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A leader ahead of his times

Updated: 2011-09-29 08:12

China Daily

Sun Yat-sen died 85 years ago, and this the 100th year of the 1911 Revolution, which will always be identified with him. He emerged as the leader of a revolution at the end of the 19th century, and was China's first modern politician.

"Modernity" is a concept that has been much debated, especially when compared with tradition. Western scholars first used the term "modern" to mark the progress in Western people's struggles against tradition. But the term was not applied to Asia. For Asian leaders, Western power was the reality. The question for them was how far their countries should be Westernized to avoid being dominated, or worse, conquered or colonized by Western powers.

The first decisive response came from Japanese samurai who helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. They were prepared to go all out to learn everything they wanted from the West in order to fight back. Other Asian leaders were less eager to allow their countries to Westernize to that extent and continued to believe that their established ways need not be changed by imitating the West. If they thought about being modern, it was only in terms of learning from the West.

Sun Yat-sen was born two years before the Meiji Restoration, in 1866, and grew up during the first decades of Japan's road to modernity. Many like him who grew up in coastal China were exposed to Western trade, and those born in European colonies, wanted to understand how differently the Japanese saw the West.

So, why should we consider Sun Yat-sen a modern politician? Why not Kang Youwei and his young followers who reached positions of power in 1898 and, after the failure of their attempts at reform, organized a political party called the Baohuanghui (Protect Emperor Society)?

Kang's politics was a break with the past, but Sun Yat-sen was already organizing political rebellion in new ways before Kang's "Hundred Days' Reform". The Xingzhonghui (Restore China Society) that he founded in Hawaii in 1894 and in Hong Kong in 1895 was a more recognizable political organization with deep roots in Chinese practice.

Three things helped Sun Yat-sen understand what the West represented: stories of the Taiping rebels, textbooks in his missionary schools in Honolulu and Hong Kong, and British medical scientists in his college. His generation in China was the first to experience the systematic application of European theory and practice to Asian life and thought. Although people in Guangdong and other coastal regions in China had been conscious of Western presence for centuries, their contacts with Europeans had been desultory.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rulers, too, became aware of the new challenges China faced by the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Twelve years later and only four years after the Meiji Restoration, they sent Sun Yat-sen and 30 of his contemporaries to the United States to learn how to deal with the challenges. Between 1872 and 1875, 30 students were sent to the US each year.

The 120 students who returned to China prematurely remained half-educated. Although they brought back some of the skills they had acquired in the US, they had to conform to prevailing traditions to serve the Qing Dynasty. None of them challenged that framework during their working careers. Only after 1911 and the fall of the dynasty did a few of them engage in the kind of politics demanded by the republican system that the revolution had established.

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