Chinese history

Dr. Sun Yatsen

Chinese history

This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2011) written by Walter Fung.
Walter is a British Born Chinese and has been a member of SACU Council since 2001. He is a retired textile technologist and was engaged in textile research, development and technical service for 35 years for a large textile company.

This year, 2011 is the 100th Anniversary of the 1911 revolution in China which overthrew the Manchu Dynasty and ended imperial rule. It was led by Dr Sun Yatsen who is recognised as the Father of Modern China on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

Sun Yatsen was born in 1866 at Cuiheng village, which is about mid distance from today's Zhongshan City and Macao in Guangdong province, south China. He qualified in medicine and practised in Hong Kong, but he was determined to make a better life for his countrymen and realised that the way forward was to overthrow the Manchu rulers and establish a republican government run by the Chinese people themselves. Sun became a revolutionary and spent much of his time, raising support and money amongst the overseas Chinese communities.

Sun Yatsen and Song Qingling
Sun Yatsen and his wife Song Qingling in Japan 1915.

The Qing government put a price on his head and he spent much of his time in the US, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Europe. Many of those Chinese who had left China because of poverty, oppression, natural disasters and general misrule of the decaying Qing Dynasty, gave their life-savings to him to help fund the revolution. Sun spent time in London, where he was taken prisoner for a short time by officials of the embassy of the Qing government. He also visited Liverpool.

Sun Yatsen 1916
Dr. Sun Yatsen (centre front row) and his wife Song Qingling (on his right) in Japan April 1916 taking part in a rally to denounce Yuan Shikai. Also pictured are Liao Zhongkai (2nd left back row); He Xiangning (3rd right front row), Liao Mengxing (2nd left front row). The boy in front of Dr. Sun is Liao Chengzhi

His many attempts at revolution were not successful until the 10th October 1911 rising at Wuchang after which he became the first President of China. However, China was still very much divided and for the sake of national unity, he stepped down after a short period of time, in favour of Yuan Shikai, the former commander-in-chief of the Manchu Army. This man had more support, especially amongst the European powers from whom funds for national reconstruction could be obtained. However, Yuan tried to make himself emperor and establish a new dynasty of imperial rule. This was an unpopular move and Yuan died soon after. Other powerful military leaders in his army broke away from the generally loose government and established regions of China, under their own control. This was the start of the Warlord Era in Chinese history. China became very fragmented and at one time there were three 'governments of China' in Peking, Canton and Wuhan as well as huge areas of the country under the control of various warlords.

Sun made many attempts to reunite China, but realised that he needed an army. He established the Whampoa military academy near Canton (Guangzhou) and re-launched his political party as the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). The leader of his army was Chiang Kaishek who eventually succeeded Sun as leader and who was eventually successful against the warlords. The Communist Party of China was founded in Shanghai in 1921 and Sun allowed communists into the Kuomintang as individuals.

Sun Yatsen Memorial, Wuchang
Sun Yatsen statue in Wuchang, Hubei commemorates 1911 Revolution, former site of revolutionary government

In 1924 the powerful northern warlord, Feng Yuxiang invited Sun to Beijing to discuss reunification of China. However before talks could begin, Sun died of cancer. He had set down his vision of a new China involving his 'Three Principles of the People', nationalism, democracy and people's livelihood. The latter has been interpreted as welfare and socialism. His will is known to every Chinese student of history and he died uttering the words, 'peace', 'struggle', 'save China'. He is buried in a mausoleum on Purple Mountain in Nanjing.

Reginald Johnson wrote that Dr Sun 'insisted on the necessity of a return to the old Chinese morality and strongly recommended his countrymen to retain all that was good in Confucian philosophy.' In all Chinese overseas communities, on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and in Taiwan, you are never far away from a portrait of Dr Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China and on May Day and on National Day, every year, a huge portrait of him is displayed in Tiananmen Square.


Surprisingly, there are few biographies of Dr Sun Yatsen available in the English language. Amongst the few are: 'Strange Vigour' by Bernard Martin , Heinemann, 1944; 'The Man who Changed China' by Pearl Buck, Methuan, London 1955 and 'Sun Yatsen, The Man who Changed China' by Stella Dong, FormAsia, Hong Kong, 2004. There is however an extensive and informative entry in the Wikipedia .

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2011, reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 31, 2011

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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