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Home village remembers Sun Yat-sen


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Wed, 30th Sep 2015
Meet the museum dedicated to the father of modern China in the place where he was born and spent the first 13 years of his life. (September 2015)

A fearsome Daoist statue looks over a room in the village of Cui Heng in Zhongshan, close to Macao – fearsome except that half of his moustache has been cut off.

This was the handiwork of Sun Yat-sen and a fellow student in 1883. The two had returned from far away, bursting with ideas from the West, and found the villagers using a drink made from incense ashes to cure disease. To protest against this “backwardness”, Sun, 17, and his friend vandalised the statues of the traditional deities.

The villagers, including Sun’s own father, were deeply upset – and his father banished him to Hong Kong to continue his education.

This is one of the many stories in the museum dedicated to the father of modern China in the place where he was born and spent the first 13 years of his life. He returned in 1892 and built a house that is still standing. Open every day of the year, the museum and house are one of the most popular tourist sites in China, attracting millions of domestic and foreign visitors every year.

2016 is a special year: it is the 150th anniversary of Sun’s birth. The city of Zhongshan is planning a wide range of events to celebrate the occasion, including books, seminars, public events and new monuments. On 17th August, the city government held a meeting to discuss the preparations for the anniversary. “The events have the support of the national and provincial governments,” it said.


Role of Macao

Macao plays an important role in Sun’s life. His father, Sun Da-cheng, a landless farmer, worked there for 16 years as a shoemaker between 1829 and 1845 before returning home to marry and start a family.

It was in Macao that Sun began his medical practice in 1892. The museum has a reconstruction of his surgery at the Zhongxi Pharmacy in Macao and a photograph of its location, at 14 Largo Leal Senado; it was also the place where he lived. There is, in addition, the receipt for a loan he received from the Kiang Wu hospital to pay for his new premises.

In 1915, when he married Song Qing-ling, 27 years his junior, he divorced his first wife Lu Muzhen and bought her a house at 4 Rua de Prata, where she would live until her death in September 1952. Many of her children and grandchildren lived there with her. The house is an important tourist attraction in Macao today.


Humble origins

Sun’s origins could scarcely have been more humble. Because he had no land, his father went to Macao to work. On his return to Cui Heng, he rented land from others and farmed it. To earn extra money, he worked as a night watchman and helped at weddings and funerals. He and his wife had six children; Sun Yat-sen was born on 12th November 1866.

The family lived in a tiny house of 30 square metres. The parents slept in a room at the back, while the children slept in the only other room, next to the cooking stove and the rudimentary furniture. The young Sun helped his father to farm his land and went fishing in a river nearby; he herded cows, collected firewood and fetched water from a well.

His father was so poor that he did not attend school, with a private teacher in a nearby temple, until the age of nine. The museum has the table and the textbooks he used. Then he had a lucky break – something that saved the entire family.

In 1871, his elder brother Sun Mei, then 17 years old, had followed his uncle to Hawaii to escape poverty and make a better life. He started as a hired labourer; then he became a prosperous cattle rancher and store owner, famous in the community. In 1878, he invited his younger brother to join him; in Hawaii, he attended Iolani and Oahu schools, receiving a formal education in English and living in the house of his brother.

He came home in 1883, bringing the village’s first kerosene lamp, which is displayed in the museum. It was then he and a fellow student attacked the statues in the village. Such was the anger of the villagers that his father had no alternative but to send him to Hong Kong, where he continued his education, at what is now Queen’s College.


Becoming a doctor

After graduating from secondary school, Sun trained as a doctor in Guangzhou and then Hong Kong, before going to practice in Macao. But neither the Hong Kong nor Portuguese authorities recognised the diploma he had acquired at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, the first institution in the country to teach Western medicine to Chinese. The treatment he gave at his clinic in Macao was half-Western, half-Chinese.

“He realised that, by treating patients, he could only save a few people,” said Li Mei, a guide at the museum. “But he wanted to save the whole country and so decided to abandon the profession of doctor and become a revolutionary.”

