For over two thousand years, China lived under imperial rule. A series of dynasties and emperors were the defining feature of Chinese governance.
However, in the early 20th century, China threw off its imperial rulers and became, for the first time in its history, a republic.
Much of the reason why China became a republic was due to one man.
Learn more about Sun Yat-sen and the downfall of imperial China on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The first emperor of a unified China is usually recognized to be Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty. He took power in the year 221 BC.
Before that, China wasn’t unified, but there were still centuries of kings and other rulers dating back 5000 years.
There were other short periods between some dynasties where kings or warlords ruled parts of China.
The point is, for all of Chinese history, it had some sort of one-person rule. China was never a republic, and there was no republican tradition to be found in China or Chinese political philosophy.
By the end of the 19th century, however, things started to change.
The ruling dynasty in China at this time was the Qing Dynasty. They had done a poor job of ruling China over the last 100 years as European powers managed to force China into signing a series of treaties that humiliated and impoverished the country.
There had also been a series of rebellions against the Qing in the 19th century, which killed over 30 million people collectively. The largest of which was the Taiping Rebellion from December 1850 to July 1864, which will be the subject of its own future episode.
A group of Chinese intellectuals began to realize that maybe there was a better way. The imperial system which had served China so well for two thousand years, they thought, was now obsolete.
It was time for China to put power in the hands of the people and form a republic.
Enter into the story, Sun Yat-sen.
Sun was born on November 12, 1866, in the Guangdong province in southeastern China.
As with my episode on Wu Zetian, I have to give a brief explanation of Sun Yat-sen’s name, as he went by several names over the course of his life.
He was born Sun Deming and was given the name Sun Wen in grade school. When he went to college in Hong Kong, he went by Sun Yixian, which was the transliteration of his name into Cantonese.
When he became involved in politics, he became known as Sun Zhongshan.
As is the tradition in China, there were other names he was called throughout his life, it was his art name, Sun Yat-sen, which he adopted in college, for which he is best known. An art name in Chinese is sort of like a pseudonym for writers in English.
I will refer to him as Sun Yat-sen, or just Sun, for the remained of the episode.
Sun was born to a poor family. His father was often gone to earn money for the family. Sun’s mother was a Christian, which was not a common thing in China at the time.
Sun began to attend school at the age of 10 and excelled, but because of his family’s financial situation, he couldn’t attend a better school.
At the age of 13, he was sent to live with his older brother in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In Honolulu, he attended the Iolani School, which was an Anglican academy. He didn’t know English when he arrived but quickly picked up the language. He again excelled academically and received many honors before returning to China in 1883 at the age of 17.
As Hawaii was being annexed by the United States at this time, he managed to get American citizenship.
His time in Hawaii made an impression on him as he was exposed to ideas that he otherwise would never have been exposed to in China.
When he returned to China, he viewed his village in a new light.
He saw the poverty of his village as the fault of the emperor. Local imperial officials were corrupt and kept villagers poor. He also was disheartened by the use of traditional Chinese medicine, which he felt was backward.
He and a friend smashed a statue dedicated to the god emperor in his village, which angered local villagers and caused him to flee to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, he attended a British school until his graduation in 1886 and then attended the newly opened Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. He graduated in 1892 with his doctorate and a license to practice medicine.
During this period in Hong Kong, he also formally converted to Christianity.
His career in medicine didn’t last long, however.
While he was in medical school in Hong Kong, he fell in with a group of three other students who were keen on political change in China and overthrowing the Qing Dynasty government.
History knows these four men as the Four Bandits. In addition to Sun Yat-sen, they were Yeung Hok-ling, Chan Siu-bak, and Yau Lit.
Sun and the bandits grew frustrated with the Qing government, which shunned all western technology and thinking.
Initially, Sun felt that it was possible to reform the Qing dynasty to get them to accept new modern ideas voluntarily.
In 1894, Sun wrote an 8,000-character letter to the imperial viceroy Li Hongzhang, outlining his ideas for the Qing to modernize. The viceroy refused to grant him an audience.
While this was happening, China was losing to Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War, which only further exposed the weakness of the Qing.
He once again left for Hawaii in exile, and while there, he founded the Revive China Society, a secret organization that explicitly sought to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
He worked with Chinese ex-pats and immigrants to raise money and returned to China in 1895 to lead a rebellion in the province of Guangzhou.
