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Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution

January 29, 2010

Harold Schiffrin. Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Chris Hess (2000)

Intellectual historians focusing on China in the late 1950s and 1960s, scholars like Benjamin Schwartz and Maurice Meisner for example, believed that to understand a persons actions one must first examine their thought. In Schiffrin’s study of the first decade of Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activity from 1895 to 1905, the above assumption seems reversed. Schiffrin argues that Sun was not a great thinker, but rather he was a man of action with a unique political style (p. 2). Throughout the twelve chronological chapters of this work, Schiffrin illustrates how Sun’s tactics and thought grew out of the social-political environment and personal contacts he made as he acted on his belief that revolution was necessary for China to survive (p.212). Schiffrin concludes that Sun’s leadership role in the T’ung Meng Hui itself, his main achievement of the decade under examination, was highly conditional in that it was his assumed ability to take action that led the intellectuals to choose his leadership (p.365). “They (the student intellectuals) wanted a job done and here was the man with the contacts and tools and confidence to perform it” (p.364). For Schiffrin then, to understand Sun’s thought and how he attained a leadership position in his early attempts at revolution, it is necessary to look at his action, and how that action was influenced by larger social and historical forces.

In examining Sun’s rise to leadership in 1905, Schiffrin illuminates Sun’s flexibility as he strove to carry out revolution in a rapidly changing historical and social environment. For example, he devotes a chapter to illustrate the various approaches Sun used in 1900 when the Boxer chaos divided the country. During this period and the short-lived Waichow uprising he organized, Sun had offered Li Hung-chang independent rule of Kwangtung and Kwangsi. He offered the British a share in tutelary rule over the country, and the presidency of the new government he was fighting for to Liu Hsueh-hsun. Finally he tried to secure Japanese aid at a crucial moment during the Waichow uprising (p.240). This final attempt to win Japanese support was quite desperate, as Schiffrin notes “Sun needed help badly, and as usual, he was prepared to share the spoils with anyone who offered deliverance” (p.237). Sun is seen at this time as a man trying anything to keep the possibility of his limited uprising alive.

Schiffrin is also sensitive to the role reformers such as Liang Ch’i-ch’ao played in Sun’s political development. He makes the important point that in 1900 the line between “reformer” and “revolutionary” had blurred as Liang adopted more militant rhetoric and used many of Sun’s tactics to win support (p.188). With such competition, Sun had to clarify what made him different from such reformers. Schiffrin finds him doing this in 1904, when Sun used an analogy of new machines (republican government) versus old models (constitutional monarchy) to criticize reformers. Sun at this time argued that he and the student intellectuals represented the ability to “rush China through a telescoped recapitulation of European experience, and by sidestepping Europe’s pitfalls, attain new heights of civilization” (p.319).

Such powerful rhetoric and Sun’s emphasis on anti-Manchu nationalism at this time, Schiffrin argues, reflect Sun’s response to the nationalistic revolutionary sentiment that had developed among another group that again forced Sun to adapt if he wanted to survive as a revolutionary (p.254). Chinese students studying abroad had developed their own calls for revolution, and Schiffrin argues that their prioritization of anti-Manchuism over anti-imperialism was a key part of their acceptance of Sun, who also began to emphasize a unified anti-dynastic effort at this time (p.356). These radical students return to the mainland also set up a new base for revolutionary action, and their failures and frustrations left an opening for leadership which Sun filled as he formed the T’ung Meng Hui with these intellectuals in 1905 (p.342).

Contemporary reviewers praised Schiffrin for a balanced account of Sun based on newly available source material (Leng, The American Political Science Review, 65.3: 853). In addition he is praised for successfully tearing Sun away from the various interpreters of his life such as the CCP, KMT, and various warlords and presenting a scholarly account of his life free of political myth (p.853). He is shown in this work to be a real person dealing with the complex realities of Chinese and global politics. In constructing his account of Sun’s early revolutionary career, Schiffrin also illustrates several key themes regarding the revolutionary process and nationalism in China. Pragmatism as an essential component to revolutionary efforts is one such theme. Had Sun not been receptive to the groups challenging him, the students in particular, he would have lost his position at the vanguard of revolutionary activity. But Sun’s pragmatism had a price, as Schiffrin portrays him as a man with weak principles and a subsequent lack of ideological authority (p.365). Finally, Sun’s brand of broad nationalism, and his call for a rapid restoration through the transplantation of foreign ideas to China reflects an important theme in Chinese nationalism. As Schiffrin notes, “It testified to the nationalist urge for an abbreviated means of salvation” (p.299). Schiffrin finds that Sun relied on his unique revolutionary experience, global travel and his upbringing to present himself as a man capable of carrying out such a rapid transformation (p.364).

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