On leaving Macao, he moved back to Cui Heng in 1892 and had an arranged marriage with Lu Mu-zhen. He built the two-storey house that is still standing today; the two lived there with his mother. Li said it had several features that distinguished it from the other houses in the village. First is that it faces west and not east, so that it was opposite trees and greenery and cooled by the wind, not facing other houses. Second, it has more than 20 windows, which made for good circulation of air.

The traditional idea was that your wealth would flow out of the windows,” she said. “So most houses had few of them.” Inside is a mixture of East and West. The main reception room has a high ceiling with wooden chairs around it to receive visitors, with a photograph of Sun’s father and mother on each side. 

Originally, the main wall was decorated with statues of the Buddha and an ancestor – but Lu removed these ‘idols’ when she converted to Christianity.

The house has other Western imports – a bath which Sun brought from Macao and a sit-down toilet. After staying abroad, he had lost the habit of squatting. The house covers an area of 500 square metres. It was next to the small family home where Sun had grown up; it was demolished in 1913 – but has been reconstructed nearby, so that visitors can see the conditions of his childhood.


Pursuing revolution

By now, Sun had given up medicine and become a professional revolutionary dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. This was only possible thanks to the generosity of his elder brother Sun Mei. Initially opposed to his brother’s conversion to Christianity and other “modern” ideas, he had a change of heart and supported him with money for the next 20 years. Sun’s costs were enormous – travelling around the world to seek financial and diplomatic support; he needed to dress well, stay in good hotels and travel in comfort on ships and trains.

Without the financial support of his elder brother, Sun would not have been able to pull off the revolution,” said Li.

He launched his first uprising against the dynasty in October 1895, in Guangzhou. It failed; Sun managed to escape in a sedan chair to Macao and then to Hong Kong. The next nine uprisings also failed, until they had a successful one in Wuhan in October 1911. As a result, Sun’s mother, wife and their children had to run away from Cui Heng in 1895 and stay with his elder brother in Hawaii.

During the next 16 revolutionary years, Sun and his immediate family could not return to Cui Heng, although other members remained there.

In 1907, his mother and his wife went with Sun Mei to Kowloon, where they settled down. In 1915, after Sun divorced Lu Mu-zhen and married Song Qing-ling in Tokyo, Lu moved to Macao. Lu had asked her husband to take Song as a concubine and keep her as his official wife; but, a Christian, Song refused and insisted on a divorce. “Lu agreed to this and so the marriage took place,” said Li.

The marriage certificate, dated 26th November 1915 and written in Japanese, is on display in the museum.


Becoming president – for 45 days

New Year’s Day of 1912 was the highpoint of Sun’s political career. He took the oath of office as president of the Republic of China in Nanjing, chosen by 16 out of 17 provinces. Curiously, there is no photograph of this historic event – only a painting that hangs in the museum. “It was late in the evening, about nine o’clock, and done in a hurry. Perhaps that is why there is no photo,” said Li.

But Sun was president for only 45 days. He gave up the post to Yuan Shi-kai, the most powerful military leader in China at the time, a decision he later regretted.

After his term as president, he returned to Cui Heng only once, for three days in 1912. The museum has a photograph of this event, with Sun and his family members sitting in front of his house there, as well as partial copies of some of the speeches given to welcome him.

The museum was built a short distance from his house and opened on 12th November 1999. It has an area of 6,000 square metres, with exhibition halls, a research centre, computer network centre, library and shop. It has received many national and foreign leaders; together with Sun’s monumental tomb in Purple Mountain on the outskirts of Nanjing, it has become the principal site in China devoted to him.

More than 40 members of Sun’s family are buried in Cui Heng, including Lu Mu-zhen and Chen Cui-fen, a lady who worked with him for many years.

When the baby was born 150 years ago in the family’s tiny home, no-one in the village could have imagined such an outcome.

By Mark O´Neill in Zhongshan, China

Photos by Eric Tam

(Issue N. 30, September 2015)