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Sun Yatsen: Seeking a Newer China

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Sun Yatsen Seeking a Newer China by David Gordon. Cover photo is a portrait of a middle aged Sun Yatsen with a short beard. He looks pensively into the camera. BY DAVID B. GORDON
ISBN: 978-0321333063, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by David Kenley

This eminently readable biography of Sun Yatsen offers high school and undergraduate students a window into the life of the “father of modern China.” Though Sun is frequently overshadowed by his more politically savvy successors, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, he is an excellent choice for the Library of World Biography series. More so than either Chiang or Mao, Sun epitomizes cross-cultural encounters in world history. Written by David Gordon, this text reaches across arbitrary geographical, cultural, and intellectual borders, making it appealing to a wide reading public. In it, Gordon skillfully synthesizes the existing scholarship on Sun Yatsen while offering novel insights of his own. Whereas the orthodox Chinese historical interpretation portrays Sun as a man of tremendous foresight and leadership ability, the orthodox Western interpretation depicts him as a desperate, intellectually shallow, and ultimately tragic political failure. “My interest in Sun,” Gordon writes, “lies less in judging him—stamping him as a hero or a villain—than in utilizing his life story to explore the fascinating, complicated world he faced” (Gordon, xiv). Sun, he argues, is a product of global trends that characterized the early twentieth century, including industrialization, long-distance communication, and a degree of cultural homogenization. Born in China and raised in Hawai`i, Sun spent large portions of his life in North America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Japan. Indeed, some of his greatest social and political successes occurred within overseas Chinese communities. On a personal level, Sun was fluent in Chinese and English and even spoke some Japanese. He converted to Christianity, yet he freely interacted with the secret societies of China, many of which espoused traditional Chinese religious beliefs. For all of these reasons, Sun Yatsen is excellent reading material for either the high school or college world history seminar.

Because of its short length—just 117 pages of text—teachers will be able to assign the work in its entirety. Conversely, educators can choose chapters to highlight certain themes. For instance, chapters 3 and 4 (“Kidnapped in London” and “Sun in Meiji Japan”) illustrate the cross-cultural influences on Sun and his ideas. Chapters 9 and 11 (“The Dream Goes Awry” and “The South Seceeds”) discuss the role of imperialism in China’s revolution, whereas chapters 6 and 13 (“Planning China’s Future” and “Sun’s Death and Beatification”) analyze the powerful appeal of nationalism for Sun and his followers. With minimal student preparation, a teacher could use any of these chapters independently to emphasize these essential world history themes.

As such, the biography is extremely useful to China historians as well as scholars of imperialism, nationalism, diaspora studies, and global capitalism. Not surprisingly, the eminent world historian Peter N. Stearns included the work in his Library of World Biography series, published by Pearson Prentice Hall. World history teachers could use it in conjunction with a biography of one of Sun’s contemporaries, such as Benito Mussolini: The First Fascist, whereas Asia history teachers could combine Gordon’s work with Fukuzawa Yukichi: From Samurai to Capitalist or Kato Shidzue: A Japanese Feminist. Because of the many titles in this series, and because of the brevity of each, there are numerous combinations available for many different types of classes.

Sun Yatsen: Seeking a Newer China demonstrates Gordon’s remarkable ability to interpret history through new paradigms and present his work to larger audiences. Together with the other biographies in the series, it will be a trusted source for years to come.