At a state event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sun Yat-sen this month, President Xi Jinping stated that the Communist Party was the “most loyal and faithful heir” of the father of modern China because it had brought the country to the brink of a national revival, a goal to which Sun had devoted his life.

Tug of war over China’s founding father Sun Yat-sen as Communist Party celebrates his legacy

Predictably, the Kuomintang, the party Sun co-founded in 1919 and currently the opposition party in Taiwan, demurred. Almost immediately, the KMT countered that it was the “most legitimate heir” of Sun’s nation-building ideals.

The focus on legitimacy is not exclusively Chinese, of course, but they have been obsessive about it, especially dur­ing the imperial period, when an emperor’s right to rule depended on his antecedents and his legitimate links to them, be they real, imagined or fabricated.

Anniversary reminds us of Sun Yat-sen’s hope for unified China

When the Ming dynasty came to an ignominious end in 1644, several scions of the imperial family set up separate courts in southern China, each claiming to be more legitimate than the next. Two of these Ming-dynasty pretenders – the Prince of Lu and the Prince of Tang – even fought each other instead of uniting against their common enemy, the Manchu invaders, who would eventually overrun China and found the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

The last of the “Southern Ming regimes” finally capitulated in 1662, with the execution of its “emperor” and “crown prince” in Yunnan.