The Guangzhou Rebellion was his first attempt at an actual rebellion, and it failed miserably. The plan was to take control of the government buildings and then use Guangzhou as the springboard to spread the rebellion across China.
The Qing crushed the rebellion, and Sun had to flee again. His family fled to Hawaii, and he went to London. While in London, he was actually captured by Qing operatives, who were going to smuggle him back to China to be executed, but he escaped and then fled to Japan via Canada in 1897.
Sun was in Japan for five years. While he was there, he met with many other Asian revolutionary leaders who were trying to expel westerners from their countries.
His time in Japan was important in forming and refining his worldview. Japan had gone through a modernization process with the Meiji Restoration, which I addressed in a previous episode.
It was here he developed what he called the Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood.
In 1900 he ordered another uprising in the city of Huizhou, and this, too, also failed, despite appealing to the organized crime triads for help.
He continued to raise support from the Chinese diaspora for the next several years. He traveled to Thailand, the United States, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam.
In 1907 he led another uprising, this time in the Friendship Pass on the border between China and Vietnam, and this, too, failed. His record up to this point on being a revolutionary wasn’t very good.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese revolutionaries began to turn against Sun and broke into Sun and anti-Sun factions.
There were several more failed attempts at revolution before the revolutionaries finally found luck.
On October 10, 1911, a revolt broke out in the city of Wuchang in the Hubei Province and quickly spread to other cities all over China.
The Qing were taken by surprise at how rapidly the revolution spread and were partially immoablized by the fact that the new emperor, the Puyi Emperor, was only five years old and had taken the throne at the age of two just three years earlier.
Sun had nothing to do with this uprising. He was in Denver, Colorado, when it took place, trying to raise money. He heard about the uprising in the news and left immediately once he heard the news.
He arrived in China on December 21, and the five-year-old emperor abdicated on February 12, 1912.
Two thousand years of Chinese Imperial rule had come to an end.
At a meeting of revolutionaries in Nanjing, Sun Yat-Sen was elected the provisional president of the new Republic of China.
The new Republic of China suffered problems from the get-go.
There were many parties trying to vie for power, which led to military clashes.
Sun Yat-Sen’s Revive China Society morphed into the Chinese Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang.
The Kuomintang won a majority in the first election for the Chinese National Assembly, but a warlord by the name of Yuan Shikai had the leader of the party assassinated, and then a conflict known as the Second Revolution took place where the Kuomintang tried to oust Yuan.
They were not successful.
Sun Yat-Sen resigned from his position and once again fled to Japan.
China fell apart into areas ruled by regional warlords. Sun’s goal all along wasn’t just to get rid of the Qing but also to have a unified China. The unification part was now failing miserably.
Sun realized that it was going to be necessary to unify the country on the battlefield. He began to work with the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Union as he needed allies to fight against the warlords. It wasn’t that he had communist sympathies so much as he just needed allies.
During the period in the early 1920s, he mentored his protege, a young military commander by the name of Chiang Kai?shek.
Sun Yat-Sen passed away from liver cancer on March 12, 1925, at the age of 58.
While Sun Yat-Sen did achieve his goal of getting rid of the Qing Dynasty and imperial rule over China, he never came close to achieving his goal of making China a unified democratic republic.
Soon after his death, on March 12, 1925, the Kuomintang and the communists started a civil war that would last for 20 years.
Eventually, the Kuomintang and the nationalists had to flee China for Taiwan at the end of the civil war, where their descendants still live today.
Sun Yat-Sen has the unique distinction of being revered by both Taiwan and Mainland China. The Taiwanese called him the Father of the Nation, and the Communist Party calls him the Forerunner of the revolution.
Most Chinese cities will have a street named after him. There is a major shrine to him in Taipei, and he has an enormous mausoleum outside of Nanjing, China.
All over the world, in Chinese communities, there are statues and other memorials dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen.
He is probably the Chinese figure from the 20th century who has the most widespread support.
Sun Yat-Sen was not a great military leader. He wasn’t even a great revolutionary, as every uprising he directly took part in failed. However, he was a great statesman. He traveled around the globe building support for the cause of Chinese republicanism, and he created the intellectual foundation for changes that took place in the early 20th century.
It is for this reason that Sun Yat-Sen has earned the title of the Founder of Modern China.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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