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Sun Yat-sen: father of modern China

The twentieth century was eventful years for China, and saw the emergence of myriads of famed political personages. Controversies abound over many of these celebrities, given the longstanding stand-off between the Communists (CPC) and the Nationalists (KMT) who now control mainland China and Taiwan, respectively. However, among these people, Sun Yat-sen (1866~1925) remains a unique figure for enjoying a paramount reputation both in mainland China and in Taiwan.

On the Chinese mainland, a massive portrait of Sun Yat-sen is placed in Tiananmen Square every year at such big events and festivals as the May Day and National Day, or the annual plenary sessions of National People’s Congress. The CPC fashionably invokes him as the “Forerunner of the Revolution.” And in Taiwan, besides being seen as the Father of the Republic of China, he is referred to posthumously as “Father of the Nation, Mr. Sun Zhongshan”, and appears in Taiwan coinage and currency just like George Washington or Queen Elizabeth II. His likeness is always found at ceremonial locations like the legislative houses. Taiwan pupils complete their compulsory education from elementary to senior high school in classrooms where portraits of Sun is placed in the front.
A giant portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen is placed at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, at major festivals or events. Many places in Chinese cities are named after  Dr. Sun Yat-sen, known as "Zhongshan Road" for example. There is a Zhongshan Park, in almost every major Chinese city.
On both sides of the Taiwan Straits, “Zhongsan”, the style-name by which Sun is most popularly known, is used to name a multitude of geographical locations. Xiangshan, Sun’s hometown, was renamed Zhongshan in his honor. In most major Chinese cities, there seems to be a certain main street named Zhongshan Road. In Guangzhou, there is the Sun Yat-sen University. Other structures or establishments with reference to “Zhongshan” include Zhongshan Park (Beijing), Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Nanjing), Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (Taipei), and Sun Yat-sen Expressway (Taiwan), to name but a few. Sun Yat-sen spent many years living overseas in Japan, Southeast Asia, United States, Canada, and Europe, where he either studied, was in exile, or raised funds for his revolutionary course. And memorial structures are seen in some of these places, too, for instance, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden (Vancouver), Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park (Chinatown, Honolulu), etc. Even in Russia, a land he never set foot on, there is a Moscow Sun Yat-sen University.

In a word, Sun Yat-sen is recognized by Chinese everywhere as the founding father of modern China. Born in 1866 to a common peasant family in Guangdong, he received a basic training in Chinese classics in the village school, and was sent in 1879 to Hawaii to join his brother where he enrolled in a college and studies Western sciences and Christianity. Exposure to Western culture and sciences left a mark on his political beliefs. Upset by the Qing government’s corruption, inefficiency and inability to defend the nation against foreign invasions, he became a dedicated advocate of launching a massive revolution and reform. Aiming at overthrowing the Manchu’s rule, Sun organized reformist societies for overseas Chinese expatriates, planned or provided financial support for plots, uprisings at home. Failures followed these early activities, and Sun was forced into exile constantly. In 1905, joined by other revolutionists such as Huang Xing and Song Jiaoren, he organized the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance), the precursor to the later Chinese Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party).

Sun Yat-sen at the presidential inauguration ceremony, Jan. 1, 1912.
The Wuchang Uprising, a successful revolt organized by the revolutionists, occurred in October 1911, opening a new chapter for China. Rebellions against the Qing throne spread throughout the provinces. Sun returned to China on Christmas Day 1911, was elected president of the provisional republican government. On January 1, 1912, Sun proclaimed the founding of the Republic of China.

However, domestic politics during the decade following 1912 proved a disappointment for Sun. Though the Qing emperor abdicated, Yuan Shikai, backed by his military strength, replaced Sun as president of the Republic. Sun’s goal of building China into a modern democracy was thwarted by either Yuan’s attempts to restore the monarchial system or the wars and conflicts between domestic regional warlords. Yuan died in 1916, amidst revolts in south China by Sun’s followers, leaving China in a state of disunity in the hands of a few powerful warlords. Sun based his revolutionary camp in Guangdong, where a separate government was established with Sun proclaimed president, and prepared for a northern expedition to reunite China. He obtained support, both political, military, and financial, from the Soviet Union, allied with the newly-founded Communist Party of China, and re-modeled his party. A military academy was also founded to build up the military arm.

Sun Yat-sen passed away in Beijing, 1925. A grand state funeral was dedicated to him.
However, Sun did not see the start of the northern expedition. Following the Beijing Coup d’Etat (1924), he was invited by the northern warlords to Beijing for peace talks. The negotiations fell apart again, much to his disappointment. Sun died, finally, on March 12, 1925. A state funeral was dedicated to him upon the order of Duan Qirui, Chief Executive of the republican government.

Sun devoted the bulk of his lifetime to the course of Chinese democratic revolution. His political ideals are summarized in the “Three Principles of the People” (nationalism, democracy, and welfare), which continued to be held as the foundational principle by both CPC and KMT.


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