Sun Yat-sen paved the way for China’s modernization and, indirectly, Taiwan’s transformation after 1949. He also strengthened connections between the Chinese community in the United States and their motherland. Sun left behind a great legacy for all of today’s ethnic Chinese people, stressed three eminent scholars taking part in a panel discussion on Sun Yat-sen and His Lingering Legacy at the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco on March 3.
Veteran journalist Orville Schell, Stanford scholar Kuo Tai-chun and Chinese-American historian Sue Lee speaking from different professional backgrounds offered their perspectives on this larger-than-life figure. Sun is respected as the founding father by the Taipei government, while he is referred to as “a revolutionary pioneer” by the Beijing government.
Sun’s new relevance
The principal speaker, Orville Schell, is a well-known journalist, correspondent and author of 15 books. He currently serves as the director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations in New York City and is a fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. In his introduction, the moderator Bruce Pickering (Asia Society) likened Schell’s resume to “driving a fast bus,” since Schell has such a varied and accomplished resume, that continues to grow.
When Schell first began studying Chinese history, he found it interesting that Sun’s legacy was kept alive in Taiwan to serve as a guiding map for the island, but did not have the same relevance in China. He remembered thinking that Sun’s ideas were “rooted in history, but with very little relevance.” After all, “it looked like republicanism had failed.” He went on to explain that Sun has now reappeared with new relevance from his early assumptions.
In particular, Schell mentioned that although Taiwan followed Sun’s model of the Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy and livelihood); he wondered, “What is the model?” since very little of Sun’s writing remained after his library in Guangdong province was bombed and burned in 1922, three years before his death. There is little concrete information of what Sun envisioned for the new republic.
Much of Sun’s book was pieced together from the 15 to 16 lectures he gave in Guangdong province. Those notes were ultimately passed down and became The Three Principles of the People. This is the reason why the book is not particularly eloquent or well-organized, but more free formed like a lecture.
Schell wondered if Sun thought, “After we get rid of the Qing Dynasty, it would be okay.” Except the events did not take place in that way. After the dynasty was toppled, Sun did become president, but only for 45 days. He stepped down when it became clear that the northern warlord Yuan Shih-kai wanted the title of emperor for himself. The result – China would remain “cut up like a melon” among the Western powers.
According to Schell, Sun was not anti-foreigner, but he was anti-imperialist. Both Sun and his protégée Chiang Kai-shek were passionately against imperialism. “This was the piece of genetic material that got passed on,” Schell said. Both saw imperialism as demoralizing and prevented the Chinese from rising up. They believed only with the elimination of imperialism and the unequal treaties would nationalism thrive.
Intrigued by democracy
Schell thought the Chinese were intrigued by democracy, but not for the reasons we might think. “Most Chinese reformers were interested in democracy because it had given the West wealth and power. So they were willing to try it.” Though, if communism, Christianity or capitalism also offered wealth and power, they would cultivate those as well. This pragmatic statement drew some collective laughter from the audience.
In talking about democracy, Schell mentioned the commonalities between Deng Xiaoping and Sun. Both wanted China to have wealth, power and to be respected. Also, they believed that China needed a period of adjustment, what Schell referred to as “political tutelage.” Taiwan’s Deng was Chiang Ching-kuo. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who started the democratization process in Taiwan. It took two-thirds of a century before the republic became truly democratic. Whether China might enter into a period like Taiwan after a certain period of political tutelage is still unknown.
Today, the Chinese do not follow Marxism-Leninism. People who are rich are incredibly rich and there is a lack of equality. Sun founded a movement that seemed to go nowhere, but now seems to have relevance. Schell likened Sun to a stem cell – it can turn into anything, a hair, an arm, anything.
Someone to take pride in
The second speaker, Sue Lee, vividly recalled that her grandfather, who came to the United States in 1911, had Sun’s portrait hanging in the family’s grocery store. For her, Sun “was someone I could be proud of,” that matched up to the stories of George Washington.
Sue Lee offered the audience a view of the early Chinese American community during Sun’s various visits to San Francisco. As the executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, she preserves the narrative of the Chinese American experience. She has worked under San Franciscan Mayors Agnos, Feinstein and Brown.
From 1898 to 1911, San Francisco was the ninth largest city in the United States. The port was huge and trade with the East was big business. Sun traveled to San Francisco (in 1896, 1904, 1909 and 1911) at a time when city, state and federal governments were enacting legislation to remove Chinese residents. The Chinese were used as scapegoats and were blamed for many things, including the bubonic plague that broke out between 1900 to 1909. After the 1906 earthquake, there was a movement to relocate all Chinese to the Bayview Hunters Point, further away from downtown.
Sun found fertile ground for his revolution in San Francisco. Chinese living in San Francisco were politically powerless, but they wanted someone to be an advocate for their rights. They desired a strong China and nationalism.
Lee said that the only documentation of Sun’s 1904 visit is in the National Archives. During that visit, Sun entered the United States with forged papers, stating that he was a United States citizen born in Hawaii. Hawaii was a territory of the US then. His papers included two witnesses’ signatures affirming his birth in Hawaii. Since US immigration was tipped off about his arrival, they held him at the Detention Shed, the predecessor to the Angel Island Detention Center. While there, he was able to smuggle a message to his supporters in Chinatown that he was being held and they worked to free him after 17 days.
An account of Sun’s visit came from an 80-year old woman whose family helped hide Sun during his time here when she was 10-year old. Since his visit to the Bay Area was clandestine, she acted as a scout and lookout. She talked about secret codes and knocks. Today, it is hard to weed out the myths from the facts. But despite this, Lee said, “He loomed large, because there were no other role models for us in those days.”
What would Sun do?
Professor Tai-chun Kuo followed with a look at how the Republic of China on Taiwan was able to carry out Sun’s Three Principles. According to Kuo, Chiang Kai-shek “wanted to wash away the shame of losing China by fulfilling the Three Principles.”
As a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Kuo’s main focus is on the political economy of Taiwan and China. She worked in public service in Taiwan from 1990 to 1997. As an academic, she has taught at the Graduate Institute of American Studies, Tamkang University (Taiwan) and is now assisting in organizing the archival papers of the Kuomintang (KMT), Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, T.V. Soong, H.H. K’ung and other leading Chinese individuals of the early republic.
Sun’s principles called for a planned economy and this caused a great deal of debate among the Kuomintang leadership in the 1950s. Although land reform was necessary under the plan, the KMT did not have enough budget to buy it all, so some wanted to raise funds by selling state enterprises. Such an idea ignited great opposition within the party since many saw state enterprises as the engine for change. The dilemma became how to structure Taiwan’s economy, while remaining true to Sun’s ideals, or as Kuo said, how to “untie the knot.”
In the Three Principles of the People, Sun called for equal land rights and regulation of private capital in order to ensure an equitable distribution of national wealth and lessen conflicts between the social classes. Chiang saw Sun’s idea of equalizing the country’s wealth as an important goal, so he adjusted and managed the principles. Kuo said it fulfilled Sun’s principles without being tied down by dogma. Kuo noted that Taiwan’s experience of transforming itself from a planned economy to a market economy around 1959 could be a valuable lesson for the leaders in Beijing today.
The lecture was sponsored by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco, the Asia Society, East West Bank, the Chinese Historical Society of American and the University of San Francisco.
In celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Republic of China, TECO’s Press Division has produced a photo exhibit, Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Legacy, which will be on display at the Pacific Heritage Museum until March 31. The museum in located near San Francisco’s Chinatown on 608 Commercial Street.