Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sun Yat Sen

A year or so ago, I posted this at my original blog site. That site seems to be defunct now, so I am reposting here.

Sun Yat Sen is perhaps one of the most important figures in Chinese thought in the past 100 or so years. Whether in Mainland China or in parts outside of the Mainland that claim Chinese culture as their heritage, Dr. Sun's thought is highly revered, and the man is taken as an example of good philosophy and good living.

Sun was a leader of the revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, and was president of the newly founded republic and of the Kuomintang party (that's Guo Min Dang in pinyin, but usually still KMT in most English writing about the party). Of course, it wasn't as easy as I've made it sound there for him to go from revolutionary to president. He spent some time in exile from his home country and was constantly on the run during the years before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty was finally achieved. But he was ultimately successful in his efforts, leaving him a legacy that is much respected throughout the Chinese world.

What I find interesting about Dr. Sun is just how many different people seek to claim him as their own. In China, he is known as the father of the New China, and his remains rest in a huge mausoleum in Nanjing. It is an impressive walk up to see this structure, and he is beautifully represented within. I found it fitting that the statues of him in the outer hall have him dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, but the statue lying atop the tomb depicts him in a Western suit. Dr. Sun, while he was very anti-imperialist and all for an independent China, was not a man who rejected the West as evil, as so many subsequent Chinese thinkers/politicians (especially from the mainland) sought to do. He learned from his time spent in exile (in the US, the UK, and Japan) and didn't throw out the baby with the bath water when he rejected those nation's claims on China.

In Taiwan, Dr. Sun is likewise revered. There is a National Sun Yat Sen University as well as a national memorial hall dedicated to him in Taipei. Like Communist China, the Republic of China in Taiwan has some legitimate claim to Sun. He did found the KMT (the band which eventually ran off to Taiwan when the communists took over the mainland), and he did name Chiang Kai Shek head of the Whampoa Military Academy. Ultimately, it was this that set Chiang up in the position of power from which he fought against the communists, seeking to wipe them out.

Wikipedia points out this same irony I have noted about Sun. In China, he is called the "forerunner of the revolution." In Taiwan, he is "national father." Everyone wants a claim on Sun, and so everyone has a special name they place on him. (Again, the power of naming.) The thing is, of course, that Sun's thought and life work is open to this naming-and-claiming. He sought to unify China, and openly worked with the communists to achieve this, even stating in a letter to Stalin that he hoped the movement he started would be inseparably linked to Stalinist thought in the pages of history. On the other hand, Chiang in his leadership of the KMT was a firm believer that the best way to achieve Sun's objective of a unified China was to rid China of the communists. This led to some bloody battles and massacres at that period in Chinese history, and the eventual rift between Taiwan and the Mainland, all in the name of Sun's ideals of a unified China.

I suppose the whole telling of Sun's story, and the different versions we see coming out of Mainland China and Taiwan, is related to the subjective nature of representation in human communication. But I do find it interesting how inviting it is, at least for Chinese politicians, to try to lay claim to Sun and name him as one of "ours." Which, I think, opens up huge questions about politics, intepretation, and the often power-driven motives behind writing and representation.

The Soong Sisters is a very nice film about three sisters who were closely involved in the politics of this period. The middle sister married Sun Yat Sen, and the youngest married Chiang Kai Shek. The personal and political turmoil and drama experienced seems like it was put together especially for a movie like this one.

It is available at B&N here: Soong Sisters

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