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Reviewed by:
  • Sun Yat-sen
  • Parks M. Coble (bio)
Marie-Claire Bergére. Sun Yat-sen. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. viii, 480 pp. Hardcover $49.50, ISBN 0-8047-3170-5.

Among Chinese communities worldwide, perhaps no modern figure is more universally admired than Sun Yat-sen. Already the subject of a voluminous literature (much of it hagiographic) from outside the People's Republic of China, Sun's life has produced an outpouring of writing on the Chinese mainland since 1978. Yet, as this torrent of Chinese scholarship has appeared, Marie-Claire Bergére tells us, serious study of Sun among Western scholars has almost vanished. Perhaps the diminished interest in biography and narrative history in general among Western scholars has led us away from study of the enigmatic Sun.

Bergére suggests another factor for this disjuncture: Sun was clearly a product of the "Western impact" on China. Marginalized in late-Qing Confucian society, Sun represented the Cantonese, Western-oriented, fringe—the intermediary between China and the West. Drawing on the imagery of the famous TV series He shang (River elegy), Bergére identifies Sun with the modern "blue," ocean, current, in contradistinction to the "yellow" of the conservative interior of China. [End Page 382] Indeed, such an identification sparked the renewed interest in Sun in the era of Deng Xiaoping. It is still the coastal China of the south that is most drawn to the outside world, most involved in trade and modernization, and perhaps most threatening to central political control. Yet Western scholarship of late has become more China-centered, less interested in the Western impact on China. Sun Yat-sen, a figure at the intersection of those two worlds, is thus bypassed by Western scholars.

This masterful biography by one of the preeminent Western historians of Republican China remedies the dearth of recent scholarship. Though more sympathetic to Sun than many previous studies by Westerners, Bergére's book does not present a teleological view of the great revolutionary. His life was full of fits and starts, of accidents and missed opportunities. Bergére reveals how any number of changed circumstances might have left him a forgotten figure. Perhaps the greatest strength of this biography is Bergére's ability to place Sun's life in context. Already an accomplished historian of the era, she deals with Sun's life against the broader backdrop of changes in China itself. At the micro level, Bergére delivers a clear picture of the intricate, internecine struggles within Sun's camp. The multitude of personalities and their constantly changing relationship with the charismatic Sun could defeat lesser historians.

The first section of her study deals with Sun as the "Adventurer of the South Seas, 1866-1905." Although much of this is familiar from earlier work by Harold Schiffrin, Bergére neatly captures the precarious nature of Sun's efforts during these early years. His strategy of working with secret society groups in China led to repeated failures. Bergére examines the networks that sustained Sun in his early years as well as his multiple identities as Cantonese, Christian, and overseas Chinese, and notes their marginality within the late Qing. The early Sun was a (frequently inept) schemer, yet dogged in his determination. Bergére's account also reminds us of the human costs of these repeated failures.

The early efforts were also haphazard. Sun's Revive China Society hardly functioned as an organization, Bergére maintains; it was no more than a personal network. Sun's ideology, which moved from reformist to revolutionary during these years, was ill-defined, as it would long remain. Sun was legendary for shifting his political message to suit his audience. "For Sun," Bergére writes, "as for Mao Zedong after him, the prime virtue of a dogma or ideology was simply its utility" (p. 70).

Sun proceeded on two fronts during these years—one against the Qing, the other against the reformists Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. His long competition with the latter may in fact have forced him to refine his ideas, eventually leading to his Three Principles of the People.

The formation of the Revolutionary Alliance...


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