Sun Yat-sen: Biography, Accomplishments & Leadership

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we'll explore the biography and legacy of one of the early revolutionaries of late 19th-century and early 20th-century China, Sun Yat-sen.

Who Was Sun Yat-sen?

Every country has its revered historical figures. In the United States, these are men and women like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Susan B. Anthony. In Canada, they are men and women like John A. MacDonald or Laura Secord. Indeed, nearly every country across the globe has its own set. Perhaps no popular figure is more mythologized in Chinese history than early 20th-century Chinese philosopher and politician, Sun Yat-sen. In this lesson we'll explore Sun's career in Chinese politics and his legacy.

Early Years

Sun Yat-sen was born in 1866 in Guangdong province. Born into a family of poor farmers, Sun moved to Hawaii with the help of his brother who already resided there. Sun went to school in Hawaii, and it was there that he first came into contact with Christianity, though he was not baptized until after he returned to China in 1883. Sun eventually graduated from medical school, though he consistently found himself drawn to politics and, most importantly, to revitalizing Chinese society and politics.

Sun, like other young Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, was frustrated with the ruling Qing Dynasty and way foreign nations had been able to take advantage of the weak Chinese rulers. In 1894, Sun returned to Hawaii, where he began the Revive China Society, comprised of mainly disaffected Chinese nationals who lived in Hawaii.

After China's humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, Sun returned to Hong Kong, where he attempted to direct a rebellion in Guangdong. The effort quickly fell apart, and Sun was forced to leave China in exile. Over the following two decades, Sun continued his efforts at subverting the Qing dynasty and changing China, often through communicating with secret revolutionary groups in China and fomenting rebellion.


In part due to Sun's efforts, but mainly due to the Qing Dynasty's unpopular policies, several rebellions broke out in 1911 across China. As the imperial government fell apart, Sun returned to China and was elected the provisional president. He resigned in February 1912 after making a deal with Yuan Shikai, the leader who replaced the emperor.

Despite the agreement, Yuan soon began consolidating power around himself and even attempted to proclaim himself the new emperor. Sun raised a rebellion in opposition to Yuan's government. Though Yuan was removed from power in 1916, no one - Sun or otherwise - had control of the entire country. Regional warlords controlled large swaths of China.

In 1924, Sun radically altered the political landscape of China by allying his nationalist party, the Guomindang, with the Communist Party of China. Unfortunately, Sun Yat-sen died the following year from cancer.


Sun Yat-sen's legacy and ideas arguably have had a larger impact on Chinese politics and society than the actions he took in his lifetime ever did. Through his three principles - nationalism, democracy, and livelihood - Sun foresaw a China that was free from the meddling of foreign countries, had democratic institutions and government, and ensured land and a basic standard of living for all Chinese.

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