Honoring Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the forgotten father of modern China

March 12 marks the anniversary of the death of the man considered to be the father of modern China. Who was this globe-trotting revolutionary, and how are his ideas preserved in today’s world?

Statue of a man holding a book. The man is wearing a red lei.

When you hear the words “Chinese history,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the ancient dynasties you learned about for your world history class. Or maybe you think of the more contemporary stories with the rise of China’s current Communist government. This prompts the question: What was in between those two eras?

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, known as the father of modern China, is a figure who has been reduced to footnote importance in American textbooks, but his legacy is felt through Chinese people across the globe today. It was he who ushered in an age of democracy and modernization to China, collapsing the dynastic system and devoting his life to pursuing a nation that recognizes the rights of the people.

While his ideas are not fully represented today, he is still honored by mainland China, Taiwan as well as the places across the globe he touched with his influence. On this day 97 years ago, Dr. Sun Yat-sen passed away, yet his fascinating life and wisdom live on for future generations to explore.

Sun was born to a poor farming family in the Chinese province of Guangdong in 1866. By 1879, he became exposed to Western ideology when he moved to Hawaii with his laborer brother. There, he gained his first taste of a world beyond dynastic rule and became a Christian.

Leigh-Wai Doo is the founder of the Sun Yat-sen Foundation in Honolulu, where he hopes to build relationships between the U.S. and China while archiving texts to preserve Sun’s legacy for generations to come. According to him, Hawaii was critical to shaping Sun’s life, particularly as it brought him toward fluency in English, which aided in spreading his ideas globally. The islands supported him in three notable ways by providing him a refuge during his exile, a base for early revolutionary operations and a place to develop his central ideals.

“He impacted Hawaii amongst [both] the Chinese Americans and Chinese from China,” said Doo. He elaborated that Sun garnered the advocacy of over 50,000 Chinese immigrants who worked in Hawaii. “Later, [residents of Hawaii] would give him great support for the revolution to overthrow 3,000 years of dynastic rule in China to start a republic… His ideas and his means to convey his ideas had their foundations in Hawaii.”

Statue of a 13-year-old Sun Yat-sen in Honolulu’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park (Photo courtesy of the Sun Yat-sen Foundation)

There are several statues of Sun found in the city, including two of him as a 13-year-old student unaware of his future as a leader. In fact, Hawaii was such a core aspect to his identity that he even claimed to have been born in Hawaii, writing an affidavit as a means to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act that would have prevented him from traveling to the United States in the future.

Due to his brother’s objections to his conversion to Christianity, Sun moved out of the U.S. to Hong Kong, where he studied to be a doctor. Despite his medical prowess, he diverted his attention toward political ambitions. He felt that the Qing dynasty’s cling to tradition stunted the nation’s growth, and that it was in desperate need for modernization.

Through his career, he would gain allies in the United States, Britain and Japan while in exile; establish revolutionary cells across the globe; and gain followers from both the lower and educated classes in China. His efforts culminated in a leadership role in the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang — the group that would govern the Republic of China between 1912 and 1949 and eventually Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War.

Even with allies, ruling dynastic powers often crushed Sun’s efforts, leading morale and financial support to slowly drift away. In 1911, however, a pair of loosely coordinated uprisings in the provinces of Wuhan and Sichuan exposed the Qing dynasty’s weaknesses. Hearing about these successes from a newspaper in Denver, Sun rushed home. Not long after, the Chinese emperor would abdicate power and Sun would be elected provisional president of the Republic of China, the country’s first official democratic government.

According to Brett Sheehan, professor of Chinese history and East Asian languages and cultures at USC, the ideas Sun introduced alongside democracy played a critical part of his influence.

“He believed in democracy, but he felt there needed to be a period of tutelage when people were … made ready for [the new ideas it introduced],” he said. “I think that was very influential. It gave the Nationalist government a lot of leeway in deciding what democracy was.”

Through this period, the people were more well-informed and capable of participating in a democratic society.

In addition to tutelage, his philosophy for leading the young nation was rooted in his Three Principles of the People, or San Min Chu I: nationalism, democracy and livelihood. Nationalism, according to Sun, referred to the notion of establishing a national Chinese identity that transcended racial, religious or familial identities as a means to strengthen the peaceful yet powerful nation should Western imperialism encroach on their land.

His idea of democracy was inspired by European and American systems of governing, in which people formed the foundation of a nation’s power. The people were given the “four great rights of democracy” — suffrage, referendum, initiative and recall — the latter three coming from the Swiss. Drawing on the United States, he emphasized a separation of powers with a system of checks and balances.

His final principle was often considered the most vague: livelihood. While some have attempted to categorize his economic insight under broader, more well-known terms such as capitalism and socialism, Sun was both fascinated by and critical of aspects of these ideologies. Instead, his unique system emphasized progress through harmony, utilizing such concepts as equalization of land ownership through taxation as a means of exploring ways to reduce worker suffering in an age of industrialization.

Sheehan expanded on this concept.

“In the 20th century, there was a lot of critique on the reaction to what we now know as capitalism,” Sheehan said. “This idea that people’s livelihood was important was sort of his answer to that, that the government needed to have some sort of responsibility for the welfare of the people [so that the economy] wasn’t just a free market exploitation.”

These were the principles Sun hoped China to embody in its future, moving the model of modernity and progress past the meritocratic Qing dynasty. Of course, the world of today looks very different from what Sun envisioned. Following the Chinese Civil War of 1949, the mainland has primarily been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party while Sun’s Nationalist Party went on to spur modern Taiwan. Even so, neither the mainland nor its surrounding regions would exist in their current form without his influence, hence why both sides of the Taiwan strait view him as their founder.

In the United States, Chinese Americans still symbolically carry his words to this day, with places like San Francisco’s Chinatown featuring his words on monuments.

Beyond China, Sun left his footprints across the globe. “When Sun Yat-sen tried to raise money [for his revolution], he also raised the idea of a republic of democracy in the Philippines, in Malaysia, in Singapore, across Europe… [and] in South Africa,” Doo said.

Because of this, many of his teachings resonate with people from every walk of life. According to Doo, the Chinese slogan of “bo ai,” which can translate to “love everything” or “universal love,” is a topic Sun Yat-sen urged all people to do. Influenced by Christian beliefs, he believed in a sense of universal cooperation and camaraderie built upon love; he upheld the idea that the earth belongs to everyone, that all men are brothers and that women “hold up half the sky.”

Sun’s lessons on democracy, Chinese identity and livelihood impacted perspectives of Chinese people around the world, representing a globally influenced ideal that set a standard for the potential a nation could achieve. His philosophies are universally applicable, as all can choose to strive toward unity in kinship and partnership. In life and in passing, Sun’s words are what drive his legacy and our remembrance of this revolutionary Chinese father.

Correction: This article previously stated that Sun emphasized a three-branched government based on the United States. The statement has now been edited for clarity.