Reality check

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


Anniversary celebrations for the 1911 revolution have - yet again - highlighted Sun Yat-sen's place in history. The one figure who bridges the nationalist-communist ideological divide, Sun and his legacy remain controversial.

Being 'Father of the Nation' is a mixed blessing - the label creates more idealisation than any human can possibly live up to. As Americans are slowly learning, uncritical reverence of historical figures can be problematic when their actions are viewed through the prism of modern-day values. George Washington owned slaves and Thomas Jefferson procreated with his; Franklin Delano Roosevelt's maternal grandfather was an opium merchant in China, and so on. Facts are often inconvenient, and Sun's Hong Kong connections, both real and mythologised, are no exception.

'Where did I get my revolutionary ideas?' he asked rhetorically, when giving a speech (delivered in English) to the student's union at the University of Hong Kong in 1923. Sun graduated from the precursor institution, the Hong Kong College of Medicine, in 1892, but had left Hong Kong permanently long before the university was established, in 1912. Despite this being his only visit to HKU, the institution harps on about its (tenuous) links with the 'Founder of Modern China' at every opportunity.

In his speech, Sun contrasted Hong Kong's peace, stability and order with the corruption, nepotism and physical danger in his home district, across the delta.

'I compared Heungshan with Hong Kong and, although they are only 50 miles apart, the difference of the governments impressed me very much. Afterwards, I saw the outside world and began to wonder how it was that foreigners, that Englishmen, could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China, in 4,000 years, had no places like Hong Kong.'

By any objective standards - and Sun openly admitted it - Hong Kong was demonstrably more advanced than what surrounded it. This admission points out something else; the profoundly shattering sense of inferiority, subsequently written about as 'national humiliation', which afflicted so many Chinese of Sun's era.

'Among government officials in Hong Kong, corruption was the exception; it was quite the contrary in China, where corruption among officials was the rule. The higher the government, the more corrupt it was, until, finally, he went to Peking, which was one hundred times more rotten than Canton.'

For all of China's many advan- ces in the past century, has much really changed?

Exposure to muscular Christianity - a key Victorian-era component to social uplift - also brought about a form of cultural indigestion. The much-romanticised 'romance' between the Cantonese Sun and the much younger, American-educated Shanghainese Soong Ching-ling, whom he bigamously 'married' in 1915, illustrates this point.

Sun was a baptised Christian so all the talk about Soong being a second wife is self-serving nonsense. Airbrushed by history, his discarded former wife, Lu Muzhen, lived in Macau until her death, in 1952; her house exudes an oppressive atmosphere of abandoned bitterness.

Sun also had a Japanese wife, Kaoru Otsuki, acquired during his sojourn in Japan, with whom he had a daughter. None of this should matter - plural marriages were the Chinese norm - but the intrusion of monogamous Christian mores into Sun's life story further muddies the mythological waters.

Primarily an alliance of interests, as with most other contemporary Chinese unions, Sun's marriage to Soong closely linked him to Shanghai's Green Gang clique. As Sun was also an initiated member of the Chee Kung Tong, a Honolulu-based triad faction, the marriage simply expanded his underworld contacts.

Triad connections, it must be remembered, were usual among Chinese revolutionaries, as they remain among contemporary 'patriots'. Faan Ching fook Ming ('down with the Qing, restore the Ming') was the triad slogan from the 16th century, and Sun did not object. Like many aspects of his life, this is conveniently forgotten today.