Sun Yat-sen, along with Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, was one of the most important figures in China from 1900 to 1976. 


Sun Yat-sen in 1912

Sun Yat-sen was born in 1867 and died in 1925. Sun was a nationalist revolutionary who believed that the only way for China to move forward in the early 1900’s was for the country to become a republic and adopt western ways in industry, agriculture etc. Unless China did this, Sun was convinced that she was doomed to remain backward by western standards.

Sun Yat-sen was born into a peasant family in Kwantang Province. His father was a peasant farmer. Sun’s brother was a successful merchant and he paid for Sun to receive a good education. Sun was educated at an English speaking school in Honolulu, Hawaii, and later at the New College of Medicine in Hong Kong where he qualified as a doctor in 1892. 

Sun did not become a doctor. Instead, by the time of his graduation, he had become convinced that the Manchu dynasty was corrupt and that while it existed, China would remain backward. He became a professional revolutionary. He toured Europe and America raising funds for the “Save China League”. Despite the danger, he also ventured back to China in an effort to start a revolution against the Manchu’s. These all failed and in 1895, Sun fled to London for his own safety. Here, he was kidnapped by staff from the Chinese embassy, and held a prisoner to be sent back to China for almost certain execution. He was only saved by vigorous protests by the British government who got his release.

Sun continued with his work and espoused his “Three Principles” – Nationalism, Democracy and Socialism. These beliefs formed the background to the League of Common Alliance” which Sun founded in 1898. This party was to become the Guomindang in later years.

The Chinese Revolution in 1911 overthrew the Manchu dynasty. Sun was in America when this happened but he quickly returned to China. In January 1913, an assembly in Nanking elected him “President of the United Provinces of China”. However, China was far from united and after a few months in office Sun resigned in the hope that this gesture might make the rival factions in China pull together to put the country first rather than their own individual claims. The gesture did not work and China became a nation run by warlords in their own region. Central government, if it did exist at this time, centred on Canton where Sun remained an influential figure.

Between 1922 and 1924, Sun adapted the beliefs of the Guomindang so that they appeared more acceptable to the Chinese Communist Party that had been founded in 1921. This conciliatory gesture brought Sun some help from Russia who sent Michael Borodin to Canton. He helped to create a more effective structure for the Guomindang in Canton. He created a system of local Guomindang cells all over southern China and made the party far more disciplined. 

The Guomindang’s army was also reformed into a more effective fighting force. A military academy was founded at Whampoa to train young Guomindang officers. This academy was lead by Chiang Kai-shek – personally selected by Sun. Chiang was sent to Moscow for an intensive course on military and political education. Chiang’s task was to ensure that the Guomindang could defend itself if attacked but also to be able to take on the warlords so that the Guomindang could expand its power base away from Canton.

When Sun died of cancer in 1925, China was ruled by the warlords but the authority of the Guomindang in and around Canton continued to grow. In later years, the Guomindang and the Communists were to become bitter enemies culminating in the civil war from 1945 to 1949. Ironically, Sun’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, became vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1950.