It was not until the first half of 2010 that the hit rate of Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the founding father of the Republic of China (ROC), which relocated to Taiwan in 1949, was overtaken in the Google search engine by that of Sun Yun-yun, a Taiwanese entertainment celebrity with the same last name. With the coming of the centennial anniversary of the Republic of China in 2011, Sun Yat-sen has become a topic of renewed conversation and debate in Taiwan.
“I am human, not a god”
Last June, a Chinese translation of Sun Yat-sen, a biography written by French scholar Marie-Claire Bergère, was published in Taiwan. The author lavished both praise and criticism on modern China’s George Washington. It was followed by a documantary in August which quoted Russian Marxist leader Vladimir Lenin as suggesting Sun to be “virginally naïve”, alleging that Sun was “a revolutionary dreamer who randomly assembled Chinese and Western political theories.” Both generated disagreements among the historians in Taiwan and started a fierce debate in the news media. The United Daily News called it “a struggle between the human historians and orthodox historians.”
Meanwhile, the Kuomintang (KMT) Party Archives Library (KPAL) displayed the original letters written by Sun, who also founded the KMT. Among the items exhibited was a love letter he wrote to his illegitimate wife. Local newspapers and magazines then blared out the news that Sun had married four women, including – rumor has it – a Japanese woman. Even revered figures of history are apparently not immune from Taiwan’s voracious and free-wheeling media.
During the period when Chiang Kai-shek was in power in Taiwan, the majority of the people only knew of Sun Yat-sen’s first wife Lu Mu-chen, and had no knowledge of his second marriage to Song Qingling, the elder sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who served as a vice chairperson of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, established 38 years after the ROC).
The media has projected a different images of Sun, in direct contrast to the man personified in old textbooks. With regard to the conflicting impression of Sun in Taiwan as portrayed by the various images of the man, Shao Ming-huang, curator of the KPAL, and an expert on the history of the early ROC, pointed out that Sun himself said “I am human, not a god.” Shao said, “Our founding father was a great man, but he was also an ordinary human being like you and me.”
Sun Yat-sen is alive in the minds of the Taiwanese people, but now more multi-dimensional, changing from a great man who is serious-minded to one embodying idealism, romanticism and humor. It is interesting to observe the different interpretations of Sun expressed by Taiwanese people while under the hand of Chiang’s authoritarian regime and in today’s free society.
Commenting on the recent scholarly debates about Sun Yat-sen’s image, Pan Kwang-che, associate research fellow at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, wrote that “democracy and freedom are known to the world as Taiwan’s most precious assets. Today, if we are still buried in the thinking of worshiping a god-like political figure, it is the greatest insult to Sun Yat-sen.”
A rare image of selflessness
As the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun’s political vision paved the way for Taiwan’s transformation after 1949. Not only revered by ethnic Chinese people around the world, he was also named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Sun was born at a time when China was weakened and profoundly humiliated by the Western powers. In his words, China was treated “worse than the colonies.” Having witnessed the corruption and incompetence of the Qing government, Sun was deeply committed to restoring Chinese national pride by overthrowing the non Han-Chinese feudal dynasty.
His vision would lead him to travel around the world seven times, soliciting financial and political support for the revolutionary insurrections in China. It would take him nearly 30 years – half of which he spent in exile – before finally establishing the Republic of China in Nanjing (China), the first democratic republic in Asia.
Chiang Kai-shek led his loyal KMT followers in retreat to Taiwan in 1949 after defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Sun was seen as the basis for the legitimate rule of Chiang’s government. In fact, Sun’s political theory the Three People’s Principles (nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood) were required courses for high school and college students, and was a subject of every national examination. Huge portraits of Sun are displayed in major public places and the major streets in Taiwan are often named after Sun.
American scholar Harold Schiffrin said in his book Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of Chinese Revolution, “Humiliated by imperialism and disgusted by warlord politics, nationalists tended to channel their hopes into the one man who had consistently expounded the notion of a sudden great leap toward modernization and international equality, and who, despite the amazing convolutions of his improvisatory style, projected a rare image of probity and selflessness.”
Strong connections to northern California
Less known than Mohandas Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen had strong connections to the United States, graduating from the same high school in Hawaii that President Barack Obama would attend 100 years later. In 1908, Sun was held at San Francisco’s detention sheds for 17 days, compliments of US Immigration that only recognized the Qing government at that time. The experience did not dampen his admiration for an American-style democracy and his wish to establish a government “of the people, for the people and by the people,” based on Abraham Lincoln’s ideas.
The leader of the Chinese national revolution visited the United States seven times, mostly staying in northern California. Spending almost a decade of his life in America, he definitely touched the lives of overseas Chinese here. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall of San Francisco (836 Stockton Street) was the original site for the Young China Morning Post, an official newspaper of Sun’s KMT to spread Chinese revolutionary ideas in North America. Chen Po-hang, director of the Memorial Hall, said for over 70 years there has been a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen standing in St. Mary’s Square near San Francisco’s Chinatown, exactly the spot where Sun stood to lecture overseas Chinese. Chen also pointed out the location of the Presbyterian church where Sun used to stay and the noodle shop where Sun used to eat on credit.
