Why Dr. Sun Yat-sen is still revered by all Chinese

November 09, 2015 16:29
Taiwan's KMT chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu bows before a portrait of the founding father of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, at a party congress in Taipei last month. Photo: Reuters

November 12 marks the 149th anniversary of the birth of Dr Sun Yat-sen. Events will be held in all parts of the Chinese world on the day, while next year will see even bigger celebrations on his 150th birthday.

No leader enjoys more goodwill in the broader Chinese community than the boy who was born into the family of a landless farmer in Cuiheng village in Guangdong province, close to the border with Macao, in 1866.

He is the only politician revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and other Chinese cities around the world have museums, parks and monuments named after him.

The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park in Hong Kong's Western district contains a swimming pool and sports center as well as a park. It is the only park in the city named after a historical figure in China. On Castle Road in the Mid-levels, there is a museum in his honor, with 2,600 square meters of space.

During a peripatetic life during which he lived in countries all over the world, Sun's greatest asset was his ability to make friends -- with Chinese intellectuals, workers, businessmen and expatriates as well as foreign leaders, scholars and ordinary people – and inspire them to give him their loyalty, time, money and – in some cases – their lives.

It is this adaptability that has served him so well since his death; it has enabled the warring factions of the Chinese world to use him for their own purposes.

In Taiwan, his "Three Principles of the People" is the guiding ideology of the Republic of China. The island's presidents take their oath of office in front of a portrait of him. His picture hangs in the Parliament, government offices and schools. The words of the national anthem come from a speech he made in July 1924 to open the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou. He looks out from the NT$100 banknotes.

In the mainland, he is referred to as the father of the nation (國父). At the end of his life, he made a political alliance with the young Communist Party – this enables it to make a historical link to the 1911 revolution and present itself as the continuation of that link.

Beijing uses him to connect it with Taiwan – even though the opposition Democratic Progressive Party sees him as a Chinese, not a Taiwanese.

The people of Hong Kong and Macau are proud that a fellow Cantonese was leader of the movement that overthrew the Qing dynasty. So many of the revolutionaries were Cantonese that it nearly became the national language.

But, because Sun has become an idol, many aspects of his life have been written out of history. He had a rich love life, with three wives and many girlfriends. One wife was a Japanese, Kaoru Otsuki, with whom he had a daughter Fumiko. They married in 1902, when he was 38 and she 15, while he was still married to his first wife, Lu Mu-zhen. He left Japan before the birth of their daughter, who was adopted by another family from whom she took her surname.

His third wife was Song Qing-ling, one of the three famous Song sisters. They married in Tokyo in October 1915, despite the fierce opposition of her parents on the grounds that he was 26 years her senior. Her parents were long-time friends of Dr Sun.

Before the marriage, Lu begged Sun to take Song as his concubine and allow her to remain his legal wife. A Christian, Song insisted that he divorce his wife before entering into another marriage. Sun bought Lu a large house in Macau where she lived with her family until her death in 1952.

Sun died in 1925, leaving Song a widow at the age of 32. Many people believe that, thereafter, the government – be it the KMT or the Communist – never allowed her to marry again because of her status as "Mother of the Nation" (國母).

Western historians have been less charitable to Sun than Chinese ones. Some call him "Big Gun Sun" (孫大炮), a reference to the fact that he was President of the Republic of China for less than three months – January 1 to March 10, 1912 – and the new country he founded was extremely unstable. Political and military power belonged to warlords with access to arms and funding, not a doctor who had spent most of his life in exile.

Sun wrote and spoke prolifically, covering many subjects and ways of thinking; this allowed people to find what they wanted in his works.

China is blessed in having him as the father of its revolution – not the Lenin or Stalin of the Soviet Union, Robespierre of France or Adolf Hitler of Germany. A medical doctor, he had an attractive and charismatic personality – qualities that have stood the test of time.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.