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The New England Roots of the Chinese Revolution

In 1910, 43-year-old Sun Yat-sen arrived in Boston and set up a secret society to support the Chinese revolution. He started the Boston branch of the underground Tongmenghui Party with five laundry workers and two

Boston's Chinatown in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Chinese Historical Society of New England.

Boston's Chinatown in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Chinese Historical Society of New England.

restaurant owners. Sun met with them in the basement of the Chinese Freemason’s lodge at 12 Tyler St. in Chinatown. He slept in the Chinatown basement when he wasn’t raising money and spreading his ideas about revolution, nationalism, democracy and prosperity for the people.

Sun was exposed to those ideas as a teenager living in Hawaii, where he was educated by Christian missionaries from New England. Though he was born in China and died in China, he spent much of his life traveling the world to enlist support in Chinese communities for the overthrow of the corrupt and feudal Qing Dynasty.

Sun inspired the Chinese revolution in 1911 that replaced the Qing monarchy with a republic. He was on his way to New England when he was named provisional president of the new country. He unified a divided nation, and even today he is revered by both Chinas on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

Today an arch guarded by Chinese lions stands over the entrance to Boston’s Chinatown. Inscribed on the arch is a favorite saying of Sun Yat-sen: “All under Heaven is for the good of the people.”

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen was born Nov. 10, 1866 in a farming village in Guangdong Province near the Portuguese colony of Macao. At 13, Sun attended school in Hawaii while living with his older brother, an entrepreneurial merchant and farmer. He studied at schools founded by Protestant missionaries who were mostly from New England: Asa Thurston of Fitchburg, Mass., and his wife Lucy Goodale, of Marlborough, Mass., Amos Starr Cook from Danbury, Conn., and Harvey Rexford Hitchcock from Great Barrington, Mass.

According to Sun Yat-sen by Marie-Claire Bergere and Janet Lloyd,

Through more than thirteen years of schooling, starting with his arrival at the Iolani School in 1879, moving on from one establishment to another, from Hawaii to Canton to Hong Kong, Sun was a student, a protege, of the Protestant missionaries.

Sun attended the Punahou School, built on land given to Hawaii’s first Protestant missionary, Hiram Bingham, a native of Bennington, Vt., and great-grandfather of the Connecticut governor. Another founder of Punahou, the Rev. Samuel Damon, of Holden, Mass., had a son, Frank, who also became a missionary in Hawaii and a classmate, friend and supporter of Sun Yat-sen.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Punahou’s most famous graduate is President Barack Obama. It was there that Sun was exposed to the ideas that inspired the Chinese revolution: democracy, anti-imperialism, religious tolerance and the Christian doctrine of the individual’s ability to change earthly institutions.

Sun converted to Christianity in 1883 and studied medicine at the Guangzhou Boji Hospital under John G. Kerr, a protégé of Peter Parker, a medical missionary to China from Framingham, Mass.

In 1892, he earned his license to practice medicine from the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. Frustrated by the backward and repressive Qing Dynasty, he started on the course that would lead to the Chinese revolution of 1911.

He traveled several times to the mainland United States to raise money and enlist support from Chinese communities. He first arrived in the United States in 1905, when he was living in exile after participating in two failed uprisings against the Qing Dynasty.

It was the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when people of Chinese descent were forbidden to enter the United States. The only way Sun had gotten into the United States was by producing a fake birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii.

Nor was Boston hospitable to the Chinese people. In 1903, police and immigration officials surrounded Chinatown at dusk and raided homes and businesses without warrants. Using a murder as an excuse, they rounded up 234 Chinatown residents who couldn’t produce their papers immediately and deported 45 of them.

The Chinese Revolution

In 1911, Sun planned to return on a fundraising tour along the northern United States to raise money for the revolution. Starting in Portland, Ore., he planned to cross the country speaking and raising money. New England was at the end of their tour, including the cities of Boston, Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and Providence, R.I.

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, Sun got the news on Oct. 12 that his followers had overthrown the Qing Dynasty two days earlier. He hurried on to China through Europe where he was inaugurated as the provisional president of the Republic of China. (The fundraising tour, by the way, raised $140,000, which would be about $3.5 million today).

Overseas Chinese played such a vital role in overthrowing the imperial Qings that Sun himself recognized them as the ‘Mother of the Revolution.’

Sun died of liver cancer on March 12, 1925 at the age of 58. One month after he died, a memorial ceremony for him was held in Boston's Chinatown.

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  1. Pingback: Boston Tong Wars Explode in 1907 Chinatown Massacre - New England Historical Society

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