Sun Yat-Sen in China’s Heroic Tradition

By Loretta Pang



In a brief autobiography written in 1896, Sun Yat-sen asserted that he revered the sage kings Tang (reigned 1751-1739 BC?) and Wu (reigned 1121-1116 BC) from China’s distant past. As a young man, he also admired Hong Xiuchuan (AD 1814-1864), leader of the Taiping Rebellion, and identified with him to the extent that the friends with whom he discussed politics jokingly called him by that name. That Sun would single out these individuals as his personal heroes reveals as much about China’s heroic tradition as it does about Sun, who himself would become a heroic figure in his own time. The connections at first glance are deceptively unclear.

The three heroes indicated by Sun lived thousands of years apart, but they exemplified two major strains within China’s heroic tradition that came together at meaningful junctures. Kings Tang and Wu, role models of the educated Confucian elite, represented examplary leadership within the orthodox system; Hong Xiuchuan, a rebel against that system, struggled to establish a righteous alternative appealing to the common folk. Both approaches shared in common a dedication to morality and service on behalf of the public good; the differences lay in the content of their messages and method of operation. China’s heroic tradition allowed for both strains. What Sun Yat-sen seems to have imbibed from his study of the past and applied to his revolutionary activities was evocative of both yet transformed by his vision of a more appropriate system for a new age. A review of this heroic tradition is instructive to place Sun in context.

In China’s long history, the figure of the vigorous hero loomed large in the public imagination as the model for proper behavior. The hero and his deeds inspired marketplace storytellers and were celebrated onstage in operatic spectacles. Similar to the hero in other civilizations, the hero in China was admired for responding to a serious challenge in a forthright and moral way, often at great personal sacrifice.

“That Sun would single out these individuals as his personal heroes reveals as much about China’s heroic tradition as it does about Sun, who himself would become a heroic figure in his own time.”


Perhaps more than in other civilizations, however, the Chinese heroic tradition and the cultivation of morality were considered to be inherently interwoven and closely identified with the wellbeing of the community. Thus these matters were of concern to the government. Identification and recognition of the heroic personality became a part of the formal literary production of scholars and were intended to convey lessons in morality. When these writings, especially those relating to history in some way, received government acknowledgement, they reflected an officially sanctioned interpretation of the meaning and roles of the hero.

Officially sanctioned standards of morality that underlay the figure of the hero had origins in the distant past. Chinese ideas about the basically harmonious nature of the universe and society contributed to an emphasis placed on morality in human affairs, for morality ensured continuing harmony in the human and natural realms. Distinguishing right from wrong and identifying what was deserving of praise or blame were important responsibilities undertaken by the government for the welfare of the people. The figure of the hero or villain and what each signified easily expanded into a mythic dimension supported by official sanction.

King Tang and King Wu were part of a line of culture heroes and sage kings distinguished for their contributions to the arts of civilization and techniques of rulership. According to accepted tradition, King Tang overthrew the degenerate last ruler of the Xia dynasty and began a new dynasty, the Shang, which endured for six centuries (eighteenth to twelfth centuries BC). In its turn, Shang rule became corrupted, and King Wen and his son Wu overthrew the government and replaced it with the Zhou dynasty (twelfth to third centuries BC), establishing an era that in its early phase provided virtuous rule. Tang and Wu had both risen against a ruler’s moral degeneration and a corrupt system to restore righteousness and initiate reform. Their seizure of power was motivated by a concern for the public welfare and made possible through the force of their moral character. Tradition claims that they ruled wisely and selflessly.

These sage kings became model figures who increased in stature over time and entered the realm of legend. In Chinese civilization, they were enshrined in written texts and became a moral type, a stock figure representing qualities sanctioned by government and firmly embedded in the public mind. From the Han period (206 BC-AD 220) these standards were increasingly associated with Confucian values and the written texts, including works of history, that were canons of Confucian thought.


King Wu, founder of the Zhou dynasty, as portrayed by Ma Lin (c.1180 -mid 13th century), a Southern Song Academy painter.


The use of history as a lesson in morality was evident by the time of Confucius (551-479 BC). He was credited with writing or editing The Spring and Autumn Annals, the historical records of his home state of Lu, in which important individuals were held up to the moral judgment of history to earn praise or blame accordingly. An underlying message of this practice was that good government needed to pay attention to the past as a guide to the present, to learn from example to cultivate what is right and good and to avoid and root out what is bad.

To make the past accessible as a lesson in morality, it became established practice in later centuries for each dynasty upon ascending the throne to commission a group of respected scholars to write an accurate history of the preceding dynasty. In the section on biography, the writers singled out noteworthy individuals and grouped them by status and deeds. In this manner the loyal minister gained fame for posterity, the brave warrior was praised, the traitor condemned, and the high-minded recluse acknowledged. These individuals were held up to the scrutiny of later generations because actions of individuals as members of the larger community affect society in some way, either positively or negatively. For political and social reasons therefore, the hero should be acknowledged for the good of all people.

