Tuesday, July 9, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 23: Sun Yat-sen and the Anticlimactic Collapse of the Qing Dynasty

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff reaches the end of China’s last dynasty (at last).

Nationalist Party flag... in China?
At the turn of the 20th century China lagged hopelessly behind the western powers and Japan. Its ruling dynasty, the Qing, was irredeemably corrupt after 256 years in power. Great Britain enjoyed control of Hong Kong and Kowloon while large swaths of Qing territory had been swallowed up and colonized by Russia, Germany, France, and Japan (the latter seizing Korea and Taiwan from China after a brief war in 1895).

For over a century ethnic Han Chinese formed secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the Qing, and in that time multiple failed rebellions broke out costing literally tens of millions of lives.

As the new century began a small, seemingly insignificant anti-Qing society—started in Hawaii of all places—was co-founded by an insurgent who would later become the unlikely hero of modern Chinese history, akin to George Washington in the United States.

His name was Dr. Sun Zhongshan, better known in the west by his Cantonese name Sun Yat-sen.


Before we get into a brief account of his life we should mention that Sun Yat-sen is a nearly unique Chinese figure, revered by both the Communist Party in Beijing and the Nationalist Party in Taiwan (formerly led by Chiang Kai-shek). The two sides don’t agree on much, but they’re unified in their praise of Sun as the founding father of modern China.

Sun was born in 1866 in a poor section of Guangdong (formerly known as Canton province) in Southern China. As a child his studies focused heavily on science and in 1878 he followed his older brother to study in Hawaii. It was during these preparatory years that he learned English and, more importantly, was exposed to western political philosophy.

Afterwards he returned to Guangdong to study medicine, but during his early twenties Sun became more enamored with revolutionary politics and a hardening view that China must transform itself into a modern, democratic state.

On a side note the Correspondent remembers reading long ago passages from Sun’s personal journals about western encroachment. He disliked British colonialism in Southern China, yet he observed that Hong Kong was clean, modern, safe, and prosperous while Guangzhou, just an hour’s train ride inland and under Qing jurisdiction, was poor, filthy, disease ridden, and technologically backwards. The contrast between British-administered and Qing-administered China convinced Sun that his country had to change course and adopt many western institutions.

In 1894 Sun wrote a lengthy letter to Li Hongzhang, the Qing’s top military official and also known to be a reform sympathizer, outlining his plan to modernize China. Being a virtual nobody at the time, Sun received no response. He even traveled north to Tianjin to meet with Li who never received him.

Faced with rejection via the inside route Sun gave up medicine and devoted his life to overthrowing the Qing. He returned to Hawaii in 1895 and co-founded the Revive China Society, at that time just another insignificant one of countless anti-Qing societies agitating for revolution.

Sun used his western education and knowledge of English to travel the world and raise money for anti-Qing activities, mostly from overseas reform-minded Chinese. Once Sun felt he had raised enough he sent the money back to China with which the society sponsored two uprisings (1895 and 1900), both of which failed.

By this point Sun was on the Qing government’s enemy radar and living in exile, spending his time in Europe, the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asia. His Revive China Society merged with several other secret societies to form the larger Tongmenghui group which funded six more uprisings in 1907 and 1908, all of which failed.

All the organized attempts to overthrow the Qing fizzled out, and the situation didn’t look hopeful. Yet, in one of those many strange turns of history, another seemingly fated uprising in 1911 unexpectedly worked.


The so-called Wuchang Uprising, named after the city where it took place, initially failed. But when the local Qing viceroy ordered his troops to execute captured rebels the soldiers, who had not been paid for some time, mutinied on October 10th and the viceroy fled.

Word quickly spread of the insurrection and Qing soldiers began mutinying in city after city, most of them also having worked without pay.

Although soldiers in a few cities and provinces refused to turn against the government, the Qing collapsed throughout most of China in a rapid domino fashion. It seems the Qing's hold on China was a house of cards just waiting for a breeze to knock it down and Wuchang provided it.

Mental note: history has repeatedly shown governments that don’t pay their militaries run a much higher risk of being overthrown.

The collapse of Qing authority is known as the Xinhai Revolution and it marks probably the most bloodless end of a major dynasty in Chinese history. Although the history books tally perhaps 100,000 dead in those areas where Qing soldiers were willing to fight, the death toll is insignificant when compared to the blood shed during the falls of the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Southern Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (i.e. all the other big ones).

Although the Correspondent won’t rehash the details of the end of every one of those dynasties, the Qin, Han, Tang, Yuan, and Ming involved nationwide rebellions that often laid waste to China while the Song and Southern Song were both finished by bloody, outside invasion (the first by Jurchen tribes from the north, the latter by Kublai Khan and the Mongols).

