Sun Yat-Sen: Clandestine Georgist

Cay Hehner, Ph.D.

[The following paper was written in 2008. Cay Hehner is Education Director,
Henry George School of Social Science, New York, New York]

Among the class of world political leaders the most successful within the Georgist pale was Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. There is no doubt about his eminence as a national leader. He ranks with Jefferson & Paine, Mazzini & Garibaldi, Simon Bolivar & Sucre, Sri Aurobindo & Tilak, Bismarck & Lassalle, Mustapha Ataturk & Hirobumi Ito as the uncontested father of his country. In fact he is alternately called the "Father of the Revolution" and the "Father of Modern China". Both Communist China & free-market Taiwan claim his heritage in equal measure. In the 20th Century he would share the mantle of philosopher-president perhaps only with Woodrow Wilson. His life is of the stuff legends are made of. It contains material not for one, but for a hundred Hollywood films. He's revered like a deity in China & Taiwan, worshipped as a saint-god in Vietnam, esteemed as a great revolutionary in Japan, lauded as a political philosopher & nationalist statesman of the first magnitude around the world. While there is no doubt about his pre-eminence there is much confusion as to what he actually was trying to achieve & what he stands for. He was a communist to the communists, a capitalist to the capitalists, an anarchist to the anarchists & a nationalist to the nationalists. He was derided as "too westernized" & too "un-Asian" in his own country in the early part of his career & he was regarded with awe as the primal expression & epitome of Asian wisdom in the West. A man of many lives, many paradoxes, many pseudonyms, at least two wives, many professions, many credos who left an indelible imprint in at least half a dozen countries around the world both Eastern & Western, occidental & oriental. He represented many things to many peoples, many distinct skills to many experts, many threats to much vested interest. He was exiled from his own country a near dozen times, voted president in turn at least twice, kidnapped in London by the Chinese embassy authorities and liberated by Scotland Yard, he survived many attempts on his life, instigated many revolutions not only in China & Taiwan, but also in the Philippines, & the Japanese evicted him because they feared his popularity as a revolutionary leader would spill over into their Empire of the Rising Sun. While many died for him & his ideas he was as yet an ardent pacifist. Coming from peasant stock & deeply imbued with the timeless lore of Asian wisdom he nevertheless became the most modern of nationalist leaders & the most rationalist & scientific of Asian statesman. With the mind of an Einstein he, albeit, engaged in the work of a Che Guevara. Although a man of peace & the study himself he was constantly on the move from the military & the police & he established Chiang Kai-Chek as the Chinese Warlord to shame all previous warlords. Although not convinced of Communism he nevertheless was the first to invite a Lenin-style party into mainland China. Although a near libertarian he paved the way for Mao & future gulags. Although a deeply spiritual man and fervent Christian with monk-like mores he would insist on keeping two wives. Although a died-in-the-wool Westernized modernist he would end up ruling the most divided and recalcitrant country in the world according to principles laid down millennia ago by Confucius & Lao Tzu. Although hailed as one of the greatest national unifiers ever he would leave a vast hinterland to decades of bloodshed & civil war.

Who was this mystery man: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen & what can he teach us about the cataclysms & problems of our own age that are, by God, neither few nor far between?

Sun Yat-Sen was born November 12, 1866 on a farm in Choyhung, Kwangtung, a few miles from the Portuguese colony of Macao. The incidence of his birth and the trajectory of his early education made him a man of two worlds. It was as if - like the Cambridge-educated Indian nationalist leader Sri Aurobindo Ghose - he was born on the fault-line between East & West, as if he had been destined to bridge the inconsolable gap between ancient Asian wisdom and industrial occidental strife. After having absorbed a traditional classic Chinese education he was sent away at age thirteen to join his decades-older brother who had made good as an émigré merchant in Hawaii. He studied Western science & religion & graduated in 1882 with honors from the Anglican College. Having initially been completely ignorant of English, he ended up winning prizes in literature contests. His brother sent him home, fearful he would forsake the faith & tradition of the fathers & become a converted Christian. No sooner was he back in his old homeland promise young Sun could be found desecrating religious reliquaries there. He was given in a prearranged marriage to Lu Muzhen in 1885, a marriage that lasted over 30 years & that yielded one son & two daughters, a prearrangement that Sun Yat-Sen incidentally never broke during his life-time. From 1887 to 1892 he studied at the Hong Kong Medical School & became a licensed M.D. When getting ignored in 1893 by Chinese reformers over a brilliant plan to clean up the horrid corruption of the government of Mandarin China Sun went to Hawaii & found the Hsing-Chung Hui or "Revive China" Movement in Hawaii. During the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 he returned to the mainland & plotted an overthrow of the moribund Manchu caste of leaders. The uprising failed, however, & Dr. Sun had to flee into exile in Japan. A socio-political template was established that would last the remainder of his life: exile - - agitation & organization of Chinese abroad into secret societies - raising of funds - return to the main land - uprising or coup - failure - life-danger, execution of comrades, & renewed exile, & the cycle would start afresh unmitigated, undiscouraged & undepressed by this defeat on a higher level. Many of Dr. Sun's adherents would be recruited from the same strata of society as himself: high-strung Chinese intellectuals who had gotten a full taste of science & modernity abroad, saw the egregious contrast with their homeland & upon their return were unwilling to settle for less than to blast the immutable ancient China into the 20th century by any and all means necessary.

