FOR decades Taiwan’s rulers have paid their respects from afar to Sun Yat-sen, also known as Sun Zhongshan: “father of the nation”, founder of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, and first president of the Republic of China.
In a ritual called yaoji, they face towards Sun’s mausoleum in Nanjing, 800km (500 miles) to the north-west in China, and offer fruit, burn incense and recite prayers.
Now that links across the Taiwan Strait are better, Sun-worshippers may make the pilgrimage in person. On October 31st it was the turn of the KMT’s chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu. But not only do some Taiwanese adore Sun. Museums in his honour also exist in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Penang. He has a memorial park in Hawaii, where the great republican spent his teenage years, and a plaque in London, where he lived in exile from 1896-97. Most striking of all, he is admired by the Chinese Communists, who “liberated” China in 1949 from KMT rule.
In the Communist telling, Sun is the “forerunner of the democratic revolution”. As one visitor to his mausoleum put it this week: just as one sun and one moon hang in the sky, “there is only one father of the country.” There may be more Zhongshan Streets in China’s cities than Liberation Avenues. To mark this month’s anniversary of Sun’s birth 150 years ago, the state is minting a set of commemorative coins, including 300m five-yuan (75-cent) pieces that will go into circulation. It is a signal honour for a non-Communist. The party views Sun as a proto-revolutionary.
He makes an unlikely hero. Sun spent much of his life not in the thick of action but abroad. Half-a-dozen revolts that he helped organise against an ossified Qing dynasty were failures. As for the Wuchang uprising of October 1911, the catalyst for the end of three centuries of Manchu domination, he learnt of it from a Denver newspaper. He was back at the head of China’s first republican government early the following year, but merely as “provisional” president. Lacking the military strength to pull a fractured country together, he said he was the place-warmer for a strongman, Yuan Shikai. The nascent republic soon shattered and Yuan crowned himself emperor. Pressure from Western powers and Japan exacerbated China’s bleak situation. By 1916 Sun was back in exile again, in Japan.
For all that, Sun had brought down a rotten empire. For years he had raised the alarm over China’s direction, denouncing the Manchus and the rapaciousness of external powers. All his life, Sun had strived for a new republican order to turn a stricken China into a modern nation-state.
His ideas were hardly systematic, but he never deviated from the priorities of fostering national unity among Chinese, promoting democracy and improving people’s livelihoods—his “Three Principles of the People”. While railing against foreign depredations, he called for Chinese to embrace Western freedoms and rights (Sun’s messianic drive may have derived from his version of Christianity). His was an astonishingly more cosmopolitan world-view than that displayed by today’s Chinese leaders.Yet the longest-lasting impact of Sun on Chinese political life derives from something different. In the early 1920s he listened to advisers from the Soviet Union, which had won his admiration by renouncing territorial claims in China. He reorganised the KMT along Leninist lines, giving himself almost dictatorial powers (in Leninspeak: “democratic centralism”). The immediate effects were striking: an alliance between the KMT and the young Communist Party and a northward military advance in 1926 under Chiang Kai-shek, Sun’s heir, that toppled the warlords who were then wreaking havoc. Sun had died of liver failure the year before. He did not live to experience the brief national unity that Chiang imposed, nor the parties’ fatal split and descent into bloodshed, nor their struggle over Sun’s mantle.
Follow the Sun
And his legacy today? Consider that among his three principles, the two 20th-century dictators, Mao Zedong in mainland China and Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan, gave a damn only about the first, national unity, on which, by their standards, they must be judged poorly. Sun’s Leninist party organisation—never one of his hallowed principles—had a far more profound impact on the two autocrats, and still does on China’s rulers today.
In Taiwan dictatorial KMT rule began crumbling a few years after Chiang’s death in 1975. Democratic development since then, including within the KMT, and the growth of a prosperous civil society, seem in line with Sun’s second and third principles relating to democracy and prosperity. But as for the first, a Chinese nationalism: forget it. Sun’s portrait still hangs in schools and government offices, and looks serenely down on the frequent fisticuffs in Taiwan’s parliament. But after resounding defeat in elections early this year, the KMT struggles for relevance on an island that is proud of its separateness from China. If there is any echo of Sun’s idealism, it is in the student “Sunflower Movement”, which wants to keep China at bay. For many Taiwanese, the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, is a figleaf for independence; Sun is an old ineffectual ghost. The current president, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, performed no yaoji this year.
And China? Democratic centralism still prevails—exemplified by the party’s monopoly on power, Xi Jinping’s autocratic rule and the suppression of dissent. Were Sun to speak from his tomb, he might remind Mr Xi how, under the Communist Party, national unity, real democracy and even broad-based prosperity remain elusive. He might point out, too, that when Sun adopted Leninism it was to advance rather than trump his beloved principles. In his final will, Sun wrote: “The work of the revolution is not done yet.” “Blimey,” he might now say: “Couldn’t you think of trying something different?”