That Sun Yatsen (孫日新 or Sun Zhongshan 孫中山) struggled to overthrow the old Qing Dynasty is common knowledge.  Less well understood is the age in which he developed.  

Sun grew up in Xiangshan County (香山縣) between Macao and Guangzhou as a peasant.  That area had a long history of contact with foreigners and anti-Manchu feelings.  Here Sun learned as a boy about the popular folklore of the valor of the Taiping Revolution that had ended shortly before his birth.

At the age of 13, Sun went to Honolulu to join his elder brother in 1879 at the British-Anglican Iolani School, where he became a Christian as part of his Westernization.  The sentiment there at that time was pro-Hawaiian Independence and against American annexation.  He then went on to Oahu College (later known as the Punahou School).  Fearing that Sun was becoming too westernized, his brother sent him back home to China only to have Sun expelled to Hong Kong for desecrating local idols.  He was baptized as a Congregationalist in Hong Kong and studied at the College of Medicine.  

Despite his foreign upbringing, Sun developed a keen sense of nationalism.  Underlying Sun’s nationalist sentiments were his observation that China of the 1890s had become very different from the China of his boyhood.  In China’s port cities, the main streets were clogged with Japanese rickshaws.  China’s factories, railways and steamships were humming with steam engines that were all imported, not made in China.  Foreigners and their equipment seemed to have become as pervasive as in an outright European colony.  Sun also saw how cheap rural labor was flocking to the cities to work with manufacturing, cotton and tobacco enterprises. 

Sun also recognized that Chinese society saw the emergence of new paths toward upward mobility.  He observed that the old scholar-farmer-merchant-craftsmen classes were no longer the sole sources of respectability.  He witnessed the emergence of the comprador class of Chinese individuals who worked for foreign interests.  Upward mobility also could be achieved through officer training at military academies.  The social distinction between the scholar gentry and the merchant class had now become blurred as the merchant could now acquire a degree status and qualify for the government bureaucracy.  The abolition of the examination system based on the old classics gave rise to a new class of intelligentsia.  Those achieving the new education from the West became manufacturers, traders and journalists.  

From these observations and his growing sense of nationalism, Sun began undertaking a new role as a professional revolutionary and a party organizer.  In his early days before the Boxer Uprising, he was very unsuccessful.  The popular reformers Liang Qichao () and Kang Youwei (康有為) viewed him as an uneducated upstart.  His writings had been criticized as being too banal.  Other revolutionary figures were often better than he was.  The popular Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), who had agitated for reforms in the imperial government ignored Sun when Sun had taken a reform proposal to him in 1894.  Physically, Sun was of medium height and slightly built, nothing spectacular to look at.  

Over time, he did try to work with the triad society strongmen, Japanese expansionists, Chinese students, as well as other reformers.  He also worked with overseas Chinese merchants, Comintern agents, warlords and anyone who might deign to listen to him.  Philosophically he was flexible, careful not to adhere to ideologies that might limit his options.  

Despite his shortcomings, after the Boxer Uprising, his stature as a revolutionary figure gradually grew.  People noticed that he was working for a cause that he knew was larger than himself.  He had gradually developed a charisma among his peers.  He had developed a network of cooperating supporters, both Chinese and foreign.  He made it a point to learn from his failures and mistakes.  Over time, he was to the young Kuomintang Party what Lenin was to the Russian Revolution.

Formed in 1894, the Revive China Society was Sun’s first secret organization.  Its membership was largely overseas Chinese in Hawaii.  In 1895, a small branch of this organization was set up in Hong Kong.  Sun had hoped that Japan’s defeat of China in that year might become an event to take advantage of during the unrest developing in southern China.  In 1896 in Guangzhou, he set up the Agricultural Study Society and made use of a Christian bookstore there to plot an unsuccessful uprising.  The local authorities had been tipped off and a number of the plotters were arrested.  Sun fled and eventually landed in London, where he was seized and held in the Chinese legation for 12 days.  With the help of a friend who notified Scotland Yard, the Foreign Office and the Times newspaper, Sun obtained his release.

