Why Sun Yat-Sen Was An American Thinker

In modern Chinese history, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) holds a unique place. He led the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911; devoted his life to championing an independent and democratic China; and was a revolutionary leader and a man of vision. Sun remains the only political leader honored by both mainland China and Taiwan. What’s fascinating about Sun, but little known in America, is that his birthplace, formal education, medical training, religious faith, and political values made him a true American.

Sun’s elder brother concealed the fact that Yat-sen was an American. His family would claim that he was born in China because a Chinese identity was crucial to his mission for China’s future but contemporaneous records show that he was an American citizen by birth. The National Archives at San Francisco verified on April 29, 1904, that Sun had US citizenship. The American Institute in Taiwan also confirms that Sun Yat-sen was born in Hawaii.

When Sun was 4 years old, his parents took him back with them to China. Then at age 12, he sailed on a British steamship back to Hawaii, to live with his elder brother. Sun received his secondary education at the ʻIolani School under the supervision of the Church of Hawai’i.

At 18, Sun wanted to convert to Christianity. He was baptized in Hong Kong by Rev. C. R. Hager, an American missionary. He began studying Western medicine at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. At 22, he joined a group of revolutionary thinkers called the Four Bandits. They founded the Furen Literary Society, which emphasized discipline, purifying the character, and learning from the West. In 1892 Sun graduated with a medical doctorate degree from the University of Hong Kong, a globally respected educational establishment in the British territory.

In 1894, Sun wrote a petition to the Qing Viceroy of Zhili, Li Hongzhang, presenting his ideas for modernizing China but was refused an audience. That same year, he founded a nationalist party in Hawaii, the Revive China Society. It would later be renamed the Kuomintang.

In 1895, Sun formed an alliance with the underground Triad Societies in Hong Kong to organize the First Guangzhou uprising against the Qing dynasty. But when the plan failed, Sun escaped to Japan. This began his 16-year traveling exile, during which his brother supported him, selling most of his 12,000 acres of ranch and cattle in Hawaii to do so.

In 1896, now in London, Sun was kidnapped by the Chinese legation, which wanted to extradite him to China for execution. With the help of Sir James Cantlie (Dean of the College of Medicine in Hong Kong,) the British Foreign Office intervened. Sun was released and stayed at Gray’s Inn Place for eight months. Every day, he went to the nearby British Museum library for reading, constantly searching for an ideal political system applicable to a modern China.

In 1897, Sun was in Canada to seek funding from the Chinese communities, where he was followed by a Chinese official and a British detective whom the Chinese consulate in London had hired. Sun evaded capture and boarded a transpacific liner to Japan. There he soon met Tōten Miyazaki, a philosopher, who offered to assist his cause. Sun began organizing a more inclusive and influential network for fundraising in Southeast Asian countries, where large numbers of overseas Chinese lived and prospered.

In 1900 Sun launched the Huizhou uprising but failed. His Great Ming uprising in 1903 also failed. He further extended his network with a revolutionary base in Ha Noi and a military academy near Tokyo. Returning to Hawaii, he joined the Triad Societies’ branch there. Blessed with a magnetic personality, Sun’s popularity was now spreading beyond Greater China.

Image: Symbolizing America’s support, the U.S. Post Office Department twice depicted Sun Yat-sen on postage stamps.

In 1904, Sun sailed to New York from Hawaii. While in New York, the San Francisco Chinese community funded and promoted a pamphlet he wrote, entitled “The True Solution of the Chinese Problem.” American influence on Sun was growing because he saw America as a model of success. Sun admired the political philosophy of President Lincoln for a democratic government. He called this the “Three Principles of The People” and developed his own version for China: minzu (national feelings of the people,) minquan (rights of the people,) and minsheng (the people’s livelihood.)

Between 1905 and 1910, Sun led six armed uprisings. All failed. In December 1910 (now on his 11th trip to the US mainland) he arrived in San Francisco to begin a fundraising tour to all Chinese communities in the country.

In October 1911, his revolutionary force’s uprising at Wuchang finally succeeded. Sun heard the news while in Denver and was anxious to return to China. His trusted friend, Homer Lea, offered to accompany him. Lea was an American adventurer, writer, and geopolitical strategist from Colorado. They arrived in Shanghai on Christmas Day. A whole series of successful uprisings was taking place throughout China during their sea journey, known as the Xinhai Revolution, or the “1911 Revolution.” The last Emperor Puyi was overthrown, ending 2,132 years of China’s imperial rule.

January 1, 1912, marked the birthdate of the Republic of China, with Sun Yat-sen as President. He called for the end of warlord rule and the abolition of all unequal treaties between the Qing dynasty government and other countries. But to unite various factions within China was challenging. Fighting among the warlords, among the politicians, and between the warlords and the politicians led to many regional factions.

A brief civil war between North and South in 1915 ended in compromise. After the army of warlord Yuan Shi-kai defeated Sun’s nationalist army, Sun resigned from his leadership position. Yuan then proclaimed himself as the new Emperor of China and sparked a violent backlash from other warlords. Yuan’s “reign” was short-lived, for he was emperor for only 83 days, at which point he abandoned the effort and, a short time later, died.

In 1917, Sun re-emerged and met with former nationalist colleagues to form a military government. However, the local warlords still possessed the real power. Sun’s parliament in Canton was split and several of his key men were assassinated. He was forced to withdraw to Shanghai in 1918.

From this time on, and out of power, Sun devoted himself to promoting education and health care. In 1924, he founded a university in Guangdong, with five campuses and ten affiliated hospitals. Sun Yat-sen University ranks 89th globally by the 1921 Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Sun died in Beijing in January 1925, leaving a short political will with the message, “The revolution is not done. All my comrades must strive on.” Chiang Kai-shek remained Sun’s loyal follower, spearheading the Northern Expedition to defeat the warlords, purging the Communists, ending the Civil War (1916-28), and succeeding in reunifying most of China.

Chiang’s first Republic of China (1928-49) and second Republic of China in Taiwan (1949-75) were based on Sun’s Three Principles of the People. In addition, Sun’s Five-Yuan Constitution served as a political and administrative guideline. Part of Sun’s speech was included in the National Anthem of the Republic of China.

After Sun Yat-sen died, the Kuomintang continued to control all five branches of government in China for 24 years and in Taiwan for 60 years. In Taiwan, the National Sun Yat-sen University (founded in 1980) has been devoted to public research. It has a powerful political and commercial relations curriculum. Situated by the beach and the mountains, the beautiful campus also accommodates a leading research center in marine sciences.

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