The exhibition in Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which I visited last month, depicts Dr Sun as a well-meaning, principled patriot with China’s best interests at heart.
Although there’s no question over his selfless dedication, the “father of modern China” lacked the ability, political acumen and luck to overcome the difficulties that plagued the nation in the early 20th century.
Zhu Youjian, the Chongzhen emperor (1611-1644) was in a similar situation. By the time he took the throne, in 1627, the Ming dynasty was collapsing after decades of misrule by previous emperors and powerful palace eunuchs. Internally, the court was trying to stamp out a massive peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng; externally, the militant Manchus were threatening the northeast borders.
The emperor was determined to save the dynasty, and the first thing he did when he came to power was to purge the eunuchs and trim down the administration. His good intentions, tireless diligence and strict personal discipline weren’t enough, however, to stem the empire’s irreparable rot or counter the external threats.
Dr Sun was perhaps lucky that he died of natural causes in 1925, and was spared the full horrors of China’s warlord period, the Japanese invasion and the subsequent civil war. The emperor met a more unpleasant end: when Li’s rebels stormed the capital, in 1644, the emperor killed his womenfolk, fled to the hill behind the Forbidden City and hanged himself from a tree.