The kind of heroic quality exemplified by Tang and Wu receded into the legendary past, and as role models, only the highest levels of leadership could aspire to approximate them. There were, however, several types of heroes more accessible to common understanding. One type was the man of conviction, courageous, loyal, honorable, and generous, whose deeds on behalf of others or for a higher cause might incur personal sacrifice and little reward. One such man of action was Yue Fei (AD 1103-1141), a loyalist general who waged a counteroffensive on behalf of the Southern Song dynasty against Jurchen (a non-Han people) incursions to the north. Appeasers within the court undercut his victories in the field by negotiating a settlement ceding most of the Chinese territory north of the Yangzi River to the enemy. Instead of fame and glory, Yue Fei was recalled to the capital, arrested, and killed in prison together with his two sons. His legacy has been that of the brave, loyal, and constant subject who dedicated his life to the cause of his lord and in defense of his civilization.

Yue Fei represented loyalty and sacrifice on the battlefield for which there was an equivalent within the halls of state. A counterpoint to the vigorous man of action was the scholar-official who dedicated his intelligence, moral uprightness, and loyalty to service of king and country. His fate was ambivalent: sometimes he was ignored, his advice rejected, and his position betrayed by rivals or even by the unworthy rulers he served. Qu Yuan (338-278 BC) was such a man. A bigh-ranking minister in the state of Chu during the politically unstable period of Warring States (403. 221 BC), he was banished by the king through the connivance of his envious rivals at court. Qu nevertheless continued to urge his king to take appropriate action against enemies of the state. Eventually, the king himself was betrayed and killed, and the state of Chu was attacked and conquered. Qu Yuan threw himself into the Milo river in despair. The Dragon Boat Festival conducted each year is a reenactment of the search for the body of this loyal but misunderstood minister.

In the examples of both Yue Fei and Qu Yuan, the hero stood on principle and took action without regard for survival. Another type of response also appealed to moral integrity but provided an alternative course of action. When the times were out of joint and the ruler misused his power, the heroic figure could choose dignified withdrawal. Withdrawal from participation – and therefore from dedicating and using one’s abilities on behalf of the community to which one was committed -was also an act of remonstration and loyal protest. Both forceful action and noble retreat entailed risks and both were adopted on different occasions by great heroes according to the conditions they faced. Retreat might involve refusing to assume official position, which was tantamount to refusing to serve the ruler if the individual was opposed to the ruler’s behavior and his policies or to the entire govenment, or retreat might literally involve moving to an inaccessible hermitage in the mountains. If he was already in service, the individual might request to retire on ostensible grounds of illness, old age, or family responsibility, especially for aged parents.

In the event of a change of dynasty, out of loyalty to the old dynasty and as a sign of disapproval, the individual might refuse to serve the new dynasty. The term yimin (literally, “left-over persons”) referred to those loyalists of a regime that had been overthrown and who expressed their loyalty by refusing to serve or by engaging in resistance movements. The period of dynastic transition from Ming (1368-1644) to Qing (1644-1911) was rife with such individuals. Among the ranks of Ming loyalists was poet and scholar-official Chen Zilong, who mounted a spirited defense against the Qing’s superior forces and when captured, threw himself into the river where he drowned. Zheng Chenggong (also known as Koxinga), the bold sea lord whose ships plied the southeastern coast and the waterway to Taiwan, harrassed Qing forces and gained renown as a Ming loyalist.

“In China’s long history, the figure of the vigorous hero loomed large in the public imagination as the model for proper behavior.”

These various examples of heroic behavior were sanctioned by Confucian concern for their dedication to the public welfare, morality and righteousness, loyalty, and sincerity. These values had special resonance for the Confucian elite educated in the canon of Classics that promoted them. The level of society that we might label the common folk had also imbibed these values and were equally familiar with the tales that enshrined them. However, their response to injustice and access to redress through written petitions to the court or through bold acts of remonstrance was limited. At the level of the common folk, another strain took precedence.

What constituted heroic behavior in the popular mind sometimes worked at cross purposes with officially acceptable behavior. Celebrated in folktales and even given credibility of sorts by the scholar-elite class through short stories and novels written and popularized during the Ming and Qing periods, dashing (and sometimes crude) champions of justice sought to redress wrong and, similar to officially sanctioned standards of Confucian court and elite society, to restore morality and righteousness for the public welfare. The form this action took might differ significantly, however, for such heroes often stood outside acceptable social and political circles. The government remained alert to their potential threat against social order and stability because they represented a divergence from orthodox behavior.

When the political system became corrupted by uncaring rulers and rapacious officials, the common folk were increasingly thrown upon the mercy of institutions that fed upon them rather than protected them. Knight-errantry reflected a style of dashing bravado action to seize power or administer a makeshift justice. The knight-errant (who might also be female) was committed to a standard of values that included selfless action on behalf of the dispossessed or mistreated, dedication to their cause, courage in the conduct of affairs, honesty, honor, and disregard for personal gain. On the surface, these values seem to correspond to officially sanctioned Confucian standards. The signficant difference lay in the position of the knight-errant: this was an individual who usually stood outside the pale of respectability, even though his origins might originally derive from the privileged landed and educated class. The potential danger of such a person lay not in his values but in his putting them into practice outside of the accepted order.

