Dr. Sun Yat-sen

Jonathan Spence, professor at Yale University; author of several acclaimed books on China
TIME 100: AUGUST 23-30, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 7/8


In the turbulent and tangled history of modern China, Sun Yat-sen holds a unique place. Claimed as a personal inspiration and political guide by the most bitterly opposed political parties, he is known to millions as "the Father of the Chinese Revolution." Yet his own life was a constant scramble for livelihood and influence, he spent much of his time in exile, and almost none of his cherished schemes came near to fruition. The twin strands of inspiration and failure define the relationship between his life and the history of his country.

Born in 1866 to a farming family in southeast China, not far from Macau and Hong Kong, Sun received a few years of local schooling in traditional Chinese texts. At 13 he moved to Hawaii, where his elder brother had emigrated. Three years of study in a Honolulu boarding school run by the Church of England were followed by more than a decade in Hong Kong, where Sun was baptized a Christian and gained certificates of proficiency in medicine and surgery. He practiced medicine briefly in Hong Kong in 1893.

Yet Sun was not typical of the rising class of Westernized Chinese intent on their own professional advancement within the swiftly changing tides of late 19th century imperialism and colonialism. He was a Chinese patriot of a more traditional kind, an admirer of rebels who had pitted their lives against the ruling Manchu dynasty (or Qing) and was at home within the conspiratorial worlds of Chinese secret societies. His head was filled with dreams of strengthening China from within by drawing on its natural resources in conjunction with new technologies, and he tried to interest powerful officials in his schemes for economic development.

By 1894, however, China was sliding into chaos as the Manchu dynasty weakened and Japan defeated China in a brief and humiliating war. The main prize of victory for the Japanese was the island of Taiwan, which was ceded by China and made a Japanese colony. Sensing the time was ripe for an uprising, Sun returned to Hawaii, where he used his earlier contacts, along with some of his new friends in Hong Kong, to form an underground society dedicated to reviving China. Sun returned to Hong Kong in 1895 and attempted to lead an insurrection in southeast China. He failed. At the Chinese government's request, the British banned Sun from Hong Kong. For a time, Japan became his base for new revolutionary activities. After he was banned there, he lived in various countries in Southeast Asia. He also traveled widely in Europe, Canada and the United States, seeking funds for future uprisings, all of which failed because of faulty planning and lack of adequate weapons.

By 1905, Sun began to develop a more coherent set of guiding principles. These became, in turn, the ideology of a broader-based revolutionary society that he founded at the same time. In this new ideology, which he termed the "Three Principles of the People," Sun sought to combine the fundamental aspects of nationalism, democracy and socialism. Over the years, Sun developed these ideas into a comprehensive plan for restoring economic and moral strength to his country, first by expelling the Manchus and then by curbing the foreign powers. He also hoped to free Chinese from graver forms of social exploitation by building a central government that would counter the rampant forces of capitalism in industry and of powerful landlords in the countryside. It was Sun's view that, in the early stages of China's regeneration, the country should be controlled by a rigorously structured central party, dedicated in loyalty to him personally as absolute leader. But through a carefully calibrated period of "tutelage," the Chinese people would be introduced to the principles and practices of representative government, until finally the tutelage would end and China could emerge as a strong, full-fledged democracy.

Sun Yat-sen had extraordinary tenacity and great persuasive powers. During his long years of exile he was able to keep acquiring funds--especially from overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and North America--and to hold his own against political rivals, within and outside his organization, who held different views of China's destiny. Thus, when the Manchu dynasty at last collapsed in 1911, in some measure because of the ceaseless pressure exerted by Sun and his revolutionary followers, he was named provisional President of the new Chinese republic. But Sun was shrewd enough to see that he lacked adequate military strength to hold China together, and he made the bold decision to transform his revolutionary organization into a mainstream political party. The Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) won more seats than any of its rivals in China's first-ever national elections in early 1913. But Sun and his party still could not curb the emerging powers of the new military and political strongmen. Late in the year he was forced once more into exile, and Kuomintang members were expelled from parliament.

The last decade of Sun's life was spent trying to establish a more effective political and military base of operations. He was aided by a dedicated group of followers who strongly believed in his vision for China and by his second wife, Soong Ching-ling, whom he married in 1914 while in exile in Japan. Some 26 years younger than her husband, Soong had an American college degree and came from a wealthy cosmopolitan family. She was also highly intelligent and politically radical. After 1916, when they returned to China from Japan, the two were constantly shuttling between Shanghai and Canton (now Guangzhou), the cities that seemed to offer them the best potential political bases. By 1923 they had settled on Canton, where Sun assembled a viable government supported by local military figures and by members of the old parliament. There were also new allies, like the young military officer Chiang Kai-shek, who was later to marry Soong's younger sister.

But most important of Sun's new allies were agents from the Communist International in Moscow, who had been instrumental in founding the Chinese Communist Party in the summer of 1921. Two years later, these agents persuaded Sun that if his Kuomintang nationalists would ally with the communists, whose numbers were still small, they could tap into the enormous latent energies of China's peasants and industrial workers, who were just beginning to emerge on the political landscape. Apparently convinced that his organization could control the communists within its ranks, Sun agreed to a formula by which individual communists could enter the Kuomintang as members. In return, the Soviet Union provided Sun with military advisers, arms, ammunition and technical help in strengthening his political organization.

Sun's goal was to use these new military forces to expand his Canton base so that he could break the hold of individual military leaders in south China and eventually link up with sympathetic forces in north China, thus creating a new, reunified government. He was greatly encouraged by an invitation from powerful northern militarists in 1924 to meet with them to discuss future reunification moves. Though ill and tired, Sun undertook the journey, stopping off briefly in Japan on the way. Arriving in Beijing, he was so weak that he had to be taken to his guest house in an ambulance. Doctors speedily found that he had inoperable liver cancer. He died in Beijing in March 1925.

Sun's corpse quickly became a complex political symbol. His body was preserved and kept at a temple on the outskirts of Beijing. Crowds of ordinary people and a mixture of generals and political figures came to pay homage. In an innovative use of new media techniques, phonograph records of Sun's political speeches were played on loudspeakers and film clips of his public appearances in Canton were flashed on a screen. Three-and-a-half years after Sun's death, Chiang Kai-shek was at last able to lead the reunification army from the south into Beijing. But Chiang purged the communists from the Kuomintang, starting a process of confrontation and civil war that was to continue for the next 20 years.

As victors, the Kuomintang reclaimed Sun. They built him an immense mausoleum near their new capital of Nanjing and sent his body across China by railway in an impressive mourning cortège, making his burial an event of political enshrinement. Sun's writings thereafter became the central ideology of the Kuomintang on the mainland and later in Taiwan. The communists, after their victory over nationalist forces in 1949, also claimed Sun for themselves, citing his insistence that a communist alliance was essential to the political development of China.

So it is to this day, in both China and Taiwan, that Sun's strong personality and oddly mixed political fortunes remain a central part of the national memories of revolution and transformation. The doctor was never able to heal the divisions among his people, but they remain united in their reverence for his efforts.