The regional span of Sun Yat Sen’s republicanism


Sun Yat Sen In Penang By Khoo Salma Nasution: Areca Books. 2008 128 pages

Few dates in East Asia’s recent past act so well as a watershed for the scholar writing on the modern history of the region as October 10, 1911 does. On that day, the Wuchang Uprising in China started what became known as the Xinhai Revolution that effectively ended China’s dynastic history on February 12, 1912. That day, the last emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated, and the Republic of China came into being.

Today, exactly a century later, China, India and Korea, among other Asian polities, have joined Japan as major economic powers. This conjures images of the future that require scholars in the region and elsewhere to revisit events of the past. More excitingly, we are forced to ponder some concepts we take for granted today.

For example, we are unable to understand how unthinkable the phrase “Republic of China” was a hundred years ago, not to mention “People’s Republic of China”. For all but a small handful of educated Chinese, China had to have an emperor. Putting “republic” together with “China”, in any language, was to speak nonsense.

One of those who could think of a China without an emperor in the late 19th century was Dr Sun Yat Sen (aka Sun Zhongshan). What was also highly significant about him was that he was educated overseas. In 1894, at the age of 28, he founded his first revolutionary organisation, the Xingzhonghui (Revive China Society). This was in Honolulu.

A year earlier, the Sino-Japanese War had taken place, which China lost badly, and through which Japan turned Korea into a colony. This precipitated various attempts to reform the dynastic system, the chief of which was made by Kang Youwei who tried over three months in 1898 to pursue changes from the top down, with the help of the emperor. These 100 Days of Reform ended in tragic failure. Kang fled, travelling the world to study its many political systems. Among the places he went to was Penang, which he visited just after turn of the century. His utopian book, the Datongshu (The Book on the Great Unity), was once named by a Beijing publisher as one of the 10 most influential books in Chinese history.


A calligraphic script cut into a boulder at Penang’s Kek Lok Si Temple is said to have been written by Kang. After his escape from Beijing, Qing conservatives continued to defend the system but were forced to carry out certain reforms after the palace-condoned Boxer Rebellion against foreigners was quelled and the capital was invaded by a collection of armies. These reforms were however too superficial and too uninformed to succeed.

Sun Yat Sen’s many organised attempts throughout the first decade of the 20th century to topple the Manchu Dynasty proved to be failures as well. The Xingzhonghui that he founded grew to incorporate other groups, and in 1905 emerged in Tokyo as the Tongmenghui. Its Nanyang branch was established in 1906 in Singapore, but was later moved to Penang. The Tongmenghui went on in 1912 to form the backbone for the Guomindang that ruled China until 1949 and governs Taiwan today. No doubt it was the Tongmenghui that had inspired those involved in the Wuchang uprising in 1911, but it was only by accident that it took place, and Sun Yat Sen only read about it the following day in a newspaper in the US, where he was travelling and raising money.

A hardworking man, Sun journeyed greatly to raise political support and money in Overseas Chinese communities. The most sizeable populations of Chinese were in Malaya and Singapore.

This was already recognised by the Qing, and from 1893 to 1911, prominent persons were chosen to be imperial vice-consuls in Penang. The first of these was Cheong Fatt Tze. It was therefore not surprising that when Sun first arrived in Penang in 1906, he was met coldly by the conservatives there.

Many articles have been written about Sun Yat Sen, some of which discuss his time in Penang. However, details of his time in George Town had not been collected and discussed in one single volume beforein a way that makes the story accessible to the common Penangite. For this, Khoo Salma Nasution’s finely produced book deserves much credit.

The fact that Khoo Salma Nasution’s maternal grandfather in the 1920s actually bought the building that housed the Tongmenghui’s Nanyang headquarters for a while and that her mother actually lived in it during the Japanese Occupation adds a personal touch to the book.

She and the publisher are to be warmly commended for the fine pictures and beautiful images included within, along with crisp narrations of persons, events and places that add colour to an exciting story.

Told from Penang’s viewpoint, the connections between places, persons, families and cities which informed the hundred-year-old storyline are presently comprehensively. The regional nature of pre-nationalist days remains strangely and strongly relevant today.

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