I’d like to apologize for the large number of links today, but when it comes to sensitive topics it’s best to be prepared.
The other day I quietly asked my co-workers where exactly Dr. Sun Yat-sen (or Sun Zhongshan in pinyin) was during the Xinhai revolution, when Imperial China was overthrown. The intern quickly replied “Nanjing” which was a good choice, since that is where his mausoleum is, and where Sun set up the Republican gov’t (his presidency lasted 3 months). My other co-worker guessed “Beijing” then switched to “Beiping”, the name used during the republican era, just in case it was a trick question. Their mouths fell open when I told them he was in the far away city of Denver, a fact that was conveniently left out of Chinese textbooks.
Every major news source in China, and even the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, has referred to Sun as the leader of this revolution, which is half true. By the turn of the century there were dozens of organizations working to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. The actual uprising started when a bomb accidentally exploded, alerting the local authorities to the revolutionary activity in the area. The revolutionaries in Wuchang had no choice but to fight back, and in doing so, started a series of revolts. The Republic wouldn’t be established until January 1st, 1912, and the last emperor didn’t step down until February 12th that year.
Sun Yat-sen however was an incredibly important man in the overall movement, which included founding the influential Tongmenghui (also known as the United League). Sun had been trying since 1895 to overthrow the Qing dynasty, but after each of his seven failed attempts he was forced to flee the country. During his time abroad he raised funds from overseas Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, and many European countries.
In the run up to the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, Beijing has been performing a spectacular tightrope walk. Officials have been told that it should be a grand affair, but must be careful not to upstage the celebration of the Party’s 90th anniversary. This is because even though Sun Yat-sen is seen by many Chinese as the father of modern China, his ideas do not fit the country’s current direction. Many of Sun’s goals have yet to be met by the Communist Party, who claim to be the true successors to his revolution (instead of those pesky Nationalists in Taiwan).
The top concern this year seems to be Sun’s call for democracy. Which the Party has met with two lines of attack, one being to simply leave this “lofty” goal out of discussions of his legacy, and secondly, and more insidiously, by claiming that China is already a democracy, as Hu Jintao did in his speech commemorating the date. Never mind the fact that China’s first successful independent candidate was placed under house arrest just a few days prior to the anniversary.
Sun’s legacy is being carefully manicured in other ways as well. It is now rarely mentioned that he was a Christian and that he viewed the revolution as China’s salvation (read this), or that he was educated almost entirely by Westerners in Hawaii, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Sun Yat-sen even obtained a US birth certificate in Hawaii, which legally made him a US citizen (the document was procured for him in order to facilitate travelling in the US). Arguably it was these western ideals that motivated him to push for change along with his frustration with the increasingly backward Qing gov’t that refused to adopt modern technology and ideas.
Also missing from the discussion is the important role of Overseas Chinese and foreign governments in supporting and financing revolutionary Chinese groups, (Tongmenghui was founded in Tokyo and later HQ’ed in Singapore, the bombs for the Wuchang uprising were being made in the Russian concession, Sun Yat-sen was traveling in the US…). These facts are missing from the official history because they do not fit neatly within the Party’s black and white version of history.
On this day it is important to remember the Sun Yat-sen who actually lived, instead of the one imagined by the Party. In his own words:
“When we overthrow the Manchu regime, we will achieve not only a nationalist revolution against the Manchus but also a political revolution again monarchy. They are not to be carried out at two different times. The aim of the political revolution is to create a constitutional, democratic political system. In the context of the current political situation of China, a revolution would be necessary even if the monarch were a Han…After the revolution in China, this will be the most appropriate form of government. This too, everyone knows.” – from a speech given in Tokyo celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of the People’s Journal (source)