Sun Yat–Sen, The Three Principles of the People

Sun Yat–Sen (1866–1925) was a Chinese doctor who led the revolution against the Qing dynasty in 1911. Educated in Hawaii and Japan, he tried to compare Western concepts to Chinese conditions. Although his republic proved relatively short–lived, it showed the influence of the heritage of the French Revolution.


Foreign scholars always associated democracy with liberty and many foreign books and essays discuss the two side by side. The peoples of Europe and America have warred and struggled for little else besides liberty, these past two or three hundred years and, as a result, democracy is beginning to flourish. The watchword of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," just as the watchword of our Revolution is "Min-ts'u, Min-ch'uan, Min-sheng" (People's Nationalism, People's Sovereignty, People's Livelihood). We may say that liberty, equality, and fraternity are based upon the people's sovereignty or that the people's sovereignty develops out of liberty, equality, and fraternity. While we are discussing democracy we must consider the meaning of the French watchword.

As revolutionary ideas have spread through the East, the word "liberty" has come too; many devoted students and supporters of the new movement have sought to explain in detail its meaning, as something of vital importance. The movement for liberty has played a large part in the history of Europe the past two or three hundred years, and most European wars have been fought for liberty. So Western scholars look upon liberty as a most significant thing, and many peoples in the West have engaged in a rewarding study of its meaning. But since the word has been brought to China, only a few of the intelligentsia have had time to study and to understand it. If we should talk to the common people of China in the villages or on the streets about "liberty," they would have no idea of what we meant. So we may say that the Chinese have not gotten anything yet out of the word: even the new youth and the returned students, those who have paid some attention to Western political affairs and those who have constantly heard "liberty" talked about or have seen the word in books, have a very hazy conception of what it signifies. No wonder that foreigners criticize the Chinese, saying that their civilization is inferior and their thinking immature, that they even have no idea of liberty and no word with which to express the idea, yet at the same time criticizing the Chinese for being disunited as a sheet of loose sand.

These two criticisms are ridiculously contradictory. What do foreigners mean when they say that China is a sheet of loose sand? Simply that every person does as he pleases, and has let his individual liberty extend to all phases of life; hence China is but a lot of separate sand particles. Take up a handful of sand; no matter how much there is, the particles will slip about without any tendency to cohere—that is loose sand. But if we add cement to the loose sand, it will harden into a firm body like a rock, in which the sand, however, has no freedom. When we compare sand and rock, we clearly see that rock was originally composed of particles of sand; but in the firm body of the rock the sand has lost its power to move about freely. Liberty, to put it simply, means the freedom to move about as one wishes within an organized group. Because China does not have a word to convey this idea, everyone has been at a loss to appreciate it. We have a phrase that suggests liberty—"running wild without bridle," but that is the same thing as loose sand—excessive liberty for the individual. So foreigners who criticize us, who say on the one hand that we have no power to unite, are loose sand and free particles, and say on the other hand that we do not understand the meaning of liberty—do they not realize that it is everybody's liberty which is making us a sheet of loose sand and that if all are united in a strong body we cannot be like loose sand ? These critics are "holding their spear against their own shield."

As the revolutionary ferment of the West has lately spread to China, the new students, and many earnest scholars, have risen up to proclaim liberty. They think that because European revolutions, like the French Revolution, were struggles for liberty, we, too, should fight, for liberty. This is nothing but "saying what others say." They have not applied their minds to the study of democracy or liberty and have no real insight into their meaning. There is a deep significance in the proposal of our Revolutionary Party that the Three Principles of the People, rather than a struggle for liberty, should be the basis of our revolution. The watchword of the French Revolution was "Liberty"; the watchword of the American Revolution was "Independence"; the watchword of our Revolution is the "Three Principles of the People." We spent much time and effort before we decided upon our watchword; we are not merely imitating others. Why do we say that our new youth's advocacy of liberty is not the right thing, while the Europeans' cry of liberty was so fitting? I have already explained: when we propose an objective for a struggle, it must be relief from some suffering that cuts deep under the skin if we want all the people eagerly to take part in it. The peoples of Europe suffered so bitterly from despotism that as soon as the banner of liberty was lifted high, millions with one heart rallied about it.

Therefore the aims of the Chinese Revolution are different from the aims in foreign revolutions, and the methods we use must also be different. Why, indeed, is China having a revolution? To put the answer directly, the aims of our revolution are just opposite to the aims of the revolutions of Europe. Europeans rebelled and fought for liberty because they had had too little liberty. But we, because we have had too much liberty without any unity and resisting power, because we have become a sheet of loose sand and so have been invaded by foreign imperialism and oppressed by the economic control and trade wars of the Powers, without being able to resist, must break down individual liberty and become pressed together into an unyielding body like the firm rock which is formed by the addition of cement to sand. Chinese today are enjoying so much freedom that they are showing the evils of freedom. This is true not merely in the schools but even in our Revolutionary Party. The reason why, from the overthrow of the Manchus until now, we have not been able to establish a government is just this misuse of freedom.

Source: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, trans. Frank W. Price, ed. L. T. Chen (Shanghai, China: China Committee, Institute of Pacific Relations, 1927), 189–92, 201–2, 210–11, 262–63, 273, 278.