Born near Guangzhou in 1866, Sun Yat-sen spent part of his childhood in Hawaii. He was mission educated and became a Christian before he qualified as a doctor in Xiangang. At an early age he became interested in how China might be reformed and offered his ideas to several reform-minded officials, including Li Hongzhang, who ignored his suggestions. At that point Sun abandoned reform and while in Honolulu in 1984 he formed a revolutionary group, the Society to Restore China’s Prosperity. The hundred-odd members of the society were mainly from Zhongshan, Sun’s native district near Guangzhou. In the following year he organized another branch of the society in Xianggang and in March 1985, as the disastrous war with Japan was coming to its end, Sun and his close supporters formulated a plan to capture Guangzhou in October. The plan assumed that China was ripe for revolution and that the secret societies and bandits gangs would rise in rebellion as soon as the rebels had struck the initial spark. The plot was discovered and Sun fled to Japan with on price on his head. He was not to return to the Chinese mainland, apart from the briefest of forays, for more than sixteen years.
Over the next few years Sun travelled widely seeking support for his plans. While in Japan he cut off his queue and took on the appearance of a Japanese. When he was in London in 1896 he was seized by the staff of the Chinese legation and would would have been returned to China for trial and execution if he had not managed to smuggle out a note in a laundry basket to a former teacher, Dr. Catlie, who alerted the authorities and obtained Sun’s release. This incident convinced Sun of his destiny raised his hopes that Britain would support the revolutionary movement. Sun also made contact with Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the reformers of 1898, but failed to establish any common front with them. In 1900 he attempted another uprising, this time at Huizhou, East of Guangzhou. This did receive some popular support, but it was also crushed easily, demonstrating that a popular movement had little chance of succeeding against the forces commanded by the Qing.
In 1911 the Qing decided to nationalize all the trunk railways, thus incurring the wrath of local vested interests. Armed rebellion broke out in the province of Sichuan, and the court exposed itself to further attacks by failing to suppress it. In October of the same year a local revolutionary group in Wuhan, one of many in China by this time, began another rebellion, which, in spite of its lack of coordination, unexpectedly managed to overthrow the provincial government. Its success inspired other provincial secessions.
Sun Yat-sen learned of the Wuhan revolution from the newspapers while he was in Denver, Colo. He returned to Shanghai in December and was elected provisional president by delegates meeting in Nanjing. Knowing that his regime was weak, Sun made a deal with Yuan Shikai (Yüan Shih-k’ai), an imperial minister who had been entrusted with full power by the court. On Feb. 12, 1912, the emperor abdicated; the next day Sun resigned, and on the 14th Yuan was elected his successor.
Sun’s political doctrines are summarized in his Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood—the last involving the regulation of private capital and “equalizing land rights”) and his Plan for National Reconstruction, which explained basic parliamentary procedures, attacked the traditional Chinese saying that to know is easier than to do, and set forth a grandiose plan for China’s industrialization, concocted by Sun without much help from engineers or economists.
Although sanctified by his followers, Sun’s doctrine was not his major strength. All contemporary sources attribute to him a magnetic personality, a great capacity for tolerating others’ weaknesses, a singular dedication to the pursuit of power, and a knowledge of the West unequaled by that of any of his political rivals. Perhaps the last factor is the most important, for it is this that set Sun apart and made him the symbol of Chinese modernization. Quite fittingly, the Chinese communists call him “a pioneer of the revolution.”
1. J.A.G. Roberts, Modern China, An Illustrated History, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Phoenix Mill, 1998.