Sun Yat-Sen and His Legacy

By Gordon, Leonard H. D. | The World and I, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Sun Yat-Sen and His Legacy


Gordon, Leonard H. D., The World and I


Leonard H.D. Gordon is professor emeritus of Chinese history at Purdue University and coauthor, with Sidney H. Chang, ofAll Under Heaven: Sun Yat-sen and His Revolutionary Thought (Hoover Institution Press, 1991).

The history of China is filled with rebellions, uprisings, and foreign invasions. These disturbances often brought new leaders and dynasties to power, but none of them genuinely revolutionized China's government, economy, or society. Revolution as experienced in the West was foreign to traditional China. In the course of its modernization, however, China underwent two colossal upheavals: the Nationalist revolution of 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen and the Communist revolution of 1949 led by Mao Zedong.

Sun Yat-sen, who emerged as the recognized leader of the 1911 revolution, was intensely nationalistic, visionary, and devoted to his cause. Sun was born during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), which was dominated by Manchu tribesmen who had invaded China from north of the Great Wall. By the mid-- nineteenth century, this dynasty was nearing total collapse. Burdened by resistance to change and weakened by the stubborn and ignorant Empress Dowager Zi Xi (Ts'u-hsi), China faced many social ills--opium smoking, gambling, footbinding of young females, infanticide, and an intransigent and autocratic bureaucracy--all of which aroused a need for drastic reform. Meanwhile, the world was in turmoil from Europe to Asia. Clashing ideologies including

capitalism, socialism, imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism--all stirred by rising industrialization and dramatic new forms of communication and transportation--resulted in challenges for which China was unprepared.

Historians throughout East Asia have given much attention to Sun Yat-sen in recent times, and Chinese writers on mainland China and Taiwan have eulogized him, claiming that his ideas have been implemented and arguing that mutual acceptance of his ideology can help unify China. The interpretation of his ideas, however, differs between the Nationalists on Taiwan and the Communists on mainland China. Despite the heightened interest in Sun among Chinese, Western historians have given comparatively little attention to him, and many have derided his abilities and significance. Often they have visualized him as incoherent and unsophisticated in his writings, particularly when compared with the leading reformist intellectuals of the day.

SUN YAT-SEN: THE EARLY YEARS

In some ways, Sun Yat-sen (1866--1925) was an unlikely leader to confront the rapid and dramatic changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born of peasant background in the small village of Cuiheng (Ts'ui-heng) in southern China, he had no government experience, formal classical education, or official contacts. Unlike his reformist rivals, however, Sun received a Western education in Hawaii and Hong Kong, enabling him to study English, medicine, and Christianity. Sun's first Western experience occurred in 1879 when his mother took him to Hawaii, where he enrolled in an Anglican school.

Four years later he entered Oahu College, an American Congregationalist school. Sun's brother, a successful businessman and landowner in Hawaii, was appalled at his younger brother's serious attitude toward Christianity and wrote to their father, who ordered Sun home "to take this Jesus nonsense out of him" and expressed dismay that he would "take up with the superstition of the foreign devils." Sun was not dissuaded, however, and went to Hong Kong in April 1884 and continued his Western and Christian education. Retaining adherence to Chinese tradition, he entered an arranged marriage with a woman from his home village. In the same year, he was baptized, but his adherence to Christian observance waned as he became more involved in revolutionary activities.

By the age of twenty, Sun became less enamored with some aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs and entertained thoughts about overthrowing the Qing dynasty, ruled by the non-Chinese Manchus. …

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