First Decades of the First Republic: 1911-1931

The Boxer Rebellion, and the repression of the Hundred Days’ Reform by Empress Dowager Cixi, ignited a more far-reaching, radical, and revolutionary approach to modernizing China. One prominent leader who emerged calling for revolution was Sun Yat-sen. Sun’s early years followed the path of many Chinese who escaped the country’s poverty and sought a better life by living abroad. In 1879, at the age of 13, Sun was sent by his father to live with his older brother, Sun Mei, in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Sun Mei was a successful rancher and entrepreneur, and Sun Yat-sen worked on his brother’s farms while receiving his first formal education at an Anglican missionary school called Lolani.

Coming of age in Hawaii gave Sun Yat-sen access to a Western education. He learned about the English and American ideals of a constitutional government, the history of political struggles elsewhere, and Christianity at Lolani.1 Sun Yat-sen’s exposure to this education left an impression on him, setting the stage for his worldview and his later revolutionary activities. He returned to China in 1894 and with the support of several other reformers, established the Revive China Society (Xingzhonghui).This organization would later become the Revolutionary Alliance and would lay the foundation for China’s Nationalist Party.

Even today Sun Yat-sen is considered the father of the Chinese nation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.2 Sun became increasingly convinced that gradual change and constitutional reform wouldn’t be quick enough; the Chinese imperial dynasty needed to be overthrown and replaced by a modern constitutional republican structure.

Sun presented his revolutionary ideals in the Three Principles of the People. Its primary tenets were the minzu (the ethnic nation and freedom from imperial rule), minquan (the people’s rights), and minsheng (well-being of the people).3 First presented in 1905 at a speech in Brussels, the Three Principles were the values of his larger political plan to overthrow and end Qing rule. His appeal and popularity swelled in the first decade of the century, with active membership in the Revolutionary Alliance growing from 400 in 1905 to more than 10,000 by 1911.4In those six years, Sun Yat-sen and the Revolutionary Alliance directed or instigated at least seven different uprisings against the Qing.

Sun’s Three Principles of the People were inspired by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address—that government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Sun also had definitive ideas, informed by pseudo-scientific notions of race and blood, about who was included and excluded in the Chinese nation:5

Considering the law of survival of ancient and modern races, if we want to save China and to preserve the Chinese race, we must certainly promote Nationalism. To make this principle luminous for China’s salvation, we must first understand it clearly. The Chinese race totals four hundred million people; of mingled races there are only a few million Mongolians, a million or so Manchus, a few million Tibetans, and over a million Mohammedan Turks. These alien races do not number altogether more than ten mil- lion, so that, for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common language, common religion, and common customs. . . .

The greatest force is common blood. Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the blood stock of the yellow race. The blood for ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force.6

Sun was not China’s only revolutionary figure. Another was Zou Rong. Educated in Japan, Zou wrote one of the most widely circulated pamphlets on revolution of the time, The Revolutionary Army (1903). The pamphlet was the first clear call for a Chinese revolution:

Revolution is a universal rule of evolution. Revolution is a universal principle of the world. Revolution is the essence of a transitional period of struggle for survival. Revolution follows nature and man. Revolution eliminates what is corrupt and holds on to what is good. Revolution is to advance from savagery to civilization. Revolution is to eradicate slavery and become the master. I have heard that the English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1775, and the French Revolution of 1870 were all revolutions that followed nature and corresponded to the nature of man. They were all revolutions designed to eliminate what was corrupt and hold on to what is good and to advance from savagery to civilization. . . .

I am a young person with little learning or refinement. I cannot really discuss the great significance of revolutionary independence but, timidly and with trepidation, I have conscientiously tried to copy the meaning of American revolutionary independence. Prostrating myself before my most respected and beloved four hundred million exalted Han Chinese countrymen, I list the following proposals for your consideration and action.7

Sun Yat-sen arriving at railway station.


  • 1 : Sun was baptized in 1886.
  • 2 : This reference to the Taiwan Strait refers to the political divisions that exist between mainland China and the island of Taiwan, which has been separated politically from China since 1949 and the Communist Revolution.
  • 3 : The term minzoku was coined in Japan in the nineteenth century and the Chinese adopted the term.

  • 4 : Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), 262.
  • 5 : Milestone Documents; “Sun Yat-sen: ‘The Three Principles of the People’ (1921),” commentary by Torsten Weber, accessed March 19, 2014.
  • 6 : Sun Yat-sen, Sanminzhuyi [The Three Principles], (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshu- guan, 1927), 4–5, quoted in Frank Dikötter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 124–25.
  • 7 : Pei-kai Cheng, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds., (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 198-202.

Connection Questions

  1. What makes a leader? What qualities encourage people to follow leaders? How do you explain why some leaders become popular while others never develop a following? What role do ideas play? Symbols and messaging? Circumstance?

  2. In his calls for revolution Sun Yat-sen said the greatest force for China is their “common blood.” What does he mean? Why might some people find this idea appealing? What are the dangers of appealing to “common blood” as a way to unite people?

  3. What is the message of Zou Rong’s passage on revolution? What does he see as the goals of revolution?

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Sun Yat-sen arriving at railway station.


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