Sun Yat-Sen

China's Father of the Nation

Sun Yat-sen, nationalist leader of early modern China
Sun Yat-sen in the 1910s. Fotosearch/Getty Images

Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925) holds a unique position in the Chinese-speaking world today. He is the only figure from the early revolutionary period who is honored as the "Father of the Nation" by people in both the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan).

How did Sun accomplish this feat? What is his legacy in 21st century East Asia?

Early Life of Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen was born in Cuiheng village, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province on November 12, 1866. Some sources claim that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii instead, but this is probably false. He obtained a Certificate of Hawaiian Birth in 1904 so that he could travel to the US despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but he was likely already four years old when he first entered the US.

Sun Yat-sen started school in China in 1876 but moved to Honolulu three years later at the age of 13. There, he lived with his brother, Sun Mei, and studied at the Iolani School. Sun Yat-sen graduated from Iolani's high school in 1882, and spent a single semester at Oahu College, before his elder brother sent him back to China at the age of 17. Sun Mei feared that his younger brother was going to convert to Christianity if he stayed longer in Hawaii.

Christianity and Revolution

Sun Yat-sen had already absorbed too many Christian ideas, however. In 1883, he and a friend broke the Beiji Emperor-God statue in front of his home village's temple and had to flee to Hong Kong. There, Sun received a medical degree from the Hong Kong College of Medicine (now the University of Hong Kong). During his time in Hong Kong, the young man converted to Christianity, to his family's chagrin.

For Sun Yat-sen, becoming Christian was a symbol of his embrace of "modern," or Western, knowledge and ideas. It was a revolutionary statement at a time when the Qing Dynasty was trying desperately to fend off westernization.

By 1891, Sun had given up his medical practice and was working with the Furen Literary Society, which advocated the overthrow of the Qing. He went back to Hawaii in 1894 to recruit Chinese ex-patriots there to the revolutionary cause, in the name of the Revive China Society.

The 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War was a disastrous defeat for the Qing government, feeding into calls for reform. Some reformers sought a gradual modernization of imperial China, but Sun Yat-sen called for the end of the empire and the establishment of a modern republic. In October of 1895, the Revive China Society staged the First Guangzhou Uprising in an attempt to overthrow the Qing; their plans leaked, and the government arrested more than 70 society members. Sun Yat-sen escaped into exile in Japan.


During his exile in Japan and elsewhere, Sun Yat-sen made contacts with Japanese modernizers and advocates of pan-Asian unity against Western imperialism. He also helped supply weapons to the Filipino Resistance, which had fought its way free from Spanish imperialism only to have the new Republic of the Philippines crushed by the Americans in 1902. Sun had been hoping to use the Philippines as a base for a Chinese revolution but had to give up that plan.

From Japan, Sun also launched a second attempted uprising against the government of Guangdong. Despite help from the organized crime triads, this October 22, 1900, Huizhou Uprising also failed.

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen called for China to "expel the Tatar barbarians" - meaning the ethnic-Manchu Qing Dynasty - while gathering support from overseas Chinese in the US, Malaysia and Singapore. He launched seven more attempted uprisings, including an invasion of southern China from Vietnam in December of 1907, called the Zhennanguan Uprising. His most impressive effort to date, Zhennanguan ended in failure after seven days of bitter fighting.

The Republic of China

Sun Yat-sen was in the United States when the Xinhai Revolution broke out at Wuchang on October, 10, 1911. Caught off guard, Sun missed the rebellion that brought down the child emperor, Puyi, and ended the imperial period of Chinese history. As soon as he heard that the Qing Dynasty had fallen, Sun raced back to China.

A council of delegates from the provinces on December 29, 1911 elected Sun Yat-sen to be the "provisional president" of the new-born Republic of China. Sun was chosen in recognition of his unflagging work raising funds and sponsoring uprisings over the previous decade. However, the northern warlord Yuan Shi-kai had been promised the presidency if he could pressure Puyi into formally abdicating the throne.

Puyi abdicated on February 12, 1912, so on March 10, Sun Yat-sen stepped aside and Yuan Shi-kai became the next provisional president. It soon became clear that Yuan hoped to establish a new imperial dynasty, rather than a modern republic. Sun began to rally his own supporters, calling them to a legislative assembly in Beijing in May of 1912. The assembly was evenly divided between supporters of Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shi-kai.

At the assembly, Sun's ally Song Jiao-ren renamed their party the Guomindang (KMT). The KMT took many legislative seats in the election, but not a majority; it had 269/596 in the lower house, and 123/274 in the senate. Yuan Shi-kai ordered the assassination of KMT leader Song Jiao-ren in March of 1913. Unable to prevail at the ballot-box, and fearful of Yuan Shi-kai's ruthless ambition, in July of 1913, Sun organized a KMT force to challenge Yuan's army. However, Yuan's 80,000 troops prevailed, and Sun Yat-sen once more had to flee into exile in Japan.


In 1915, Yuan Shi-kai briefly realized his ambitions when he proclaimed himself the Emperor of China (r. 1915-16). His announcement sparked a violent backlash from other warlords, such as Bai Lang, as well as a political reaction from the KMT. Sun Yat-sen and the KMT fought the new "emperor" in the Anti-Monarchy War, even as Bai Lang led the Bai Lang Rebellion, touching off China's Warlord Era. In the chaos that followed, the opposition at one point declared both Sun Yat-sen and Xu Shi-chang as the President of the Republic of China.

To bolster the KMT's chances of overthrowing Yuan Shi-kai, Sun Yat-sen reached out to local and international communists. He wrote to the Second Communist International (Comintern) in Paris for support, and also approached the Communist Party of China (CPC). Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin praised Sun for his work and sent advisers to help establish a military academy. Sun appointed a young officer named Chiang Kai-shek as the commandant of the new National Revolutionary Army and its training academy. The Whampoa Academy officially opened on May 1, 1924.

Preparations for the Northern Expedition

Although Chiang Kai-shek was skeptical about the alliance with the communists, he went along with his mentor Sun Yat-sen's plans. With Soviet aid, they trained an army of 250,000, which would march through northern China in a three-pronged attack, aimed at wiping out the warlords Sun Chuan-fang in the northeast, Wu Pei-fu in the Central Plains, and Zhang Zuo-lin in Manchuria.

This massive military campaign would take place between 1926 and 1928, but would simply realign power among the warlords rather than consolidating power behind the Nationalist government. The longest-lasting effect probably was the enhancement of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's reputation. However, Sun Yat-sen would not live to see it.

Death of Sun Yat-Sen

On March 12, 1925, Sun Yat-sen died at the Peking Union Medical College from liver cancer. He was just 58 years old. Although he was a baptized Christian, he was first buried at a Buddhist shrine near Beijing, called the Temple of Azure Clouds.

In a sense, Sun's early death ensured that his legacy lives on in both mainland China and Taiwan. Because he brought together the Nationalist KMT and the Communist CPC, and they were still allies at the time of his death, both sides honor his memory.