A major figure in both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) led the republican revolution in China.

In Taiwan, his legacy and title as “Father of the Nation” has recently become a controversial topic. The Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to the Japanese when Sun was 24 years old. The Japanese Empire ruled the island for most of his life, and Sun died thinking that Taiwan was part of Japan.

A portrait of Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), the founding father of the Republic of China

Founding of the Republic of China

Born on November 12th, 1866 as “Sun Wen (孫文),” Sun’s early education led him to Hawaii, where he learned Western science and Christianity. He studied in Hong Kong during his late teens and early twenties and later graduated from the Hong Kong College of Medicine in 1892. Although he initially pursued a medical career, he eventually became more interested in politics. Sun developed a political philosophy of the “Three Principles of the People (三民主義)” (Democracy, Nationalism, and People’s Livelihood), designed to make China a free, prosperous, and powerful state.

A pattern of unorganized plots and failures characterized his early revolutionary attempts against the Qing government, which he saw as corrupt and inefficient. However, after the Wuchung Uprising in 1911, the successful revolutionaries elected Sun as the provisional president of the new Republic of China. Shortly after, Sun relinquished his position to Yuan Shi-kai, who disregarded the Constitution and ignored the parliamentary body. Members of the Kuomintang, led by Sun, attempted to overthrow Yuan with the support of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party. Amid widespread opposition, Yuan lost power in 1916.

Sun Yat-sen in 1912 standing in front of the Five Races Under One Union flag and the Blue Sky with a White Sun flag.

At the Peking Union Medical College on March 12, 1925, Sun passed away from gallbladder cancer at 58 years old. Following Sun’s death, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded him as leader of the KMT. Though widely criticized during his lifetime, Sun later became the revered subject of a personality cult. Sun passed away before the Communist and Nationalist parties ended their alliance, and both the modern KMT and CCP claim to be his legitimate successor.

Chinese military and political leader Chiang Kai-shek (left) joined the KMT in 1918. After Sun Yat-sen (right) passed away, Chiang led the KMT against the CCP and in exile in Taiwan.

Position in Taiwan

When the KMT relocated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing China to the Communists, Sun became known as “Father of the Nation (國父)” on the island. Per a 1954 law, his portrait must hang inside all public buildings. Roads and schools bear his name, and his image appears on New Taiwan Dollar bills. The National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taiwan bears the Mandarin name “國立國父紀念館,” meaning “National Father of the National Memorial Hall.” These lasting influences result from the KMT’s use of the overlapping forces of their military and education system to push the idea of Sun as the founding father.

Taiwan has since transformed from a one-party state under KMT rule to a democracy, and the Democratic Progressive Party has gained increasing support. Sun’s role as “Father of the Nation” in Taiwan has come under dispute. A significant number of Taiwanese view the KMT and ROC with resentment because of their oppressive practices in the 1900s. Many people believe that Sun, who passed away long before the KMT even fled to Taiwan, should be regarded as a foreigner and only as an imported founding father of the ROC brought to Taiwan by the KMT.

This statue of Sun Yat-sen in the Tang Te-chang Memorial Park, like many other statues of Sun and Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, became the subject of vandalization by pro-independence activists.

Supporters of this idea have proposed the nullification of statutes that require presidents and lawmakers to salute Sun’s portrait at inaugural ceremonies and legislative sessions as well as the removal of his image from government buildings and schools. While Sun did play a significant role in the founding of the ROC, the official government currently occupying and governing Taiwan, such actions aim to help end the KMT’s past party-state dogma. Some have criticized Sun’s failed revolutionary attempts, gang ties, and pedophilic relations and attempted to deconstruct the values that the KMT sought to instill in the Taiwanese people.

Although many question Sun’s actual connection to Taiwan and consider him a vestige of the KMT’s authoritarian rule, he currently retains his official position as “Father of the Nation.”