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12 October 2021

The London kidnapping that changed China

Sun Yat-sen arrived an obscure revolutionary figure, but by the time he left London in 1897, the ideas that helped create modern Asia were formed.

By Bill Hayton

One hundred and twenty-five years ago this week, the man who would one day become president of China was snatched from the streets of London, hustled into the Chinese embassy and told he would be smuggled home and executed (and not necessarily in that order). That Sunday 11 October morning in 1896, Sun Yat-sen was an obscure figure. By the time he was released from the embassy, 12 days later, he was a hero to the British press. His account of being Kidnapped in London, published within weeks, made him globally famous.

But London didn’t just give Sun international fame. It gave him many of the ideas that would inspire his political vision and propel him to the head of the Chinese nationalist movement. Like Karl Marx before him, days spent in the Reading Room of the British Museum would convince him that not only was he fighting a just cause but that victory would be inevitable.

As a result, many of the defining features of Sun’s nationalism bear the imprint of his encounters with the leading European thinkers of the age, from socialists to social Darwinists. According to his political biographer Audrey Wells, Sun’s readings of Marx, Montesquieu, the land tax advocate Henry George and many others inspired his manifesto, “Three Principles of the People”: loosely translated as nationalism, republicanism and socialism.

Another biographer, John Wong of the University of Sydney, argues that Sun’s views on socialism (more literally translated as the “people’s livelihood”) were sparked by his shock at discovering poverty in the heart of the British Empire. It was not enough for a people to become independent and democratic, he decided; they also needed social justice. Less well known, however, is the way that Sun’s views on nationalism were also forged in London.

Sun succeeded in leading the Chinese revolutionary movement because he was a hybrid figure. From an early age he moved between Eastern and Western intellectual worlds. Born in southern China, his family despatched him to Hawaii at the age of 15 for education in an Anglican missionary school. Worried that he had become “too Christian”, they called him home. Unable to control him, they sent him away again, this time to the British colony of Hong Kong. When he was 20, in 1886, he enrolled in the Chinese medical school there and became great friends with its Scottish principal, James Cantlie.

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The contrast between the colonial advancement he encountered abroad and the endemic poverty he knew from home convinced Sun that China needed revolutionary change. Rather than becoming a doctor, he helped engineer a rebellion in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1895. The failure of the uprising forced Sun to go on the run, which is why he ended up in Britain the following year.

Informers told the Chinese embassy that Sun was arriving by ship into Liverpool. It then hired private detectives to follow him. When he arrived in London, the first person he went to meet was his former teacher, Cantlie. By an unfortunate coincidence, Cantlie lived just around the corner from the Chinese embassy. As Sun walked up Portland Place, it was a simple matter for the legation staff to grab him and take him inside.

That could have been the end for Sun had it not been for the legation’s housekeeper, one Mrs Howe, and a servant, George Cole. Sun managed to persuade them to take a note to Cantlie. A well-connected man, he called on his friends in government, the courts, the police and the media to get Sun released.

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In the end, it was an article about the kidnapping in the Globe that did the trick. On the following day, 23 October 1896, a large crowd formed outside the legation, noisily demanding Sun’s release. While diplomatic and legal wheels moved in the background, the ambassador and his staff realised they had to let their prisoner go. Sun emerged on to the street a national hero. While recovering at Cantlie’s house, he gave a long interview to the liberal-left Daily News, giving British readers their first insights into China’s embryonic revolutionary movement.

The Qing empire’s crushing defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 convinced a generation of Chinese intellectuals of the need for major changes. The Qing was a Manchu state, controlled by members of an ethnic group from what is now north-eastern China. The question of the age was whether the Manchu elite were willing to change. Some of their critics mixed Western ideas of progress with more traditional teachings to urge political reform. Sun, however, was already arguing that reform was not enough, that the Empire had to be overthrown.

Sun had encountered Darwinism at missionary school, but his London readings impressed upon him new implications of its arguments. The detectives following Sun in the weeks after his release recorded him spending 60 days in the British Museum. During those long hours, in the words of historian James Leibold, “Sun undertook a comprehensive study of Darwin’s scientific findings as filtered through the lenses of Western sociologists like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley.” In other words, Sun was getting a thorough grounding in the race-based thinking of British social Darwinists.

Like them, Sun saw politics as a race war, with the “yellow” peoples at risk of annihilation. For him, salvation depended upon the Chinese (a people whom he had yet to define) overthrowing the Manchu ruling caste. At the British Museum, he found a sympathetic ear in Robert Kennaway Douglas, a former diplomat and the museum’s keeper of oriental books. Douglas introduced Sun to a Japanese “pan-Asianist” thinker, Minakata Kumagusu, inducing yet another innovation in Sun’s thinking. Minakata told Sun he dreamed of “we Asians driving out the Westerners, once and for all”.

By the time Sun left Britain, in June 1897, he was connected to an international network of supporters. The kidnapping had transformed an obscure troublemaker into a revolutionary figurehead. A sojourn in the imperial capital had filled his mind with ideas of progress, nationalism and socialism that would inspire his movement. Fifteen years later, that movement overthrew the Qing empire, appointed Sun “provisional president” of the Republic of China and helped to create modern Asia.

Bill Hayton is the author of “The Invention of China”, published by Yale University Press in 2020.

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