There is also a bronze statue of Sun in front of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Sacramento, California. Late in the Qing Dynasty, a lot of people from Xiangshan County, Guangdong Province in China, where Sun was born, emigrated to the Sacramento Delta. Sun visited the delta several times to raise funds. Zhao Si Hong, a collector of Sun’s memorabilia, owns different denominations of the bonds Sun had issued through the Chinese secret society of Hongmen (or Chee Kung Tong) in San Francisco. Zhao also has some lottery tickets from those days, bought as donations by the overseas Chinese. As a result of Sun’s eloquence, an estimated US$400,000 was collected, which funded weapon purchases and recruitment for the 10 failed national insurrections to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Without the support of overseas Chinese communities, the success of Sun’s revolution, though not impossible, would certainly have been delayed.
Even today, many overseas Chinese still love to share with the Taiwanese people the history of the founding of the Republic of China a hundred years ago and their family’s links with Sun himself. Living in Oakland, California, Deborah Quok is the great-grand daughter of Lu Hao-tung, who was born in Sun’s hometown and also his classmate. In the first uprising that failed in 1895, Lu was arrested and executed because he was caught trying to burn the list of revolutionary participants and did not have time to escape. Lu was formally honored by Sun as “the first martyr of the national revolution.” Deborah Quok proudly recounts the glory of her family history, saying “Were it not for my great grandfather’s (Lu Hao-tung’s) heroic and fatal act of returning to his home to destroy the records of fellow revolutionaries, the Qing soldiers would have found the names and killed many of them. This would have been a significant setback for the revolutionary movement.”
Photo Gallery, in memory of a great man and the spirit of Taiwan
In TIME magazine, American scholar Jonathan Spence wrote that “the physician-turned- revolutionary leader was never able to heal the divisions among his people, but they remain united in their reverence for his efforts.”
Reverence for Sun is shared by both Taiwan and China. Both sides have elevated Sun to an equally high historic position despite 60 years of keen ideological struggle between the communist PRC and the nationalist ROC. Sun is respected as the founding father by the Taipei government, while he is referred as “a revolutionary pioneer” by the Beijing government.
China’s CCTV published a set of 59-episodes “Towards the Republic” in 2003, a vivid description of Sun’s characters, but the last series was never screened because part of Sun’s speech was considered contrary to the current political situation in China as it cites examples of the early ROC. In 2009, the best feature film at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards was The October Rising, a fictional story about the Hong Kong revolutionaries’ protection of Sun who instigated the uprising. Taiwan’s Council for Cultural Affairs is planning also to shoot a documentary on The Biography of the Founding Father, and a Taiwanese television station is planning to come to the US to document Sun’s relationship with San Francisco.
The United Daily News said Sun’s greatness lies in his indomitable revolutionary spirit and the ideal of going beyond his own time, but also by historic necessity and accidence after his death. Sun becomes the protector and inspired the democratic movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. In Taiwan’s political reform movement in the late 1980s, the democratic transition process was justified by Sun’s democratic thinking and ideals. China’s Deng Xiaoping also took advantage of the policy essence of using foreign capital to develop China’s coastal areas, originally proposed in Sun’s national construction theory, to counter the stubborn ideology of the conservative Maoists. In recent years of fighting for democracy and universal suffrage, the people of Hong Kong also use Sun’s revolutionary image and theory as a powerful weapon to deal with the Beijing government.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou sought a new position for Sun in explaining the significance of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the republic. He pointed out that “in the celebration of the centennial anniversary, we must remember the ideals of Sun Yat-sen’s national revolution. It is equally important we continue to develop ‘Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics’, and continue the fighting spirit of national survival and development in Taiwan of the last 60 years.” President Ma said historically, only 11 out of the 25 dynasties, lasted over a hundred years. Although the Republic of China government Sun established lost the mainland in 1949, it has succeeded in building Taiwan into the only democratic society in thousand years of Chinese history. He stressed, “I believe we will last longer than the 11 dynasties, and bring greater benefits to the people.”
In celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Republic of China, the Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco has produced a photo exhibit, Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Legacy, scheduled to be displayed at the Pacific Heritage Museum in mid-February. The museum in located near San Francisco’s Chinatown at 608 Commercial Street.
“We use these photos to remember Sun Yat-sen as a larger-than-life man,” said Manfred Peng, TECO’s press director and the person in charge of producing the exhibition. Peng noted, “In addition to celebrating the centennial anniversary of the founding of the republic, this photo exhibition aims to commemorate the spirit of Sun Yat-sen – patriotism, perseverance and not seeking fame or fortune for himself. It is about a strong passion for life, which is timeless, non-partisan and borderless.”