October 10th is now celebrated by the Taiwan Nationalist Party as “Double Ten Day” commemorating the end of thousands of years of imperial rule in China.

Ironically, in another one of those strange twists of history, Sun Yat-sen wasn’t even in China on October 10th but rather Denver, Colorado raising money. Hearing about the Xinhai Revolution, Sun rushed back to China to capitalize on the situation before the country fell into leaderless chaos.

On January 1st, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the establishment of the Republic of China and one month later the Qing boy emperor Puyi officially abdicated the throne. Shortly thereafter Sun founded the Nationalist Party of China, known in Chinese as the Guomindang (gwoh-mihn-dahng).

In the 21st century the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, remains one of the two major political parties of Taiwan although it hasn’t occupied the president’s office in Taipei since 2016.

Regarding the Nationalist Party’s name, its different Chinese romanizations are also worth discussing.
“Guomindang” is the spelling under the current PRC romanization system of pinyin. However before pinyin was invented, the older Wade-Giles system spelled it "Kuomintang" which some CO readers might recognize as KMT.

Anyone reading older history books on China and Taiwan might see references to “Kuomintang” and KMT, but even under Wade-Giles the correct pronunciation was always “gwoh-mihn-dahng,” even if journalists and politicians unfamiliar with Wade-Giles’ strange rules pronounced it (incorrectly) as “koo-mihn-tang.”


Sun’s political career after 1912 mirrored the politics of China: chaotic. We’ll get to that in upcoming chapters about the Chinese Republican and Nationalist eras. But last we’ll say a few words about his enduring legacy.

As the Correspondent noted earlier, Sun is celebrated by both the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan's Nationalist Party, currently political adversaries and previously mortal enemies.

It’s no surprise that the Nationalists love Sun since, after all, he founded their party. The communists are a bit stranger story. Why would they worship the founder of an adversarial party who wasn’t a communist himself?

The CCP claims they venerate Sun for his work overthrowing the imperial system and writing the opening chapter of modern China. It also helps that Sun spoke about a vague form of “socialism,” although its Chinese interpretation more closely resembles “welfare of the people" and again, Sun never embraced Marxist communism.

Chinese president Xi Jinping also held a huge ceremony in Beijing for Sun’s 150th birthday, full of speeches and a giant portrait of the late revolutionary.

Whatever the reasons, the Economics Correspondent suspects the communists’ admiration for Sun is for real.

First, Mao Zedong also openly lauded Sun as a great revolutionary.

There are also Zhongshan Parks everywhere in China, borrowing Sun’s mandarin name.

And on a personal note, the Correspondent witnessed more evidence when he visited Dr. Sun’s mausoleum in Nanjing many years ago. 

After climbing up a gazillion stairs there’s a large hall with a sitting statue of Sun much like the Lincoln Memorial.
Surprisingly, painted on the ceiling of the hall is a giant blue and white Nationalist Party star, the same symbol flown on today's Taiwan flag (see photo).

Sun’s sarcophagus is in a smaller room behind the main hall, a circular rotunda with his coffin lowered in the center, visible but inaccessible to viewers who are blocked by high stone handrails. But once again, the circular rotunda ceiling is blue with the white Nationalist star.

The CCP has had 75 years to erase the Nationalist star and replace it with the CCP’s hammer and sickle but hasn’t, in the Correspondent’s far-from-perfect estimation out of respect for Sun’s legacy.

Today the outstanding outlier regarding Sun’s standing is Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which has held power for the last eight years. The DPP shares no such enthusiasm for Dr. Sun.

Since the DPP not only believes in Taiwanese independence but doesn’t even consider Taiwan to be part of China politically, historically, or culturally, they have little interest in revolutionaries who fomented political change on the mainland.

And true to form Sun’s legacy has become a tangential lightning rod in Taiwanese politics.  Along with removing Chiang Kai-shek statues all over Taiwan and renaming Taipei’s "Chiang Kai-shek airport" to “Taoyuan airport,” the DPP has also tried to remove monuments to Sun, all to howls of protest by KMT officials.

Also at least two former KMT leaders have visited Nanjing to pay their respects at Sun Yat-sen’s burial site, both times with CCP approval and major controversy in Taiwan.

The first, Lien Chan, was greeted warmly by CCP officials when he landed in 2004—in contrast to his departure from Taipei where protestors threw eggs and called him a traitor.

The second, former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou, visited in 2024 leading to more DPP criticism. And so Taiwan’s domestic politics rages on.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.