Sun Yat-sen's The Three Principles of the People

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Sun Yat-sen, the founder of Chinese democracy, laid out the Three Principles of the People as a guiding philosophy for what Chinese government should look like.

Modernizing China

When Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic and, to be honest, the person who did more to modernize the country than anyone else, set out to bring China into the modern world, he knew that it required more than just knowledge and equipment. So he sought to create a political philosophy that would help provide the world's most populous nation with significant amounts of pride while leading it to a better future. For inspiration, he thought of Abraham Lincoln's phrase 'of the people, by the people, for the people' from the Gettysburg Address. In this lesson, we'll see how that phrase inspired the Three Principles of the People, a guiding philosophy for early modern China.


The first principle of the people is based on the idea that the people of China should play a role in China's government. Colonial powers were trying to take over China at this time, and Sun Yat-sen was fighting outside forces as much as a desire by some Chinese not to nationalize. However, there was another problem. Which people of China should rule the country? For centuries the Manchus had ruled, but they were a minority compared to the Han Chinese. Still, there were also Muslims, Tibetans, Mongols, and many other smaller ethnicities within China. As such, this idea of populism sought to embrace all of China's nationalities as being Chinese. Think about it like this - you can be a Virginian or a Californian, but you're still an American. That was the philosophy Sun Yat-sen wanted his people to adopt.


Lincoln's desire for a government 'by the people' inspired Sun Yat-sen for his second point. China should be a democratic country, free of the entanglements that came with European rule. To this end, Sun Yat-sen tried to implement a Western-style democracy in China, with plenty of opportunities for civil involvement. The parts of government were known as Yuan, and they were based on both on Western and Imperial Chinese government organs.

China had recently been manipulated by many European powers

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