists of the KMT, and the Communists under Mao Zedong, and is revered in Taiwan and highly respected in China in the 21st century.[7] When China began a systematic program of modernization in the 1980s, interest in Sun was revived by the communist government as a hero of nationalism and modernization whose image could be used to promote national unification and economic development.[8]


Biography and ideas

  • Bergere, Marie-Claire. Sun Yat-Sen (1998), 480pp, the standard biography, based on rigorous modern scholarship
  • Boorman, Howard L. "Sun Yat-sen" in Boorman, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (1970) 3: 170-89, excellent starting place. complete text online
  • Chang, Sidney Hsu-hsin and Gordon, Leonard H. D. All under Heaven . . . : Sun Yat-sen and His Revolutionary Thought. (1991). 253 pp.
  • Metzger, Thomas A. "Did Sun Yat-sen Understand the Idea of Democracy? The Conceptualization of Democracy in the Three Principles of the People and in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty" American Asian Review 1992 10(1): 1-41. Issn: 0737-6650 Argues that both men extol the belief in a leadership hierarchy based on degrees of moral and educational enlightenment. Differences resulting from cultural, educational, and economic differences between their countries show Mill stressing the importance of the unpredictable interplay of diverse impulses, while Sun Yat-sen stresses leadership by a group that is publicly and politically supported in its endeavors.
  • Moran, Craig Joseph. "Tang Jiyao and Sun Yat-sen: Reform, Revolution and the Struggle for Southern China." PhD dissertation U. of Michigan 1992. 549 pp. DAI 1993 53(11): 4046-A. DA9308405 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Schiffrin, Harold Z. Sun Yat-sen: Reluctant Revolutionary. (1980) 280 pp.
  • Sharman, Lyon. Sun Yat-Sen, His Life and Its Meaning: A Critical Biography (1968), first published 1934 online edition
  • Wang, Huiyun. "Comparing Discourses on Tradition and Modernization: Sun Yat-sen's and Gandhi's Perspectives on Social Change." PhD dissertation U. of Chicago 1995. 313 pp. DAI 1995 56(3): 1079-A. DA9523535 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Wang, Ke-wen. "Sun Yat-sen, Wang Jingwei and the Guangzhou Regimes, 1917-1925." Republican China 1996 22(1): 1-22. Issn: 0893-2344

National studies

  • Boorman, Howard L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. (Vol. I-IV and Index. 1967-1979). 600 short scholarly biographies excerpt and text search
  • Botjer, George. A Short History of Nationalist China, 1919–1949 (1979). 312pp
  • Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 12, Republican China 1912-1949. Part 1. (1983). 1001 pp. ; Fairbank, John K. and Feuerwerker, Albert, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 13: Republican China, 1912-1949, Part 2. (1986). 1092 pp. summarizes latest scholarship
  • Harrison, Henrietta. The Making of the Republican Citizen: Political Ceremonies and Symbols in China, 1911-1929. (2000). 270 pp.
  • Hsü, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China, 6th ed. (1999), textbook with detailed political coverage excerpt and text search
  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China (1991), 876pp; well written survey from 1644 to 1980s excerpt and text search; complete edition online at Questia

Primary Sources

  • Cheng, Chu-yuan, ed. Sun Yat-sen's Doctrine in the Modern World. (1989). 327 pp.
  • Wei, Julie Lee; Myers, Ramon H.; and Gillin, Donald G., eds. Prescriptions for Saving China: Selected Writings of Sun Yat-sen. (1994). 328 pp.

See also

Online resources


  1. Irma Tam Soong, "Sun Yat-sen's Christian Schooling in Hawai`i." Hawaiian Journal of History 1997 31: 151-178. Issn: 0440-5145
  2. Allen F. Damon, "Financing Revolution: Sun Yat-sen and the Overthrow of the Ch'ing Dynasty." Hawaiian Journal of History 1991 25: 161-186. Issn: 0440-5145
  3. Sein Lin, "Sun Yat-sen and Henry George: The Essential Role of Land Policy in Their Doctrines," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-220 in JSTOR
  4. On changing views of his "socialism" see Michael R. Godley, "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: Sun Yatsen and the International Development of China." Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 1987 (18): 109-125. Issn: 0156-7365 in Jstor; Robert A. Scalapino, and Harold Schiffrin, "Early Socialist Currents in the Chinese Revolutionary Movement: Sun Yat-sen Versus Liang Ch'i-ch'ao" Journal of Asian Studies 1959 18(3): 321-342. Issn: 0021-9118 in Jstor
  5. Chan Lien, "Sun Yat-sen on Land Utilization." Agricultural History 1968 42(4): 297-303. Issn: 0002-1482
  6. Yu-ning Li, "Sun Yat-sen and Women's Transformation." Chinese Studies in History 1988 21(4): 58-78. Issn: 0009-4633
  7. For a negative view see J. Y. Wong, "Sun Yatsen: His Heroic Image a Century Afterwards." Journal of Asian History 1994 28(2): 154-176. Issn: 0021-910x
  8. Key Ray Chong, and Fang-fu Ruan. "The Resurrection of Sun Yat-sen for China's Modernization." Journal of Third World Studies 1988 5(1): 130-145. Issn: 8755-3449