Sun Yat-sen was born in Cui Heng Village, Xiang Shan County, Guangzhou into a family of farmers, although his father worked for some years as a tailor in Macau. His parents believed in traditional Chinese religion. When Sun was very young, they feared that he might not grow up into healthy adulthood, so they took him to a temple and dedicated him to the Northern Emperor god.
At age six, Sun was taught the Chinese classics at a village school, but in 1879 he was sent to join his brother in Hawaii, where he studied at Lolani College in Honolulu, run by the Church of England. He earned second prize for English grammar. He returned to China after his graduation in 1882 but was expelled from his native village because he broke a finger off one of the village temple idols (Willis 311). This action aroused the ire of his townsmen, the rebuke of his parents, and the disapproval of his kinsmen. There was no option but to send him back to Hong Kong.
He went to Hong Kong in 1883 and enrolled at the Queen’s College in 1884. He got to know the Rev. Charles R. Hager, an American Methodist missionary, who asked him whether he believed in Christ. Thinking that Sun’s faith was firm, Hager administered baptism to him. Sun was most willing to receive this rite. Since he was studying the Chinese Classics with a learned Christian, he adopted a new name, Sun Rixin, which was taken from The Great Learning but which he used to refer to 2 Corinthians 5:7: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old has passed away; behold, all things are new.” His good friend and townsman, Liu Gaodong, was baptized with him. In later years, Liu became a close companion in Sun’s revolutionary activities.
For two years, Sun lived in the Diocesan Home. This gave many opportunities to be with Hager. In addition to his studies, he participated enthusiastically in church activities, evoking Hager’s admiration and high hopes for his future. Hager believed that Sun’s zeal as a Christian would enable him to use medicine to bring man people to the Christian faith.
In 1885, Sun entered Central College (Chinese-English Institute). He continued attending worship services on Sundays, however, and often used his vacation times to preach the gospel and distribute Bibles and gospel tracts in the neighboring villages.
He returned to his native village for an arranged marriage to Lu Mu-chen (b. 1867; d. 1952). They had two daughters and a son.
That same year, he began to study at a medical school in Canton that was attached to the Pok Chai Hospital, the oldest Western hospital in China. It was run by John G. Kerr. In 1887 Sun enrolled at the newly established medical school of the Alice Memorial Hospital in Hong Kong, where he was supervised by the dean, James Cantlie. He graduated in 1892 and, after a brief time in Macao, set up practice in Hong Kong in 1894.
(taken from the article by the China Group in the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions)
While studying in Canton and Hong Kong, Sun came into contact with young radicals and anti-imperialists. In 1894 Sun presented a proposal for reform to the governor of Hebei, but it was ignored. Disappointed, Sun went to Hawaii and started the Hsing-chung-hui (Revive China Society, RCS), with his brother and some friends. In Jan 1895 he joined forces with the Fu-jen Society in Hong Kong organized by Yang Chu-yun in 1892. Sun then went to Canton to recruit soldiers for a revolt in that city, but the plot was discovered one day before its planned occurrence. Sun escaped, taking refuge in Japan for the next 16 years.
While in Japan, he not only adopted Western dress, grew a mustache, and cut off his queue, but absorbed Western social thought in ways that made him more “revolutionary” than he had originally intended.
In 1896 Sun went to England to visit the retired Dr. Cantlie and was arrested by the Chinese legation at Portland Place on 11 Oct. His release was secured with the help of Cantlie, who prevailed on the British authorities. The incident boosted Sun to international fame. He wrote about this experience in Kidnapped in London (1897).
Sun returned to Japan in 1897 and plotted new revolts against the Manchus. An attempted revolt in Huichow, 150 miles east of Canton, failed for lack of ammunition. Between 1903 and 1905, Sun attempted to increase the membership of the RCS by recruiting in Southeast Asia, England, and Europe. He returned to Tokyo in 1905 and was elected director of Tung-meng-hui, an amalgamation of his RCS and the Hua-hsing-hui, an association of Chinese political refugees and the radical student organizations in Japan. The propaganda organ of the Tung-meng-hui was the Min Pao. After several failed uprisings and the banning of the Min Pao by Japan, Sun decided to go to the United States, where he was able to raise considerable support among overseas Chinese for the Tung-meng-hui.
While traveling by train in the USA from Denver to Kansas City, Sun read about the revolution in Wuchang, Hubei, on 10 Oct 1911. He returned to China and was elected president of the provisional government of the Republic of China in Nanjing in Dec 1911. In Mar 1912 he relinquished the presidency to Yuan Shih-kai, who in return appointed Sun director of railway development in September. Perhaps because of his many long trips by rail in American and Europe, as well as China, Sun was convinced that railroads were the key to the modernization of China. Yuan dismissed him in Jul 1913 when Sun publicly denounced him.
