In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 Revolution

  • Introduction
  • Biographies of Sun Yat-sen
  • The First Accounts of the 1911 Revolution
  • Monographs and Papers Covering the 1911 Revolution
  • Conference Proceedings and Edited Volumes on the 1911 Revolution
  • Sun’s Revolutionary Efforts after 1911

Chinese Studies Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 Revolution
Michael G. Murdock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0130


Sun Yat-sen (generally known as Sun Zhongshan孫中山or Sun Wen孫文 in Chinese) plays a central role in the national narratives of both the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, which lionize him as a “national hero” of gigantic proportions and the determined revolutionary who brought low the Qing dynasty. Sun’s formative and early revolutionary years were spent overseas studying or in exile to avoid arrest by Qing authorities, exposing him to foreign contacts, ideals, and funding. Although a stalwart patriot, Sun spent little time in China itself, viewed the world through Christian lenses, and routinely sought foreign aid. In 1911, Sun’s Tongmenghui, or Revolutionary Alliance, overthrew the Qing dynasty, ending two millennia of imperial rule and propelling China into a new stage of sociopolitical development under the Republic of China. The earliest literature on the 1911 Revolution narrated revolutionary events and explained the Qing’s fall as the result of Sun’s foreign connections. Subsequent explanations turned inward, examining factors, figures, events, changes, and participants within China itself. By 1971, studies on local and provincial connections to the 1911 Revolution became popular, spiking every decade. In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution, interest exploded, producing waves of symposia, document collections, exhibitions, monographs, and articles. Unfortunately for Sun, his 1911 Revolution failed to produce the society of his dreams. He served as the Republic of China’s provisional president in 1912, but soon found himself exiled again, banished by the usurper Yuan Shikai and his military dictatorship. Sun spent years planning a comeback, first against Yuan and then against the disastrous warlord regimes that followed. Sun’s semi-exiled life in the French quarter in Shanghai and mounting failures vis-à-vis warlord regimes, however, dimmed his international reputation. Newspapers and foreign ministry documents alike portrayed Sun as a fallen figure. Nevertheless, these years in the wilderness drove Sun to carefully rethink China’s state-building challenges. He wrote extensively, meticulously planning China’s future political and economic development. Moving to Guangzhou at the invitation of reformist warlord Chen Jiongming, Sun tried to build a movement that could unify China. Chen, however, preferred provincial development over national unification and drove Sun from Guangzhou, Desperate, Sun opened negotiations with Soviet agents in 1923. Mercenary troops helped Sun regain a foothold in Guangzhou, whereupon Soviet advisors and Chinese communists alike helped him launch another revolution. Accounts from the period painted Sun as a leftist radical or “Bolshevik.” Criticisms haunted Sun until his death from liver cancer in 1925.

Sources and Research Tools

For a century there has been no shortage of historical materials on Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 Revolution. Extant documents are not in short supply. Access to archives, however, was long a burden. Research vis-à-vis Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary career struggled during the 20th century for a number of reasons. Souring political climates and disruptive wars restricted archival access between 1913 and 1949, compelling research to lean heavily on foreign records and archives. In Taiwan, access to archives depended on political compliance that preserved the conclusions sought by the Republic of China regime. Access to Chinese archives in the People’s Republic, on the other hand, was nonexistent to all but a few Chinese historians who themselves had to operate in a heavily indoctrinated environment that painted Sun and the 1911 Revolution as but a dress rehearsal for the communist revolution later. Since the 1980s, however, Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the West, lifting of political controls, and improved computer systems have generally improved access to archival research and equipped researchers with a variety of new tools to assist them.

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