Educating a Revolutionary: Sun Yat-Sen’s Schooling in Hawaii

By Alfred L. Castle



Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was the best known revolutionary proponent of a Chinese republic, both in China and abroad. Born of peasant stock near Canton, a cosmopolitan southern section of China, he was a Westernized Chinese. His Westernization had come from his residency and schooling in Hawaii, his medical studies in Hong Kong, and his organizational activities in the rapidly modernizing Japan. This background served him well as he traveled to gain support for China’s revolution.

Sun Yat-sen’s intellectual legacy to those who followed him was fully formulated by the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1911. That legacy took form in the rather loosely defined Three Principles of the People. Broadly stated, these included the progressive belief in nationalism, democracy, and socialism. For Sun, nationalisan implied opposition to the oppressive and authoritarian rule of the Manchus as well as European imperialists. By democracy, Sun intended the right to vote for all Chinese and the start of a constitutional government modeled in part that of the U.S. The socialist “On People’s Livelihood” plank was a rather undeveloped economic principle derived from the once popular land-tax American reformer, Henry George. George had argued in his book Progress and Poverty (1879) that the deepest poverty occurred whenever there was the greatest material progress. To ameliorate the social costs of economic growth, he argued that government should break up land holding monopolists, who profited from the increasing value of their lands and rents they collected from those who did the actual work. He proposed a “single tax” on the unearned increases in land values received by landlords. George’s solution was overly simple, but his optimistic faith in the capacity of humans to effect change made him appealing to middle-class reformers.

“Sun came to Hawaii in the 1870s for schooling and returned to Honolulu in the mid-1890s to found the Xingzhonghui (Revive China Society), ancestral organization of modern China’s nationalist revolutionary party.”

In the broadest sense, these three principles summed up all the European ideological development of the century following the French Revolution. These sweeping social ideals, which were in part introduced to Sun during his stays in Hawaii, make an examination of his education in Hawaii worthwhile.

The Hawaiian Islands became known to the Chinese soon after Captain Cook’s discovery in 1778. Following the accidental discovery, a vigorous fur trade between the Pacific Northwest and Canton developed. The ships used by British and American fur traders were provisioned in Hawaii. By the early 19th century, sandalwood, a delicate wood noted for its fragrance, replaced fur as the leading source of trade between Hawaii and China. (In fact, the Chinese referred to Hawaii as “the Sandalwood Islands.”)

Although the Chinese have been in Hawaii for over 200 years, it was not until 1876 and the passage of the reciprocity treaty, that Chinese came to Hawaii in large numbers. This epochal treaty allowed Hawaiian sugar to enter the U.S. market duty free and greatly expanded the sugar industry and the need for labor in the islands. In the never ending search for inexpensive and relatively docile labor, the Hawaiian government sent agents to Canton to recruit contract laborers. Some of those recruited paid their own passage and were free to engage in business. Among this privileged class was Ah Mi (Sun Mei), the elder brother of Sun Yat-sen, who began rice planting near Honolulu.

After Ah Mi became established he sent for his younger brother Tai Cheong (later Sun Yat-sen). The younger brother was particularly receptive to the invitation as he had become enthralled by Ah Mi’s accounts of his exploits and his descriptions of Hawaii’s wealth and liberal government. Indeed, Hawaii was virtually a synonym for economic opportunity in the villages of southern China.


(Courtesy Hawaii State Archives)

St. Andrew’s Pro-Cathedral, Angelican church attended by Sun.

In 1878, Ah Mi, by now the family benefactor and village hero, returned to Cuiheng where his father had arranged a proper marriage. The twelve year-old Sun was anxious to return with his brother, but he waited until1879, when his mother took him on a visit to Honolulu and left him in the care of his older brother. In China, Sun had obtained only a rudimentary education. His family’s poverty, and lack of access to western schooling, meant that his systematic education would begin in Honolulu. Thus, after a short stay in his brother’s shop, where he became familiar with the abacus and bookkeeping, he gladly accepted his brother’s invitation to send him to Iolani School.

In 1879, Kalakaua was the limited constitutional monarch and Iolani was a hoarding school admitting a limited number of Chinese. The principal advantage of boarding school, from Ah Mi’s perspective, was that it would facilitate Sun’s learning English, the standard language of business and commerce in the Islands. For Ah Mi, who in 1881 had enough capital to lease land on Maui and to establish himself as a planter, cattle grower, and seller of farm equipment in Kahului, fluency in English and acquisition of American business skills were the keys to success in Hawaii. His departure for Maui and the subsequent boarding of Sun would ensure that his younger brother acquired these skins quickly. Ah Mi expected to be rewarded for his efforts by employing his younger brother in his steadily expanding business.

