Sun Yat-sen Research Paper

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Sun Yat-sen was a revolutionary leader and founder of Republican China (1912–1949). An uprising in 1911 resulted in his election as provisional president of the new republic and the abdication of the Qing dynasty emperor in 1912. Sun devised what he called the “Three People’s Principles” for the new republic: nationalism, democracy, and livelihood. Those principles are today the guiding ideology of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Sun Yat-sen was the most prominent figure in the movement that overthrew the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) and established the Republic of China; he was also the founding leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). Sun was born in Xiangshan County in Guangdong Province. After beginning his education in China, Sun was sent in 1879 to live with his elder brother in Hawaii, where he learned English while attending the missionary-operated Iolani School. After returning to China, Sun pursued European medical training in Guangzhou (Canton) and in Hong Kong, but quickly put aside his career as a doctor to focus on politics. Qing China had been subject to humiliating unequal treaties since the two Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) and now appeared increasingly vulnerable in an age of aggressive Western imperialism. In 1894 Sun traveled to Tianjin and petitioned the powerful official Li Hongzhang to undertake rapid reforms to modernize China. Li did not respond. Defeat in the Sino-Japanese war followed soon after.

Having failed to promote reform from within, Sun began to work for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He returned to Hawaii, and created the Revive China Society to promote revolution. Most of his support came from fellow Guangdong natives, some of whom were members of secret societies that had long embraced an anti-Manchu ideology. In 1894 Sun’s first attempt at organizing a revolt in Guangzhou was foiled by Qing authorities. Sun fled to Hong Kong to avoid arrest. Forced to leave by British authorities, Sun proceeded to Japan, Hawaii, and the west coast of the United States trying to raise funds and gather support. While visiting London in 1896 Sun became the subject of a bizarre international incident in which he was held prisoner in the Chinese legation. Sun was able to get word of his captivity to friends, who brought his predicament to the attention of the press. When Sun was released he became an instant celebrity.

Over the next fifteen years Sun tirelessly promoted the revolutionary cause. Unable to return home, he traveled among overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Japan, and North America to raise funds and support. After 1900 he was introduced to young Chinese intellectuals in Japan sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, extending his connections beyond his original Guangdong base. In 1905 Sun published a newspaper editorial declaring that China needed nationalism, democracy, and government promotion of peoples’ livelihood. Repackaged as the Three People’s Principles, these became the centerpiece of Sun’s revolutionary ideology; he repeatedly redefined these terms over the next two decades. In 1905 Sun became the director of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, which brought together a diverse group of supporters of revolution.

Initially, the expatriate revolutionaries made little progress as the Qing dynasty struggled to remake itself in the early years of the twentieth century. But when governmental reforms stumbled after 1908, the revolutionaries gained a growing following in China. Nevertheless, when the Wuchang army garrison rose up in October 1911 to spark the revolution, it was a surprise. Sun Yat-sen was in the United States, and rather than returning to China directly, he headed to Europe to seek foreign support for the revolutionary cause. Upon his arrival in Shanghai in late December he was greeted as a hero by the revolutionary forces, now in control of major cities in central China. On 1 January 1912 Sun was sworn in as the provisional president of the new Republic of China.

But Sun’s triumph was short-lived. The revolutionary forces negotiated an end to the war with Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), a Qing official with a record as a reformer and strong support from the powerful northern army. Sun resigned the presidency and supported the selection of Yuan as his replacement. The Revolutionary Alliance was remade into a democratic political party, and renamed the Nationalist Party. Led by Song Jiaoren (1882–1913), the new party won victory in assembly elections in 1913. But Yuan refused to become a figurehead: he arranged Song’s assassination and in the “second revolution” drove Sun and his supporters out of government and established a dictatorship. Yuan’s subsequent effort to establish himself as emperor failed miserably, Beijing’s authority collapsed, and power was divided among regional warlords.

Sun Yat-sen tried desperately and unsuccessfully to restore his vision of a unified Chinese republic from 1914 to 1920. Frustrated by foreign support for Yuan, he turned to Japan, and offered major concessions in return for Japanese support, without success. After Yuan’s death, Sun sought to restore the 1912 constitution, but the warlords would not cooperate.

In the early 1920s Sun began to establish a political base in Guangzhou and to reconstitute the Nationalist Party. In 1922 he sought out the aid of Comintern, the association of national Communist parties founded by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), in reorganizing the Nationalist Party on a disciplined Leninist model. Sun, while admiring the successes of Lenin, never embraced Marxism. Sun’s own Three People’s Principles—now taking on an increasingly socialist and anti-imperialist flavor—formed the ideological orthodoxy of the renewed Nationalist Party. Meanwhile a United Front was formed with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party, and a talented cadre of young Nationalist and Communist leaders, including Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) and Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), came to Canton. Sun, now convinced that his vision could only be fulfilled by a strong army, formed a military academy and began to train an army for the planned northern expedition to destroy the warlords and unite the country.

In January 1925, Sun made one last effort at a peaceful unification, traveling to Beijing at the invitation of northern warlords Duan Qirui (1865–1936) and Zhang Zuolin (1873–1928). Before these talks could produce results, Sun fell ill with cancer, and he died on 12 March.

Sun’s death deprived him both of seeing the success of the Northern Expedition and the end of the warlord era and of witnessing the bitter break between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party. As a result Sun has a unique role in the symbolism of modern China: admired across the political spectrum, he became an icon celebrated for his tireless patriotism and his advocacy of a strong, modern China. Historians’ assessments of Sun have varied. While Chinese scholars often treat Sun as a near sacred figure, Western scholars have been less admiring. Critics view Sun as a symbolic rather than as a substantive figure, as a man who advocated change but was rarely in a position to execute it. But Sun’s role in linking China with overseas Chinese communities and his advocacy of technocratically oriented models of industrial development seem prophetic of China’s place in the globalizing world that has emerged since the end of the Cold War.


  1. Bergere, M. C. (1998). Sun Yat-sen (J. Lloyd, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  2. Fitzgerald, J. (1996). Awakening China: Politics, culture and class in the nationalist revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  3. McNeill, William H. (1998). History and the Scientific Worldview. History and Theory, 37(1) 1–13.
  4. Schiffrin, H. (1968). Sun Yat-sen and the origins of the Chinese revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Wei, J. L., Myers, R. H., & Gillen, D. G. (Eds.). (1994). Prescriptions for saving China: Selected writings of Sun Yat-sen. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
  6. Wilbur, C. M. (1976). Sun Yat-sen: Frustrated patriot. New York: Columbia University Press.

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