A salesman and a revolutionary

Sun Yat-sen
August 6, 1999

This book offers us a view, through the prism of the life and career of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, of the internal dynamics underlying the transformation of China in the era of the 1911 Republican revolution. Marie-Claire Bergère has used the Complete Works of Sun Yat-sen as a major primary source, along with a wide range of works by other scholars in the field.

While the known outline of Sun's life remains unchanged, Bergere's work seeks to analyse the late imperial and early Republican years as a time of clashing cultures.

Part one, "The adventurer of the South Seas 1866-1905", sketches the familiar story of Sun's early environment. Bergere emphasises two facets of this portion of Sun's life that she considers of crucial importance to his later work: the coastal, more commercialised and outward-oriented culture that enveloped the young Sun; and his ability to form effective networks with various overseas Chinese groups.

Part two, "The founding father? 1905-1920", asks whether Sun, the "travelling salesman of revolution", could accurately be regarded as the founding father of the Republic of 1911.

Bergère's account of the relations and antagonisms between Sun, Liang Qichao and Zhang Binglin is a masterly depiction of how the constitutional reformists, the revolutionaries and the ethnic nationalists dealt with each other in their encounters among Chinese students and exiles in Japan. The founding of the Revolutionary Alliance in 1905 was the revolutionaries' declaration of a political goal. It appears that Sun's role henceforth must be that of political theorist, fund-raiser and activist-strategist combined, while presiding over a coalition unified primarily by short-term anti-dynastic goals.

When the revolutionary vision was defeated in its contest with Yuan Shikai in 1912, Sun was left with no real power base as he crossed the political "desert" in 1913-20.

Sun's final years are depicted in part three, "1920-1925", which saw him attempting to regain the revolutionary initiative through reorganisation of the Nationalist Party, striking deals with south China warlords and promulgation of the party credo, the "three principles of the people".

Bergère's strong scepticism regarding Sun's hallowed place in modern Chinese history is understandable, but it has also engendered more questions. Considering the multitude of ineptitudes and flaws of Sun as a political leader, what was the quality that rallied fervent crowds of young Chinese around him? Were patriotism and idealism sufficient explanations for their endeavours? How deeply had the growing mythology of the revolutionary martyrs influenced events? In what way did Sun's three principles reflect thought patterns rooted in traditional culture? In other words, how can we thoroughly understand the nature of a prolonged revolutionary process that altered not only the political form of a country, but was a tectonic cultural and social shift as well? This book provides a useful foundation for the pursuit of answers to just such questions.

E-tu Zen Sun is emeritus professor of Chinese history, Pennsylvania State University, United States.

Sun Yat-sen

Author - Marie-Claire Bergère
ISBN - 0 8047 3170 5
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 480
Translator - Janet Lloyd

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