It’s not every day that we celebrate the birth of a critical leader who created the basis for a new country. not long ago, China was reeling, waiting for a savior to guide them into the modern age.
This November marks the 150th birthday of the Pearl River Delta’s most famous Sun. On November 12, 1866, the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen was born in Cuiheng, a small village that’s today part of Zhongshan City.
Sun Yat-sen’s father had been a cobbler in Macau before later returning to his village to marry. Sun was the fifth of six children and nearly 12 years younger than his oldest brother. The family was far from wealthy and the economic hardships of the mid-Qing had hit southern China with a special fury.
When Sun was only five years old, his eldest brother, Sun Mei, moved to Hawaii looking for work. Starting out as a laborer on the plantations outside of Honolulu, he soon acquired and cleared land for his own farm, becoming a successful planter and businessman.
Back in Guangdong, Sun Yat-sen began his education at a local primary school. The six-year-old Sun sat through dusty lessons drawing on a curriculum which was more or less unchanged for nearly seven centuries. Education was meant to instill Confucian values of loyalty, duty to the emperor and to abide by the Principles of Heaven. Still, Sun was already displaying an independence with his particular attraction to stories of rebellion by his fellow Cantonese, like Hong Xiuquan.
The younger Sun had begun expressing a keen interest in Christianity and was causing the family problems by cajoling fellow Chinese in Hawaii to turn away from the gods of their homeland.
Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom had been at war with the ruling Qing Dynasty from 1850 until just a few years before Sun’s birth. Memories of that war and Hong’s stand against the ruling Manchus, played very differently in the valleys of Guangdong Province than in the halls of power in Beijing. For young Cantonese like Sun, Hong was a hero and Chinese patriot who stood up to a decrepit conquest dynasty.
When Sun was only 12 years old in 1878, his family decided to also move to Hawaii. There, Sun was enrolled at the Iolani School.
Sun graduated in 1882 and planned to continue his studies at Oahu College, then the top educational institution in Hawaii. After only one semester, his brother pulled him from the school, intending to send Sun back to China. The younger Sun had begun expressing a keen interest in Christianity and was causing the family problems by cajoling fellow Chinese in Hawaii to turn away from the gods of their homeland. At 17, Sun landed back at his hometown.
Seeking to build upon his education, Sun traveled to Hong Kong to continue his studies. There, he defied his family’s wishes by being baptized as an American Congregationalist and regularly attended church. He also began studying Western medicine at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese.
The time spent studying both medicine and Christianity in Hong Kong also inspired Sun to consider all the different possibilities for the future of his country. He believed in an end of the conservatism of the ruling elite and expected a push beyond the tentative forays into modernization by the so-called reformers of the era. During this time, he also began building a network of like-minded Chinese that would eventually spread around the world.
While Sun’s early attempts—first in 1895 and then again in 1900—to start a revolution in Guangdong failed miserably, he realized that his life’s work would be to save China by transforming the country either by building national railways or introducing a republican form of government.
With the help of his social networks, the 1911 revolution was launched that toppled the Qing government—and the imperial system. His dream had come true. On January 1, 1912, Sun returned from exile triumphant as the first president of the Republic of China.
Despite this tremendous milestone in Chinese history, the next 13 years would be a period of victory and tragedy for both Sun and the country. Despite his best efforts to rally support at home and abroad, Sun ultimately was unsuccessful in his quest to unify the country behind him. The country’s destiny would be left to his successors in both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded in 1921.
In 1925, this son of the PRD died of cancer in Beijing at 59. His body was laid in state and the country mourned. Less than two years later, a large part of modern China would be finally unified under Sun’s protege, Chiang Kai-shek.
Today, the county where Sun was born—along with many parks, monuments and schools throughout China and around the world—bears the name of his most famous alias: Sun Zhongshan, a name given to him by his Japanese friends.
Sun’s roots were in Guangdong, but his legacy was truly global; he was a historical world figure from just down the road.