In Aug 1912 Sun was elected director of the Kuomintang, a federation of the Tung-meng-hui and four smaller parties: the United Republican Party, the People’s Progressive Party, the Progressive Republican Party, and the People’s Public Party. The acrimonious tension between Yuan Shih-kai and the Kuomintang led to the assassination of Sung Chiao-jen, a Kuomintang activist. Sun again sought asylum in Tokyo after a failed attempt to overthrow Yuan. In 1914 he formed a “more tightly controlled revolutionary movement, almost a secret society, called the Chinese Revolutionary party (Zhonghua Gemindang). Each member took an oath of personal commitment to Sun and his principles.” (Willis 318) He reorganized the Kuomintang and returned to China in Apr 1916, when Yuan’s defeat seemed imminent.
He reorganized the Kuomintang again in 1923 with the aim of uniting China under his revolutionary program. Sun’s “Three People’s Principles” of nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood formed the party manifesto. Disappointed when the Western powers and Japan refused to help, Sun aligned the Kuomintang with the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1923 Sun invited the Comintern to help him reorganize the Kuomintang. After the completion of the reorganization in 1924, the Kuomintang became a more disciplined pyramidal organization with a structure similar to the Russian Communist Party. Opposition to the inclusion of Communists led to friction within the Kuomintang leadership.
Sun died of liver cancer in Beijing while negotiating with leaders of the northern government on 12 Mar 1925. He was given a private Christian funeral service on 19 Mar at the chapel next to the Beijing Union Medical College. He was then given a state funeral, and his body was laid to rest at a temple in the Western Hills. In 1929, Sun’s coffin was transferred to a marble mausoleum on Tzu-chin-shan, near the tomb of the first Ming emperor. He was declared the kuo-fu (father of the republic) by the national government on 1 Apr 1940.
“Sun received the nickname Sun Ta-pao (Big Gun Sun, [or, “Sun, The Big Talker”]) because of his exaggerated announcements of military expeditions and the many abortive military attempts. Sun was nevertheless respected as a man of honesty, sincerity, integrity, and selfless devotion to his country.” (China Group article)
“As a pioneer, Sun Yat-sen showed all the flexibility necessary to his task. In time he worked with Triad Society strongmen, Japanese expansionists, American missionaries, warlords, anyone who would listen. Too sincere to be a mere opportunist, he was too practical to cling to an ideology. He often dissimulated or compromised.” (Fairbank, Revolution 147)
“Sun … remained a figure of reverence throughout China. Wherever he went, he was treated with enormous affection and asked to address the large crowds gathered in his honor. An effective orator, he could keep an audience enthralled for as long as three and four hours.” (Pakula 55) “He could be very persuasive in private conversation, giving an impression of great interest in the person to whom he was talking. None of that made him a ruthless or adept wielder of political power.” (Willis 320)
Chiang Kai-shek greatly admired Sun. Among other things, when they were on an outing together, he said to his first wife, Jenny, “Look at Dr. Sun See what a good walker he is. He is an expert on topography. Everywhere he goes, he makes it a habit to climb mountain to get a bird’s eye view of the place to see if there is a possibility of building a railway there.” Jenny comments, “Dr. Sun walked with strong, steady strides and appeared as cool as a cucumber.” (Eastman, 93)
“Sun was a vague thinker – his second wife would say he put together his pronouncements on the spur of the moment depending on the political context and his audience. He acted as a dictator within his movement, which was rent with factionalism.” (Fenby 29)
“He combined utter selflessness and frequent naiveté in power politics with an absolute faith in his own vision of China’s future and his own central role in leading the country toward modern nationhood.” (Willis 31) He had “little interest in personal power and glory,” and was “utterly without ambition for private wealth or power.” (Willis 317, 320)
Relationship to Christianity
Public identification with Christianity
In 1886 Sun’s older brother “summoned him back to Hawaii and tried to force him to give up Christianity. Sun refused. Stranded and penniless, he finally raised enough money from fellow Christians to return to China.” (Pakula 47)
Sun Yat-sen never abandoned the Christian faith. He not only publicly declared himself to be a follower of Christ, but also infused biblical principles into his political writings. For example, he believed strongly in limited government and separation of powers. These ideas had been current among reformist Chinese for some time, and were influenced, no doubt, by the U.S. Constitution, which was in turn shaped by biblical ideas about the essential dignity and worth of each individual as well as the propensity of human beings to abuse power.
He also insisted that religious freedom was essential to the welfare of society and the stability and justice of government.
In 1894, he, Charlie Soong, and their friend Lu Hao-dong “took an oath on the Bible to drive out the Manchus, establish a republican form of government, and revitalize China.” (Pakula 49) When he was kidnapped in London, he says, “I prayed constantly. For six or seven days I prayed without ceasing.” (Pakula 51)
When he died, “his second wife and son wanted a Protestant ceremony since he had died a Christian – one of his last utterances was reported to have been: ‘Just as Christ was sent by God to the world, so God also sent me.’” (Fenby 74).
Questions about the nature of his Christian faith
On the other hand, a number of facts call into question whether Sun was an evangelical Christian, that is, whether he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior from his sins.
For one thing, after he threw himself into the revolutionary movement, he stopped going to church. It seems that he basically substituted politics for religion.
Sun did not join those who sought political reform, however. Convinced that the Manchus were hopelessly corrupt, even after the reforms instituted by the Empress Dowager he placed all his hopes for “saving” China in the success of violent revolution.
