boston

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 restaurant owners.

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.

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

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

1911 Chinese Revolution

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 Chinas on either side of the Taiwan Strait revere him.

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 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,

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.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen

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 leading to the Chinese revolution of 1911.

He traveled several times to the mainland United States to raise money and enlist support from Chinese communities. Sun first arrived in the United States in 1905, while living in exile. He had already participated in two failed uprisings against the Qing Dynasty.

Then, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade people of Chinese descent to enter the United States. Sun got into the United States by producing a fake birth certificate showing his Hawaiian birth.

Official Boston had no love for the Chinese people then. In 1903, police and immigration officials surrounded Chinatown at dusk. They then 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. They 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. He would end his tour in the New England cities of Boston, Springfield, Hartford and Providence.

On Oct 12, 1911, Sun got the news somewhere in the Rocky Mountains 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 amount to 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, Boston’s Chinatown held a memorial ceremony for him.


This story was updated in 2021. Images: Boston’s paifang gate By Ingfbruno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27497701.

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