Hey guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Tonight: Badass Historical Chinese Bros, Part IV: Sun Yat-Sen.
The 19th century was not a good time for China. Chinese historians use the term “Century of Humiliation” to describe the period between the Opium Wars in the 1830s and the end of WWII. China, mainly due to corruption and cultural chauvinism on the part of the ruling Qing dynasty, had fallen seriously behind the West in terms of technological and economic development, and as a result became a victim of Western imperialism. Japan even got involved following its modernization in the 1870s. This culminated in the Japanese Imperial Army committing some of the most horrific war crimes in human history against the Chinese during WWII. In the 1850s and 60s, the Taiping rebellion swept across southern China. Taiping, incidentally, translates as “extremely peaceful”, an interesting name for a conflict that killed over twice as many people as World War I(1).
In the midst of all this chaos there emerged a man of vision and dedication, who believed in his nation when no one else seemed to. This man’s name was Sun Zhongshan, known in the West as Sun Yat-Sen.
Sun Yat-Sen was one of those rare individuals whose ideals were just too far ahead of their time, and as a result were not nearly as successful as they should have been. Sun Yat-Sen was born in 1866 and grew up in Hawaii, where he received a Western education and even converted to Christianity. He returned to China just in time to see China get completely obliterated in the first Sino-Japanese war, and then get carved up by foreign powers in the 1890s. Frustrated at the Qing dynasty’s incompetence, Sun advocated revolution and setting up a democratic form of government.
Cool idea, his friends said, but who’s going to lead this revolution? You? And of course, that’s just what he did. After a few false starts, in 1912 Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China, a state which continues to this day on Taiwan and continues to be recognized by some countries as the legitimate government of all China. He struggled for the next decade to make a free, just and strong China, ultimately dying in 1925—before his goal was accomplished.
Sun Yat-Sen was guided by what he called the “Three Principles of the People” (Chinese 三民主义 San1min2 Zhu3yi4). He developed the philosophy as a kind of blueprint for a prosperous, strong, and democratic China. Let’s take a look at each principle in detail:
The first principle is 民族 min2zu2 usually translated as “nationalism”. However, that term has an air of chauvinism, or even racism, about it in English that was never present in Sun Yat-Sen’s ideology. A more accurate translation might be “People’s Nation”. Basically it referred to a national Chinese identity and pride regardless of ethnic group; that is, a Manchu or a Tibetan had just as much right to call himself “Chinese” as a Mandarin speaker from Beijing. I like this principle because it applies to me too! I like to have daydreams about settling down in the ROC, getting naturalized as a dual citizen, and looking like a foreigner but really being just as Chinese as anyone else. Sun Zhongshan would’ve been totally on board with that, and it’s something that I think some people forget: that China isn’t homogeneous! It’s a multiethnic country too, just like the US, and Sun wanted to make sure that each ethnic group in China was treated fairly.
The second principle is 民權 min2quan2 or “people’s rule”--that is, democracy. Sun’s great hope was that he would see China develop into a genuine democracy where people could express themselves freely and choose their leaders. In the end, he never accomplished his dream within his lifetime, but due to the groundwork he laid as the Republic of China’s first president, we now have a genuine multiparty democracy in the ROC—that is to say, Taiwan. On the mainland, too, things are getting better every day. That said, I’m not exactly gonna be the first one to wear a “Free Tibet” t-shirt to Tienanmen Square. But it’ll get there someday, I have faith.
Good will always triumph over evil, freedom will always triumph over tyranny, and I believe that someday, Sun’s dream of a united, free and strong China will come true. The Communist Party of China likes to talk about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which I really believe I’m witnessing right now. That’s why I love living in China.
The third principle is 民生 min2sheng1 “people’s livelihood”. Basically this means socialism, and a highly-developed social welfare system for those members of society who need an extra hand. I personally think socialism is a great idea, within the framework of a free democracy. Sun Yat-Sen thought so too, and believed in a fairer and more equitable society. While people do have the opportunity to become successful through hard work, the weaker members of society are taken care of. I’m down with that. China is a huge country, with enormous natural resources. There’s plenty to go around, and Sun Yat-Sen understood that.
So those are my bro Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People, and that wraps up not only today’s discussion, but my whole series on Badass Historical Chinese Bros. Up next: The Origins of Chinese Civilization. See you next time.