Some Christians believe that violent revolution is warranted by the Bible. Others think that seeking to overthrow a government by force violates not only the examples of Jesus and the Apostles, but also passages such as Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1-3, and 1 Peter 2.13-17. Sun’s repeated plots to kill those in authority raise questions about his understanding of these and other statements in the Scriptures.
Association with Liberal Protestantism
Sun associated with many other Christians, including especially “Charlie” Soong, father of the three Soong sisters (Ailing, Ching Ling, and Mayling) and of T.V. Soong, later a high official in the Nationalist government. Though Soong had given up a career as a preacher to become an industrialist, he was an active member of Moore Memorial Church and a founder of the Shanghai YMCA, both of which exemplified the “liberal” brand of Protestantism typical of what Daniel Bays called the “Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment.” Most of the “mainline” missions, including the Anglicans, promoted this type of faith, which focused on improving the lot of people in this world through education, medicine, and political reform. In other words, “they stressed the ‘social gospel,’ to address the problems of modern city life.” (Fairbank, China, 260)
Though he had in his youth dreamed of changing China through the gospel, and then through medicine, he soon “relinquished his youthful dream of saving China through the word of God, but he plunged himself into a new vision of redeeming his troubled country through revolution.” (Li 23) “In the end, Christianity was useful to his cause, at it had been for Hung Hisu-ch’uan [the leader of the Taiping movement], but his fundamental motive was nationalism.” (Fairbank, Revolution, 146)
For example, as part of the plot to take control of Guangzhou in 1885, “as cover he set up an Agricultural Study Society in Canton and used a Christian bookstore.” (Fairbank, Revolution, 148).
As a youth, Sun heard many stories of the “Taiping heroes” who had joined a distorted form Christianity with violent revolution to overthrow the Manchu dynasty, with their capital in Nanjing. When he defaced the village temple, he also “told heroic tales of the Taipings.” (Willis 311) No one knows much the Taipings’ near-success influenced the revolutionary imagination of Sun.
His fusion of Christianity with politics undoubtedly had a profound impact upon his protégé Chiang Kai-shek, who later also identified himself with Christianity Christian (though, again, many doubt the depth of his spiritual transformation until his later years; see the article in this dictionary.)
In addition, Sun’s personal character and conduct have led some to doubt whether he was anything other than a nominal Christian, or whether he had ever been “born again” to new life in Christ.
Marriages and relationships with women
While he was in exile in Japan in 1913, he was joined by Charlie Soong and his family, including Ailing, their eldest daughter, who became his secretary. Sun was married and had three children at this time, but still courted Ailing “was said to have bought her a fur coat with donations from revolutionary supports.” (Li 38). Her parents absolutely opposed the idea of Ailing marrying Sun and had her married to King Hsiang-his instead.
“When [Ailing] left Sun’s service in September 1913, Chingling stepped into her shores. It was not long before a romance bloomed between the shy, beautiful girl barely out of her teens and the failed revolutionary more than twice her age.” (Li 38) When the Soongs returned to Shanghai, Ching Ling kept up a secret correspondence with Sun.
When he traveled to Beijing in August 1913, he was accompanied by “a large group of aides, both male and female,” including Chingling (Pakula 56) His one-time adviser William Henry Donald – called “Donald of China” - later said of Sun, “the worst of it was that the old boy could not keep his hands off women.” (Pakula 56)
In March 1915, Sun sought a divorce from his village wife so he could marry Ching Ling. His first marriage had been one of convenience, and he had spent a minimum amount of time with her. Chingling’s parents were horrified at the thought of their daughter marrying Sun, and forbade the union, even locking her in her room to prevent it. Soong frankly told Sun that his Christian principles could not allow such a thing, and cut off relationships with him from then on. Chingling wrote Sun and asked whether he needed her in Japan. When he responded that he did, Chingling escaped from her room and sailed to Japan. On his part, Sun did not want to expose her to the charge that she was his concubine, which is why he had arranged a divorce with his current wife. They were married in Tokyo on October 25, 1915.
After the news became public, “Chinese Christians refused to accept Ching-ling as Sun’s legitimate wife, and … Sun was no longer asked to speak in missions and churches. His name was dropped from missionary journals as a good example of a Chinese Christians.” (Pakula 65)
In summary, we may say that some Christian principles informed Sun’s political and social views, and probably contributed to his positive character traits, but that the spiritual and religious core of Christianity was absent from his adult life.
The first two parts of this entry are a mostly a composite of two articles, both with permission: “Sun Yat-sen,” by the China Group, in the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald Anderson, and “Sun Yat-sen 孫中山” from the Chinese page of this Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.
- Eastman, Lloyd, editor, Chiang Kai-shek’s Secret Past: The Memoir of His Second Wife, Ch’en Chieh-ju. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.
- Fairbank, John King, China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
- ________________, The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Fenby, Jonathan, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.
- Li, Laura Tyson, Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Eternal First Lady. New York: Grove Press, 2006.
- Pakula, Hannah, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
- Willis, John E., Jr. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994