In the famous Ming dynasty novel Shuihu zhuan, translated variously as Outlaws of the Marsh, Water Margin, and All Men Are Brothers, individuals are driven to a life of banditry and semi-exile in the mountain because of government corruption and injustices which they cannot redress under current circumstances. The brotherhood they form, despite episodes of sporadic (and senseless) violence, still promoted redress of legitimate grievances and restoration or upright governance. Any government would be justified in considering such groups as threats. The point is that heroism could take the shape of knight-errantry and banditry. The significant dividing line between orthodox and unorthodox responses in support of the same set of values lay in the real or perceived threat to the government.

In the mid-1800s, the ground had shifted considerably. Rebellions against the status quo system of unjust rule were still referred to by participants as “uprisings for the cause of righteousness” (qiyi). However, one such uprising broke out in 1850 that would only be quelled in 1864, after much of the area extending from the area of Guangxi province in the South through the Yangzi delta in the central region to within reach of the capital in Beijing, had fallen under the destructive forces of their charismatic leader Hong Xiuchuan.

Hong was a Hakka scholar who had taken and failed the civil service examination on successive occasions. In a fit of despair, his brief introduction to Christian missionary tracts reinforced his depression and apparent mental and emotional disintegration. He emerged as the charismatic leader of a militant anti-Manchu quasi-Christian movement for the creation of a Kingdom of Heavenly Peace that would sweep away corruption and guarantee equity, justice, and the dawning of a new era under a different system of administration. If he had succeeded, his movement would have been called the Taiping “Revolution” instead of “Rebellion.” Two points are worth mentioning: Hong was a would-be participant in the orthodox system for which he had trained; and it was evident that the Chinese world of which he was a part could no longer be sheltered from contact with the distinctive beliefs and practices of the Western World.

Sun Yat-sen revered Hong Xiuchuan, the anti-Manchu rebel against a corrupt and weak system that failed to address the needs of a disenchanted and impoverished society. One of his early teachers in the village school in Cuiheng had been a veteran of the Taiping army, and Sun maintained an enduring admiration for Hong. In his own struggles to bring about change for China, Sun conceived of a new order that incorporated institutions and a more broadly based conception of responsiveness and unity of government and people that owed its inspiration to Western civilization. Yet in spirit, Sun’s dedication to aspects of Chinese patterns of organization (reflected in a censorate and an examination board in the Republican government) and his selfless commitment to the moral qualities of rulership for the public welfare are tantalizing evidence of his ties to traditional values.

On October 10, 1911, when revolutionary activity prematurely erupted at the armory in Wuchang, Dr. Sun Yat-sen who had spent his adult life plotting revolution was in Denver, Colorado. During his crusade for reform and renewal in the preceding years, he had attempted to work with reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao and to approach the Qing administration represented by Viceroy Li Hongzhang to offer his services, all to no avail. By the end of the 1890s, his path towards revolution was set.

In the closing months of 1911, rather than immediately returning to China to lead the rapidly spreading movement that would topple the Qmg dynasty, he pushed on to Washington and London in search of funds and political recognition for the new regime. He arrived in Shanghai on December 25 without the anticipated support. By year’s end he had been elected provisional president of the newly established Republic of China. He served a brief three months, and by the time of his death in 1925, he had experienced a full measure of loyalty and betrayal, hope and diaappointment, visionary optimism and deep despair. The Republic still struggled for survival against warlord camps and factional rivalries even after he had made a marriage of convenience with the Communist Party. The Revolution was incomplete at best.

Now, eighty years later, Sun Yat-sen is hailed as an illustrious revolutionary hero and father of the nation. In exploring Dr. Sun, the man and the myth, it is timely to examine the heroic tradition into which he fit, a tradition that continues to have resonance in the political life of contemporary China. The image of the scorned and betrayed man of action in pursuit of a righteous cause against a morally bankrupt system is the stuff of drama. It is also an image that embraces those qualities of the hero in Chinese tradition to which Sun, the modern man, showed signs of correspondence.



“The people were extremely respectful of him and everywhere they all cheered his name.” Caption of an Illustration showing Hong entering a village, taken from a popular account of Taiping history.

Taiping tian guo tong suhua shi by Fang Shining and Chang Mingshi, Shanghai, 1951.



Suggested Readings


Chang, Sidney H. and Leonard H. D. Gordon. All Under Heaven: Sun Yat-sen and His Revolutionary Thought. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1991.

Chang, Shelley Hsueh-lun. History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Liu, James J. Y. The Chinese Knight-Errant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

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

Schiffrin, Harold Z. Sun Yat-sen: Reluctant Revolutionary. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

Schneider, Laurence A. A Madman of Ch’u: The Chinese Myth of Loyalty and Dissent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Wilbur, C. Martin. Sun Yat-sen, Frustrated Patriot. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Yu, Ying-shih. “Sun Yat-sen’s Doctrine and Traditional Chinese Culture” in Sun Yat-sen’s Doctrine in the Modern World, Chu-yuan Cheng, ed. Boulder: Westview, 1989.