1911 special: The first Chinese revolution

Dr Sun Yat Sen: a tireless and principled fighter against imperialism.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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This month, the Chinese people celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the most important events in their long history: the revolution of 1911, also known as the Xinhai revolution.

This revolution overthrew the 300-year rule of the Qing dynasty, thereby ending thousands of years of monarchic rule in China, and created one of the first republics in Asia.

The goal of the revolution was to unite China, to throw off imperialist oppression and humiliation, and to build an advanced, modern country. But whilst the revolution was successful in ending the monarchy, it could not succeed in its wider goals, as China remained prey to imperialist marauders, warlords and feudal oppressors, and its people remained mired in misery.

However, the original dreams of the 1911 revolutionaries, and more, were realised 38 years later with the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949.

This seminal event was the culmination of a protracted revolutionary struggle by the Chinese people, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Therefore, even though the revolution of 1911 failed to achieve its full objectives in the immediate term, the victory of the people’s democratic revolution, and the subsequent building of socialism in China, may be said to be the continuation and development of a process that began with the Xinhai revolution.

The outstanding figure in what Marxists regard as China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution was Dr Sun Yat Sen, a man of whom it is often said that he devoted his entire life to revolution.

Born in humble circumstances, he began work at the age of 6, but later acquired an education and qualified as a medical doctor. In search of a way to lead China out of its misery, and especially to raise funds from and to mobilise the overseas Chinese for revolution, he travelled extensively.

Originally a member of triad secret societies, in 1894, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Dr Sun founded the Society for the Revival of China, thereby becoming the first person to raise the slogan of rejuvenating China, which is still upheld by the communist party in China today. In 1905, he was one of the founders of the Chinese Revolutionary League, which went on to play a leading role in the revolutionary events of subsequent years.

Dr Sun faced danger throughout his life. For example, in 1896, he was kidnapped from the streets of London by agents of the Qing dynasty and held as a prisoner in their legation.

The intention was to smuggle him back to China, where he would have been executed. His life was only saved thanks to a tenacious campaign waged by his British friends, who forced the Foreign Office to take action. The room where he was imprisoned is still specially preserved in the Chinese embassy on Portland Place.

Besides being universally considered as the ‘Father of Modern China’, Sun also became a prominent influence on the national-liberation movement throughout Asia. Whilst in Japan, for example, he was responsible for supplying arms to revolutionaries in the Philippines.

At the beginning of his memoirs, With the Century, Comrade Kim Il Sung wrote:

My father thought highly of Sun as the forerunner of the progressive elements of China … He believed that Sun was a bright, sincere, progressive revolutionary.”

On 10 October 1911, a military uprising in the city of Wuchang heralded the start of the Xinhai revolution. Dr Sun Yat Sen was in the United States, and he made haste to return to China as soon as possible.

Such was his prestige among his fellow revolutionaries that on 29 December 1911, in the city of Nanjing, he was elected as the provisional President of the Republic of China, which was proclaimed on 1 January 1912.

However, the revolutionaries were unable to consolidate power and Sun was soon forced to cede the presidency to Yuan Shi Kai, a warlord, who even tried to proclaim himself emperor.

Undeterred, Sun continued to fight for the revolution until his untimely death from cancer at the age of 58, on 12 March 1925. At the time of his death, the combined revolutionary forces of the Kuomintang, which had been founded by Sun, and the Communist Party of China, which had been founded in 1921, were preparing, with help from the Communist International, for the Northern Expedition, which aimed to overthrow the warlords and imperialists and reunite China.

Even before the victory of the October Revolution, Lenin had paid great attention to Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary movement. In a July 1912 article, Lenin described Sun as “this enlightened spokesman of militant and victorious Chinese democracy”, continuing:

Every line of Sun Yat Sen’s platform breathes a spirit of militant and sincere democracy … It stands for complete democracy and the demand for a republic. It squarely poses the question of the condition of the masses, of the mass struggle. It expresses warm sympathy for the toiling and exploited people, faith in their strength and in the justice of their cause.

Before us is the truly great ideology of a truly great people, capable not only of lamenting its age-long slavery and dreaming of liberty and equality, but of fighting the age-long oppressors of China.

One is naturally inclined to compare the provisional President of the Republic in benighted, inert, Asiatic China with the presidents of various republics in Europe and America, in countries of advanced culture. The presidents in those republics are all businessmen, agents or puppets of a bourgeoisie rotten to the core and besmirched from head to foot with mud and blood – not the blood of padishahs and emperors, but the blood of striking workers shot down in the name of progress and civilisation. In those countries the presidents represent the bourgeoisie, which long ago renounced all the ideals of its youth, has thoroughly prostituted itself, sold itself body and soul to the millionaires and multimillionaires, to the feudal lords turned bourgeois, etc.

