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Born into a peasant family in Canton (Guangzhou), raised in Hawaii, and educated at colleges in Hawaii and Hong Kong, Sun Yat-sen (Sun Wen or Sun Yixian or Sun Zhongshan) played a key role in the overthrow of China’s Qing or Manchu dynasty (1644-1911), in the politics of the early Chinese Republic, and in the shaping of post-1949 regimes in Beijing and in Taipei. Sun came to be venerated in Taiwan as the “father of the nation” (guofu) and in the People’s Republic of China as a “pioneer of the revolution” (xianxingzhe). The cult of Sun seems to be one common denominator across the hostile Taiwan Strait. Retreating to Taiwan after his defeat in the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975) legitimized his Guomindang (Nationalist Party) by mythologizing Sun. Beijing stresses Sun’s anti-imperialist campaign and his cooperation with Soviet Russia and the Communist Party. Such accolade is not shared by Western scholars, who have tried to demythologize Sun. Marie-Claire Bergere, for instance, dubs Sun “a traveling salesman of the revolution” (1998, p. 139), hardly present at the countless late Qing uprisings as he shuttled among nations to raise funds from overseas Chinese communities and foreign sources. It is telling, nevertheless, that Sun was from coastal China, which was long exposed to foreign influence, and that overseas Chinese were considered the “mothers of the revolution.” Modernization in China has invariably followed the pattern of spreading from coastal areas inland, with Sun as an early symbol for what has continued into the twenty-first century.
In the chaotic times of the late Qing and early Republic, Sun, above all else, emerges as a paragon of revolution not necessarily because of his leadership in uprisings and politics but because of his writings. The Three Principles of the People is a compilation of his speeches, the 1924 version rendered definitive by his death more than anything else. It is an irony of history that this hodgepodge of ideas, by no means systematic and insightful, and derivative of American government apparatus, should become the sacred text for school children and university programs in Taiwan. Even the first line of Taiwan’s national anthem is a dull drone of “The Three Principles of the People.” On the other hand, The International Development of China (1922) was prescient in merging capitalism with socialism in the wake of World War I (1914-1918). Sun also emphasized international “cooperation,” urging Western powers to abolish unfair treaties that subjugated China as a subcolony (cizhimindi) and to treat China as a market for investment and a “dumping ground” and factory. The unfortunate choice of “dumping ground” revealed the psychological complex of a Westernized Chinese patriot bent upon saving China, while either pretending to identify or subconsciously identifying with Western interests. Most brilliant is Sun’s utopian vision for China’s economic and industrial modernization: a network of railways; coastal development based on three major ports in the northern, central, and southern regions; mining and heavy industry; and dams and river transportation. It was yet another unfortunate choice that Sun used colonization for his plans regarding Tibet and Xinjiang, but it was a sign of the times. Sun’s grandiose dreams have earned him the mocking appellation Big-Gun-Sun (Sun dabao) in China, yet Deng Xiaoping’s (1904-1997) Four Modernizations program (in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military) echoed Sun’s plan closely, and the contemporary westward movement to exploit energy reserves and other resources, as well as the economic zones revolving around major Chinese seaports, coincide with Sun’s blueprint. In charting out a path for modernization, Sun Yat-sen was indeed visionary.
- Bergère, Marie-Claire. 1998. Sun Yat-sen. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Sun Yat-sen.  1953. The International Development of China. Taipei, Taiwan: China Cultural Service.
- Sun Yat-sen. 1965. Guofu quanji [Complete works of Sun Yatsen]. Taipei, Taiwan: Archives of Guomindang.
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