In 1897, Sun returned to Japan where his fame preceded him.  He found himself adopted by a Pan-Asianist organization that had been looking for a Chinese leader whom they could assist in the regeneration and modernization of a new China.  There Sun took on the Japanese name Nakayama (“Middle-Mountain”), the Chinese characters for this was Zhongshan, 中山.  

After 1900, Sun tried again to instigate an uprising with the help of triads, bandits and Hakka farmers in a village not far from Hong Kong; but this, too, failed.

In its Kanda district in early 20th Century Tokyo the evolution of a new source of revolution fed by a revived sense of nationalism gradually emerged.  There thousands of Chinese students who had been sent to Japan for an education often saw themselves being taunted by native Japanese children for their antiquated queues and long gowns.  They had become humiliated by the vivid show of China’s weakness and arch-conservatism.  They responded by studying the way a modern Chinese state could be created using Japanese and Western ideas.  Yen Fu (嚴復), a translator, provided Chinese translations of the works of J. S. Mill, Adam Smith, T.H. Huxley and other western writers.

From his failures Sun recognized that he needed a theory of revolution and what a revolution would bring if he were to be successful in recruiting intellectuals as organizers.  In 1903, he began to write articles.  Later he would write the book “On Revolution.”  He also came up with an intellectual device that he called the Three People’s Principles (三民主義) of nationalism, democracy and socialism.  In Sun’s eyes, the term “minzu zhuyi” (民族主義) meant the people and races combined into one nation.  The second term, “minquan” (民權主義) referred to the people’s rights and power.  The third term was actually a classical Chinese expression “minsheng” (民生主義) that referred to the people’s livelihood.  Sun’s idea of socialism was not those of Marx and Engle’s, rather it was more similar to that of Henry George and his single-tax theory, more concerned with the people’s welfare than ownership of the means of production.  

Sun also favored a five-branch national government structure.  In his writings he envisioned not only the legislature, executive and judicial branches but also examination and censorial branches as well.

In August 1905, Sun established the Tongmenghui (同盟會), a revolutionary alliance to unify the revolution under his leadership.  Within these groups, most came from upper-class elite students from central China.  They accepted Sun largely because he seemed to be able to get results by attracting foreign help and funds.  The Chinese students in Tokyo actively adopted these new ideals, took the oaths requested of them and approved a complex structure of officers, branch organizations, programs and publications.  Part of the strategy of the Tongmenghui was to get the western governments to help create a Chinese republic.

In 1907, Sun faced failure.  Once again, seen as a troublemaker, Sun was expelled from Japan.  The following year he was banished from French Indochina as well.  The Tongmenghui began to lose its momentum and popularity and Sun was expelled from this organization as well.

When the Revolution of October 10, 1911, broke out, Sun was in the United States drumming up support for his revolution.  The revolution turned out to be more of a collapse of the Qing government than a real revolution.  A New Army officers’ plot in Hankow was exposed and about 3,000 soldiers rebelled in order to save themselves.  A sergeant in an engineering battalion Xiong Bingkun (熊秉坤) gathered up his army comrades, assaulted and occupied an ammunition dump.  An army service corps then fought its way to join with Xiong’s men at Wuchang.  An assault on the office of the Qing governor-general Rui-cheng (瑞澂) at Wuchang, caused Rui and the military commander Chang Biao () to flee in disorder.  A local brigadier Li Yuanhong (黎元洪) found himself pressed into leadership of a new independent regime.  During the next six weeks, all provinces except Zhili, Honan, Shandong and three Manchurian provinces declared their independence from the Qing government in Beijing.  Sun Yatsen returned to Nanjing and was installed as a provisional president on January 1, 1912.  On February 10, 1912, the boy-emperor Henry Puyi (溥儀) abdicated.  

Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), who had been recalled to Beijing by the Qing court to serve as a prime minister and commander-in-chief of the collapsing army, was offered the presidency of the new Republic of China if his forces would support the rebellion.  Yuan, ambitious and seeing the possibilities of achieving both revenge against the Manchu regent Caifeng (載灃)and of political leadership in a New China acceded to the rebellion.  On March 10, 1912, Sun resigned the presidency and Yuan  assumed the office.  My next offering will look more closely at Yuan Shikai, his development and his reign in office.

About Pat Welsh


In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs.  He currently resides in Georgia and occasionally lectures on China to classes in World History and World Literature.

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