Sources vary as to the event that turned Sun from M.D. into revolutionists. There is some evidence that he was not granted permission to practice his profession in his homeland, but it can be trusted that the main motivation to follow a new calling was Sun's disgust with the egregious exploitation & social injustice in China. The Middle Empire had been ruled by emperors for two millennia and it was coming apart at the seams. A tottering, doddering goliath with more than clay feet was inviting a passionate, clairvoyant young David to finish him off with a new ultra-modern 20th century slingshot. The "slingshot" crystallized in Japan in 1905 into a little book called the Three Principles of the People and this slingshot could equally well be called a Molotov cocktail that would blow the decadent, death-bound, slave-driving landed aristocracy of Mandarin China to smithereens never to return.

Its origin and inception is no less dramatic than the rest of the life of this highly dramatic identity of Sun. Making John Buchan & Ian Fleming look like choir boys in Japan Dr. Sun grew a moustache, took the clandestine name of Nagayama-Sho, (one of many) put on Western clothes & assumed a Japanese identity. Japan wary of his political clout & popularity among young exiled Chinese urged him on. In the first of his world trips he returned to Hawaii, and continued to London via San Francisco and ended up getting kidnapped by hatchet men of the Chinese delegation there. Freed by the British police he wrote a dramatic account of this adventure as Kidnapped in London (1897), which became the first of many bestsellers that he was to publish the remainder of his life.

In London Dr. Sun made himself at home in the reading room of the British Museum - a world historic place or "power spot" in Castaneda's terms - where Marx had researched and written his Capital and young Bernard Shaw had heard Henry George nearby & retired to study the masters of social problems solutions in depth, not to mention the myriad other minds who had found sanctuary there to work and plot on the precipitation of the Future into the present. Many further revolutionary vicissitudes followed rivaling perhaps only Trotsky, Mazzini, Bolivar & Moriheru Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido who cut his martial teeth in an uprising in Manchuria & was put before a firing squad for it. The color, sheer variety & spiritedness of this revolutionary life with genuine cliff-hangers galore is indeed hard to match even by the most eminent of his compeers.

Dr. Sun's encounter of Henry George's land value taxation principles indeed became the deciding touchstone of his life, his revolutionary theory and practice. It coagulated directly and was condensed by him into the Three Principles of the People which are generally given in the official translations as:

  • Nationalism
  • Democracy
  • Livelihood or wealth of the people

The last principle is sometimes given as "Socialism" and in that mistranslation lies the crux and the key to the grave misunderstandings surrounding the reception of Dr. Sun's revolutionary vision. Without consulting Georgist theory and regarded through the Marxist lens Sun Georgist taxation and land reform program indeed appears like a mollified, soft-core precursor of hardcore Socialism. Without consulting George and regarded through the Capitalist lens Dr. Sun's program with free-market forces fairly unregulated in place does indeed on the other hand appear like a kind of mitigated Capitalism. It's Georgist "land for the people" aspect appears as nothing but fervent nationalism & its stress & cry for freedom from imperialist, Mandarin & foreign oppression appears to be nothing less than anarchist and libertarian. The Three Principles of the People however would the classical economic analysis of Henry George and would apply and adapt it to the contemporary problems of China.

Many a cycle of revolt - aborted progress - flight & renewed exile with renewed reorganization and regrouping of the forces of the Chinese intellectuals abroad later Dr. Sun's world-historical hour struck. On an unlikely fundraising tour from Denver to Kansas City the news reached him late in 1911 that the death of the dowager-empress & the institution of a 3-year-old imperial babe as a supreme ruler with a senile caretaker uncle in charge of all the destinies of China had finally been the straw that broke the literal back of the proverbial camel of Mandarin China. Dr. Sun hastened to return to the mainland & by January 1, 1912 he was instituted as the first President of the Chinese Republic. Much fighting lay ahead & much work remained to be done, but a definite foundation was laid down for a state that would Dr. Sun & Henry George's message be followed could become one of the leaders of the Family of Nations.

Sketch of a Time-Line:

  • Foundation of the Kuomintang (1911)
  • Compromise with Yuan Shi-Kai (1912)
  • Marriage for reasons of state to Soong Ch'ing-Ling (1915)
  • The grooming of Chiang Kai-Chek
  • Chien-kuo fang-lueh or The Principles of National Reconstruction (1917)
  • Leader of the Kuomintang (1919-1925)
  • Unification of China (1920-1925)
  • Compromises with Russian Communists (early 1920s)
  • Second marriage for reasons of state of Chiang Kai-Chek to Soong Mei-Ling
  • Split of the Kuomintang & Chinese Civil War (1927)
  • Kuomintang eventual loss of China to the Communists & gain of Taiwan

Main sources of this paper:

Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, School of Cooperative Individualism, Dr. Sun's Three Principles of the People, the first dozen entries of Sun Yat-Sen on Google.