In China, the Asiatic provisional President of the Republic is a revolutionary democrat, endowed with the nobility and heroism of a class that is rising, not declining, a class that does not dread the future, but believes in it and fights for it selflessly, a class that does not cling to maintenance and restoration of the past in order to safeguard its privileges, but hates the past and knows how to cast off its dead and stifling decay …

What has decayed is the western bourgeoisie, which is already confronted by its gravedigger, the proletariat. But in Asia there is still a bourgeoisie capable of championing sincere, militant, consistent democracy, a worthy comrade of France’s great men of the Enlightenment and great leaders of the close of the eighteenth century …

The real emancipation of the Chinese people from age-long slavery would be impossible without the great, sincerely democratic enthusiasm which is rousing the working masses and making them capable of miracles, and which is evident from every sentence of Sun Yat Sen’s platform.” (‘Democracy and Narodism in China’, Collected Works, Vol 18)

Lenin’s analysis was prescient indeed. Following the October Revolution, Sun, having learned many bitter lessons from his revolutionary work at home and abroad, eagerly responded to the overtures of the infant Soviet state and the newly-formed Chinese Communist Party, and often expressed his great admiration for Lenin.

Sun’s politics had already acquired a certain socialist orientation, for example in his observation that “Europe and America are strong but their people are impoverished” and that consequently “a social revolution will take place before long”. (Quoted in A Concise History of the Communist Party of China, Ed: Hu Sheng)

Sun had earlier formulated his political programme as the ‘three people’s principles’, namely, nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. Towards the end of his life, he supplemented them with another three key principles, alliance with Soviet Russia, cooperation with the Communist Party and assistance to the workers and peasants.

Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese socialist revolution, referred to Sun as “our great revolutionary forerunner”. In his famous article, ‘On the people’s democratic dictatorship’, written for the 28th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and on the eve of the founding of the People’s Republic, Comrade Mao recalled:

Sun Yat Sen, in the depths of despair, came across the October Revolution and the Communist Party of China. He welcomed the October Revolution, welcomed Russian help to the Chinese and welcomed the cooperation of the Communist Party of China …

From our 28 years’ experience we have drawn a conclusion similar to the one Sun Yat Sen drew in his testament from his ‘experience of 40 years’; that is, we are deeply convinced that to win victory, ‘we must arouse the masses of the people and unite in a common struggle with those nations of the world which treat us as equals’. Sun Yat Sen had a world outlook different from ours and started from a different class standpoint in studying and tackling problems; yet, in the 1920s he reached a conclusion basically the same as ours on the question of how to struggle against imperialism …

Throughout his life, Sun Yat Sen appealed countless times to the capitalist countries for help and got nothing but heartless rebuffs. Only once in his whole life did Sun Yat Sen receive foreign help, and that was Soviet help. Let readers refer to Dr Sun Yat Sen’s testament; his earnest advice was not to look for help from the imperialist countries but to ‘unite with those nations of the world which treat us as equals’. Dr Sun had experience; he had suffered, he had been deceived. We should remember his words and not allow ourselves to be deceived again.”

On 12 November 1956, marking Dr Sun’s 90th birthday, Mao published his article, ‘In commemoration of Dr Sun Yat Sen’, which concluded with these words:

Dr Sun was a modest man. I heard him speak on many occasions and was impressed by the force of his character. From the way he applied himself to the study both of China’s past and present and of foreign countries, including the Soviet Union, I knew he was a man with a receptive mind.

He worked heart and soul for the transformation of China, devoting his whole life to the cause; of him it can be justly said that he gave his best, gave his all, till his heart ceased to beat.

Like many great figures in history, who stood in the forefront guiding the march of events, Dr Sun, too, had his shortcomings. These shortcomings should be explained in the light of the historical conditions so that people can understand; we should not be too critical of our predecessors.”

Dr Sun’s lasting legacy is not only as a great hero of the Chinese people but is of universal significance. Through his tireless revolutionary activity, and his boundless integrity, he came to the conclusion that the struggle against imperialism could only be led to final victory through alliance with communism.

His contribution to the struggle against imperialism is worthy of study and emulation not only by revolutionary democrats and patriots, but by the communist and working-class movements, too.

> 1911 Special – Hundredth birth anniversary of General Vo Nguyen Giap – October 2011

> 1911 Special – A hundred years since the working-class struggles of 1911 – October 2011