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Sun Yat-Sen (18661925) was a Chinese thinker and revolutionary, whose agitations were largely responsible for the final downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

Early Life

Sun was born to a farm-owning family in Hsiang-shan County, near the city of Canton in southern China on November 12, 1866. From 1879 to 1882, Sun studied at an Anglican missionary school in Honolulu, Hawaii and later graduated from Oahu University. Under the influence of Western culture, Sun accepted Christianity and was baptized in 1884. In 1892 he received his degree from a Hong Kong medical school, and began practiced medicine in that city.

While in Hong Kong, Sun became concerned with the plight of the Chinese people and the failings of the Qing Dynasty. He became involved in an abortive revolt against the Qing in 1895, and was forced to flee abroad. Thereafter Sun traveled extensively around the world, enlisting the aid of overseas Chinese in support of his revolutionary dreams. During this time, he continued his studies of Western political and social thought, especially that of Karl Marx and Henry George.

The Revolution of 1911

In 1905, Sun, now working out of Japan, organized a revolutionary league called the Tong Meng Hui and continued to refine his political ideals, which ultimately came to be based on the "Three People’s Principles": nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood.

In 1911, thanks in large part to Sun's agitatons, widespread revolution erupted in China, and was successful in overthrowing the Qing once Yüan Shih-kai brought the army over to the revolutionary cause. As the most visible and respected of the revolutionary leaders, Sun was elected provisional president of the new Republic of China that December. But Yüan Shih-kai, realizing that it was his army that was the true power behind the revolution, desired the presidency for himself, and forced Sun to resign in his favor on February 12, 1912.


At first Sun tried to resist Yüan's increasingly tyranical rule through legitimate means, serving as the director of the Kuomintang - the polictical party that Sung Chiao-jen had forged from Sun's old Tong Meng Hui league. Under Sung's able leadership the Kuomintang party won a sweeping victory in the elections of 1912-1913, but when Yüan had Sung assassinated in response, Sun was forced into open revolt.

With the army still on his side, Yüan crushed the revolt and Sun was forced to seek asylum in Japan, where he regrouped the Kuomintang. In 1914 he strengthened his position by marrying Song Qingling, the daughter of the prominent Song family. Sun returned to China in 1917 in the chaos following Yüan's death, and in 1921 he had himself elected president of a self-proclaimed "national" government at Canton, which actually controlled only a tiny portion of southern China.

Planning the Northern Expedition

From then on all of Sun's energies were directed towards the achievement of his dream of a great "Northern Expedition" to reconquer the rest of China from the many warlords who now controlled it, and reestablish the Republic. To this end, Sun began building an army, establishing the Whampoa Military Academy near Canton with Chiang Kai-shek as its commandant and with such party leaders as Wang Ching-wei and Hu Han-min as political instructors.

Finding little support in the west for his plans, Sun began actively cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviets, traveling to Moscow several times to consult with Soviet leaders and even reorganizing the Kuomintang along the lines of a bolshevik-style soviet. However, before he could see his dream of the great Northern Expedition come true, Sun died in Beijing of cancer, on March 12, 1925.


After Sun’s death, when the Communists and the Kuomintang split, each group claiming to be his true heir, initiating a de facto civil war that would last until 1949. Meanwhile, the veneration of Sun’s memory became a cult of sorts, centering around his tomb at Nanjing. Although often thought of as arrogant, egotistical, and even meglomaniacal while he was alive, history has been kinder to Sun's memory, if only because of how favorably he compares to the other three great figures of revolutionary China: Yüan, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong. Although in light of the events that followed, most of Sun's efforts seem to have been in vain, it can at least be said that of the revolutionary leaders Sun did the least harm to the Chinese people, although we cannot know what kind of leader he would have made if he had ever been able to successfully sieze power for himself.

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