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Date Posted: 10:34 14/09/2003

Sun Worship

Review of 'THE 1896 KIDNAPPING OF DR SUN YAT SEN' by Vidya Sagar Anand

WHEN SUN YATSEN'S exile from China took him to Britain in 1896, the Chinese revolutionary who was to become - with Mao Zedong - one of the two most significant historical figures in China's turbulent twentieth century, suddenly found himself helpless. The dirty, dark residues of both Empires - the British and the Chinese - were conspiring to destroy this foremost representative of an apparently irresistable force.

Despite much talk about the insular, isolated Chinese, politics in China was already being played out on a stage far wider than the country itself, but there was a strange symmetry in the fact that the drama of Sun Yatsen's kidnapping was being conducted in the nation that had done more than any other to undermine the stability and self-confidence of the Middle Kingdom.

Sun Yatsen wrote to Lloyd-George years later, 'I will always be grateful to my British friends for their timely rescue. All subsequent achievements flowed from that brave and selfless act.' This statement, set as an epitaph, more or less sets the tone for this book. A simple tale of decency triumphing over dishonour, this pleasant and humane little monograph deals clearly with both the good guys and the bad guys. Sun, 'this wise Titan', is captured by two Chinese men while walking past the Chinese Legation in London (did he pass it by accident?). Soon, he is confronted by the 'smooth liar' with his 'malodorous mouth', Sir Halliday McCartney. McCartney had earned his dubious reputation while serving under General Gordon during the repression of the Taiping Rebellion.
A member of staff at the Legation then informs Sun's friend, Dr. James Cantlie, that Sun has been kidnapped. Cantlie tries the police, the press and the government. McCartney, and his assistant at the Legation, Tang, attempt to lie their way out of trouble. The groundswell of public indignation, however, is too great. Sun is freed shortly before he is due to be shipped back to China and to the dubious justice of the Manchu court.
This story, in substance and in style, resembles Conan Doyle: intransigent bunglers at Scotland Yard, hansom cabs, political intrigues - not to mention an almost complete lack of psychological depth. Can Sun Yatsen really have been quite so placid, quite so saintly as he has been portrayed, not just in this book? The Daily Mail wrote at the time that 'any foe of corruption and oppression is liable to be regarded as a violent revolutionist, and summarily executed.' But in the filth of this dying dynasty, violence was usually the only available option and sainthood was always a tall order. Desperate situations require desperate solutions, and Sun Yatsen - like Lenin - was certainly not averse to the idea that good might come out of evil. His alliance with Triad groups across the world - possibly leading to his recruitment in Honolulu - might explain why he was able to travel the world - his kidnapping notwithstanding - in relative safety.
Sun 'repeatedly launched armed insurrections in China itself' but 'all of them ended in failure and in the slaughter of the insurgents'. How did he regard these failures? How did his faith, both in Christianity and in the imminent rebirth of the Chinese nation, hold up in the face of such dreadful brutality? We are not told. There is a gap in our knowledge of Sun Yatsen which might never be filled. This is an interesting and well-meant eulogy to a very significant figure, but we need something a little more substantial.

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