With only seven Chinese students in 1879, Iolani was an Anglican school intended primarily for Hawaiian and part Hawaiian boys. Kamehameha V (reigned 1863-1872), who was sympathetic to the Anglican Church because of his brother’s (Kamehameha IV) devotion to it, named the school. The school was then run by the Angican prelate, Bishop Alfred Willis. In the 1870’s, lolani was like the rest of the Angelican church, a stronghold of anti-American, anti-annexationist and pro-monarchial thinking. All teachers save one were British and it was under their guidance that Sun received his first years of Western education. During this period at Iolani, English history was taught instead of American history, which was standard in other schools. Most of the texts were published in English and arithmetic dealt with pounds, shillings, and peace. Sun’s contacts with people outside the school were limited while he boarded, and the Hawaiians who made up the student body were loyal to the monarch, King Kalakaua. Under Bishop Willis, Iolani was a pro-British, anti-American annexationist society.’ It is reasonable to speculate, then, that at least some of Sun’s anti-imperialism and sensitivity to foreign influence in China came from his awareness of foreign influence in Hawaii and its relationship to a relatively weak central government under the increasingly embattled Kalakakaua. Certainly his education gave no hint of his later revolutionary activity. As Bishop Willis noted in the Diocesan Magazine in 1896, “As far as can be remembered Thai Cheong’s school days gave no indication of his future career. He has left no tradition of hatching plots against magisterial authority. Nor will any one suppose that he was indoctrinated at Iolani with the love of a republican form of government, much less with the desire of revolutionizing the Celestial Kingdom after the model of the Hawaiian Republic, which was then unborn.”

If lolani did not supply Sun with anti-monarchial views, it did nonetheless expose him to English and American ideals of constitutional government and to the history of the English people’s long struggle against autocracy and arbitrary government. Certainly, in studying constitutional government, which Hawaii had since 1839, he would have had practical and specific examples of how American and British governmental advisors had introduced limited government. He would also have heard from his instructors, as well as his brother, of the administration of justice through a complex western-style judiciary. Specifically, he must have been impressed by his brother’s relatively quick economic success and the protection of his hard-won property. Certainly, many members of the Chinese community were benefited by a country where life and property were safe from arbitrary confiscation and where the protection of the law extended, even if imperfectly, to those who questioned and challenged the existing political order. When he returned to China in 1885, these differences were profoundly felt by the impressionable Sun.

As a student at Iolani, Sun was studious and became expert at mathematics. In addition, he learned English quite rapidly as “English immersion” was required of all students. The Hawaiians who were Sun’s fellow students, studied English as a passport to employment in government service. The Hawaiian language was never spoken in classes at lolani. On July 27, 1882, Sun’s English speaking and writing skills received second prize in English. He was awarded his prize by King Kalakaua, who was escorted by his sister, Princess Liliuokalani, and the Dowager Queen Emma (widow of Kamehameha 1V), who were patrons of lolani School (Honolulu Advertiser, July 1882). Only three years before, Sun could speak no English at all.

An important part of Sun’s instruction at Iolani was his religious instruction in Christian principles. The boys at lolani were obliged to attend daily and evening prayers in the school’s chapel, and on Sundays all students were taken to St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Classes in Christian doctrine were taught by Bishop Willis, and Sun saw ample evidence of the kindness and fairness which Christian doctrine called for. Significantly, each of the other Chinese students attending Iolani became Christians and some of them became leaders in churches in Honolulu and elsewhere.

Through Sun’s daily contact with Christianity, he came to believe that much of the backwardness of China was due to its traditional superstition and dread of evil spirits. In Christianity, he found a positive statement of man’s redemption and God’s love for each human, no matter how poor or disadvantaged. In the eyes of Christ, all persons were equal and no ultimate deference was due any person because of his birth or station. In Christ, further, he found a symbol of a revolutionary who dared to deny the authority of even the most established authoritarian government while upholding the equal dignity of all.

After graduation from Iolani in 1883, Son decided to seek additional western education before assisting in his brother’s store. With Hawaii lacking a full-scale college or university, he enrolled in Oahu College (Punahou School), then the highest center of learning in the Islands. Oahu College was, unlike Iolani, the school most influenced by the American Protestant missionaries. As an extension of Punahou Preparatory School, it offered instruction an the college level but never became a full-fledged college. As a student at Oahu College, San developed academic interests in both government and medicine while at the same time enriching his understanding of Christian doctrine.

Significantly, the Protestant, Congregational Christianity of Punabou and Oahu College offered additional perspectives on the capacity of individuals to effect change in earthly institutions. Since its founding in 1841, Punahou had shared the New Divinity Theology of its missionary founders and their favorite theologian, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803). The distinctive features of this thought centered on the radical corruption of humanity and the nature of regeneration. Following the lead of the l8th century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, Hopkins taught that sin, though not transmitted to humanity via the imputation of Adam’s disobedience and fall, is exhibited in selfishness and inordinate self-love. For Hopkins, the sincere unregenerate seeker-after-righteouness is ultimately motivated by wicked self-interest. This assumption led Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy and other New Divinity theologians to declare the liabilities facing unregenerate persons who actively used the means of grace in their search for salvation.

By 1883, Purabou’s instructors held to Hopkin’s more optimistic view of virtue. For them, the center of spiritual regeneration lay in a convert’s new access to “disinterested benevolence.” Thus, despite the assumption that this hyper-Calvinistic metaphysics would lead humanity away from righteous social action, for the missionaries and their children it had just the opposite effect. Seeing the heart of Christian virtue as selflessness, i.e. disinterested charity for all of God’s creatures, Hopkins’ theology created a strong apologia for social reform.

