Born in 1866, Sun Yatsen grew up during a period when China laboured under the humiliation of colonial occupation, a situation widely blamed on the increasingly feeble Qing court. Having spent three years in Hawaii during the 1880s, Sun studied medicine in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where he became inspired by that other famous Guangdong revolutionary, Hong Xiuquan, and began to involve himself in covert anti-Qing activities. Back in Hawaii in 1894, he abandoned his previous notions of reforming the imperial system and founded the Revive China Society to “Expel the Manchus, restore China to the people and create a federal government”. The following year he incited an uprising in Guangzhou under Lu Haodong, notable for being the first time that the green Nationalist flag, painted with a white, twelve-pointed sun (which still appears on the Taiwanese flag), was flown. But the uprising was quashed, Lu Haodong was captured and executed, and Sun fled overseas.

Orbiting between Hong Kong, Japan, Europe and the US, Sun spent the next fifteen years raising money to fund revolts in southern China, and in 1907 his new Alliance Society announced its famous Three Principles of the People – Nationalism, Democracy and Livelihood. He was in Colorado when the Manchus finally fell in October 1911; on returning to China he was made provisional president of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912, but was forced to resign in February in favour of the powerful warlord Yuan Shikai. Yuan established a Republican Party, while Sun’s supporters rallied to the Nationalist People’s Party – Guomindang – led by Song Jiaoren. Song was assassinated by Yuan’s henchmen following Guomindang successes in the 1913 parliamentary elections, and Sun again fled to Japan. Annulling parliament, Yuan tried to set himself up as emperor, but couldn’t even control military factions within his own party, which plunged the north into civil war on his death in 1916. Sun, meanwhile, returned to his native Guangdong and established an independent Guomindang government. By the time of his death in 1925 he was greatly respected by both the Guomindang and the four-year-old Communist Party for his lifelong efforts to unite the country.

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