Friday, November 12, 2010

Sun Yat-sen: The Father of Modern China

The man called 'the father of modern China' was born on this day in 1866 - in a country which then would not have looked too different from the way it had 500 years before, a largely rural expanse smothering beneath the excesses of a decadent monarchy (in this case, the Qing Dynasty) unwilling to change with the times...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAt the age of 13, Sun Yat-sen moved to Honolulu to live with his brother, who'd become a prosperous merchant there; attending the Iolani School, he progressed so quickly in his study of English that he was awarded a prize by Hawai'i's King, David Kalakaua.

Returning home after just 4 years, Sun was dismayed by the backwardness of China, beset by heavy taxes and institutions such as schools which did nothing to reward imagination, only encouraged rote learning and repetition. He converted to Christianity, which was to inform his revolutionary work from that point forward.

Initially behind a movement to force the Qing Dynasty to reinvent itself as a Western-style constitutional monarchy, it became clear that such a reform would never work; the Imperial Household wouldn't even consider his suggestions in this regard simply because he came from peasant stock. To his way of seeing, what China needed was technology, yet seemed afraid to import it. In 1894 Sun returned to Hawai'i to establish the Revive China Society, which later became the Kuomintang.

An 1895 coup failed, after which Sun Yat-sen spent 16 years in exile, travelling around Japan, Europe, and North America in an attempt to garner the support of expatriate Chinese. His time in Vancouver during this era is memorialized by a garden in the city's Chinatown, complete with a statue of his likeness.

In October 1911 the Xinhai Revolution arose out of the Wuchang Uprising, and in February 1912 Emperor Puyi (fabled on film as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor) abdicated. For more than a dozen years from 1912 China remained politically fractured due to internecine struggles between Sun's protege Chiang Kai-shek and the old guard, represented by Wang Jingwei; the provisional government managed to survive to form the Republic of China in 1928, which lasted until the predations of Mao in 1949 destroyed any hope of democracy in China for more than 50 years.

Not that Sun Yat-sen lived to see any of that; he died in March 1925, aged 58. Nevertheless, his enduring popularity in Mainland China gives the pro-democracy movement (especially in Taiwan) a powerful symbol. He is buried in Nanjing, appropriately enough at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.
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