Most of the founders of Punabou had experienced conversions to Christianity during the Second Great Awakening. Begun in Conneeticut during the 1790’s the broad movement set ablaze one section of the nation after another during the first half of the 19th century. The important theological theme of this social and religious movement was the rejection of the Calvinist belief that humans had a natural and inevitable inclination to sin (the doctrine of human depravity). Rather, the leaders of the Awakening, Such as Charles G. Finney, affirmed that sin was purely a voluntary act; no one was drawn irresistibly to sin and the consequent rejection of the Lord’s will. men and women could put themselves out of sin just as easily as they had chosen sin. Indeed, for the Protestant missionaries it was theoretically (if very unlikely) possible for men and women to will themselves free of sin and align their will with God’s and to live Perfectly.

An additional component in the moral universe of the missionaries was the teaching of post-millennialism. First formulated by Puritan theologians in the 17th century and developed by Jonathan Edwards in the l8th century, post-millennialism was the relatively optimistic belief that the return of Christ would take place after the millenmum, which may be a literal period of peace and prosperity, or a symbolic representation of the final triumph of the gospel. This new age would come through Christian teaching and preaching. Further, the Holy Spirit would use such activity to shape a new world characterized by prosperity, peace and righteousness. Evil might not be totally eliminated, but it would be substantially reduced because the moral and spiritual influence of the church would be greatly increased. During the new age, Christians would solve many of humankind’s most persistent social and economic problems. The period would close with the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. Such an eschatology sanctioned Christian “disinterested benevolence” and world-enhancing altruism while retaining much of original Puritan caution about human motivation and achievement. Post-millennalism, despite its realism about the fallibility and ambiguity of human effort was, for Protestant missionaries, galvanizing.

This theology, which had energized the missionaries in their desire to remake the world, gave Sun the empowering sense that human will could be changed for the better. Neither individuals nor societies were predestined to suffer under corruption. Individuals were, with God’s help, capable of self-rule, democracy, social justice and kindness. Though there was reason to feel that perfect governmental institutions were impossible to achieve, he could plan with confidence for a renewed, independent China which would be capable of great things. The Protestant theology, which imbued the religious instruction at Oahu College would support his enthusiasm for democracy and social and political change for the rest of his life.

Sun’s growing commitment to Christianity as it was taught him at Iolani and Punahou ironically led to his sudden return to his village in China. His older brother, who had been pleased with the secular aspects of Sun’s education, was committed to Chinese tradition, learning, and religion. When Son actively criticized his brother’s needless superstitions, a major split developed between them which lasted for years. The difference between the brothers reflected a broader split in the Chinese community between the religious conservatives and those who actively sought to embrace Christhmity and western customs. In 1883, Sun was given a one-way ticket to China. There, full of stories of Christ, Napoleon, and George Washington, he soon shocked his family by deliberately desecrating the wooden image of the local deity. He was finally baptized in China in 1884.

In 1885, Sun was delighted to be “banished” by his family and, with the help of his older brother, returned to Kahului, Maui to assist his estranged brother with his business. Furious that Sun had not renounced his Christianity or radical ideals about tradition, Ah Mi discontinued financial support for him and sent him to Honolulu to make his own living. In Honolulu, he sought the assistance of his Christian friends. Staying with an Iolani classmate, Chung Kun Ai he soon met the Protestant missionary, Francis Damon. Damon, who spoke Cantonese, was then the superintendent of the Hawaiian Board of Missions. This organization, which was underwritten by the American missionaries and their children, had been active in evangelical and educational activities throughout the Pacific and Asia. When Damon learned of Sun’s desire to continue his education in China, he raised $300.00 from the Castle family and other missionary families who sympathized with Sun’s Christian dedication to American ideals of government. With additional support from his friend, Chung Kun Ai, he was able to return to China in 1886.

Continuing his advanced studies and beginning his revolutionary activities, he would continue to draw financial support from the Chinese Christian community as well as many of the Western missionaries and teachers who he had known in Hawaii. In his important work in China, he would turn to these sources of support, both intellectual and financial, when all other doors were shut. Thus, Sun Yat-sen’s Hawaiian education would play a major role in shaping and defining his early faith in democratic institutions, social justice, social action to change institutions, and his anti-imperialism. These values would be further refined and qualified by his later experience in the U.S, Europe, Japan, and China. But the period 1879-1886, a period shaped by his Hawaiian education, would be among the most important of his life. Hence, the history of China and the intellectual legacy of19th century Hawaii are, perhaps unexpectedly, intertwined.


References and Suggested Readings


Linebarger, Paul. Sun Yat-sen and the Chinese Republic. New York, 1925.

Lo, Hsiang-lin. Sun’s University Days. Taipei, 1954.

Restarick, Henry B. Sun Yat-sen: Liberator of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1931.

Schiffren, Harold Z. Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Wagner, Sandra E. “Mission and Motivation: The Theology of the Early American Missions in Hawaii.” The Hawaiian Journal of History. Vol. 19 (1985), pp. 62-70.