Review of “Sun Yatsen” by Marie Claire Bergere, translated by Janet Lloyd

To this day, the ideology of the Republic of China on Taiwan, and the Chinese KMT, is derived from the Gettysburg address

That a government
of the people,
by the people, and
for the people,
shall be established in China.

This ideology, known as the Three Principles of the People (三民主义), was first promulgated by Sun Yatsen. Sun is recognized as the the first President of China by both the Communist and KMT governments. His wife, Song Qingling, would become the honorary President of the People’s Republic of China. One of his sister-in law, Song Ailing, would marry H.H. Kung, the richest man in China at the time. His other sister-in-law would marry Chiang Kaishek. Sun’s most trusted deputy, Wang Jingwei, was the president of the Republic of China (Collaborationist) government under the Japanese. Born in China, holding a fake Hawaiian birth certificate, and arrested by the Manchus in Britain, Sun was the most fascinating person who I knew the least about.

Unfortunately, Sun Yatsen by by Marie Claire Bergere does not spend much time on these most fascinating aspects of his life. Rather, this biography is told through the stages of Sun’s political career, focusing primary on how the ideology of the Three Principles of the People developed, and how his specific conception of those principles changed over time. Primarily, the main division of Sun’s life is before and after became President (for only three weeks) of the Republic of China.

Before the Presidency, Sun was a revolutionary against the Manchu-dominated Qing dynasty, born near Hong Kong in a city that now bears his name. Anti-manchu/Anti-Qing was widespread in the area then, as it is now, and the intellectuals of the population felt that the Han Chinese were a subjected people under the Empire of the Great Qing, which is now referred to by mainland Chinese historians as the “Multi-National Empire.” While a sympathetic history of the founding of the Great Qing Empire can be read in Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia, Zhongshan and many others who were alive during the decline of the Qing compared the foreign (Manchu), corrupt, and incompetent government of Canton Province against the foreign (British), law-abiding, and efficient government of Hong Kong, and saw potential friends.

Sun’s early history is complicated. He was educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong, visited Britain and France, and raised money for several revolts. All of these involved a hoped-for “united front” of intellectuals, secret societies, and foreign powers, with the primary goal being the expulsion. Predictably, intellectuals were poor soldiers, and the mafia was self-interested. So were foreign powers. Their willingness to support terrorism against the Great Qing were inversely proportional to their power in the region. So the British were disinterested, the French were curious but unreliable, but the Americans would be a source of income for the Christian progressive, and the Japanese, they would be good friends.

Interestingly, Sun became an enemy of a man he once tried to ally himself with — Kang Youwei. Kang was a classically educated reformer who had been central to the Western Affairs Movement and the Hundred Days of the Guangxu Emperor. These reforms centered around creating a National Exam with a math and sceince component, eliminating sinecures, creating modern schools, establishing a Constitutional monarchy, encourage western investment, modernize the military, and support a network of Chambers of Commerce. The Guangxu Reform would have made the Meiji Restoration look pale in comparison, if it had not been aborted by that Mao Zedong in a skirt, Cixi. The reformers were scattered, Guangxu was murdered, and Chinese politics radicalized. While Sun’s solution to this problem was revolution, Kang (even in exile) warned against radical change. China would not become a modern country for a hundred years anyway, he wrote, so there was no need (or point) to create chaos to hurry the process along. While its tempting to fault Sun for his radicalism and naivte — Sun felt that because the Chinese people had enjoyed centuries of stable government, they would never participate in a radical revolution — Kang’s attacks on Christianity as a ‘dog religion’ doubtless did not help matters. I can’t help but think that history would have been kinder to the Chinese people if Kang’s Society to Protect the Emperor would have been successful.

It was in Japan, that Sun — by this time a generation older than the Chinese students who looked up to him — was permanently residing in as the Cixi (the female version of Mao Zedong who had launched the First Cultural Revolution, which was fortunately put down through multilateral intervention). The Qing reformers who Cixi had opposed during her lifetime recognized the situation, and even while in exile warned against violent revolution. (One wrote that, if the Qing were violently overthrown, it would not be until the year 200 that China could be considered a major power.) Their policies included ending what remained of feudalism, trying to establish a modern army under the military reformer Yuan Shikai, abolishing the outmoded National Exam (which had been a test of poetry, philosophy and rhetoric, instead of science or useful knowledge), and so on. The speed at which the reformers now tried to make up for lost time, however may have bene their undoing. Influential families who had invested heavily in preparing their sons for the national exams now had limited futures, local boards set up to implement reforms proved mutinous and after fighting broke out, it was Yuan Shikai who negotiated the fall of the regime.

Yuan Shikai, however, was the Putin of his time. His tactical brilliance was matched only by his strategic idiocy. His reaction to having China handed to him on a silver platter (with Sun Yatsen happily demoted to Minister of Railroads and Song Jiaren, his main opponent, believing that establishing a peaceful political system was more important than actually defeating any of Yuan’s proposals)… was to kill Song. Yuan’s assassination of Song on March 20, 1913 was followed by Yuan declaring himself Emperor, a long and pointless series of “Revolutions” and “Expeditions,” and general chaos in the country that would proceed until Deng Xiaopeng became supreme leader nearly seven decades later.

The lesson that Sun drew from this was that it is best to be Emperor. He forced his followers to pledge loyalty personally to him, and proceeded to overthrow progressive leaders who stood in his way. Sun’s “emotional” understanding of statistics and numbers foreshadowed similar run-away enthusiasm by Mao Zedong. Sun also organized the destruction of the mercantile district of Cangon, through his aide Chiang Kaishek, when they did not pay him protection money. In his period Sun is almost perfectly an 1970s-era African despot, not even in charge of his own capital and primarily concerned with surrounding himself in a cocoon of a cult of personality.

Unfortunately, this late Sun Yatsen–one more disconnected from the world than at any previous age–was also the one who would more get to decide its future. The First National Congress of the Chinese KMT, sometimes called the “Reorganization Congress,”in 1924. This established a new party, seperate from the KMT which had been active during the anti-Qing Revolution, which include members who were both KMT and Communist. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the first KMT congress occurred after the third Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. Sun entered into a relationship with the Soviet Union, and its emissary to him Mikhail Borodin, in order to give him a Leninist party structure and a national academy for training an elite military class. He got both — the Chinese KMT and the Whampoa Military Academy. While conventional histories record that at this time the Communists infiltrated the KMT, it is more accurate to say the Chinese KMT was born as a parasite on the husks of the dead KMT and the still embryonic CPP.

With this done, Sun died of Stomach Cancer at the Rockefeller Foundation Hospital in Beijing, an inexplicable turn of events that left the future of China to four men: Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai of the CCP, and Chiang Kaishek and Wang Jingwei of the Chinese KMT. Fortunately for China, Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Chingkuo would be successfully in making revolutions from above and laying the foundations for the China of the future.

Sun Yaten’s Three Principles of the People provide the intellectual framework for the modern cooperation of the CCP and the Chinese KMT. In their public statements, the Chinese governments on the Mainland and on Taiwan assert that each has only incompletely realized Sun’s vision. Beijing now declares that a government ‘for the people’ can only truly be that when it is ‘of the people’ as well. For its part, Taiwan recognizes that it has only established a government of, for, and by the people in one part of China (Taiwan). Hopefully we will see the day when the Three Principles of the People are fully established, and east Asia can live in peace and democracy.

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