Sun Yat-Sen’s Views About Hawaiian Sovereignty

Sun Yat-sen
article top

Sun Yat-sen

BY KENNETH R. CONKLIN, PH.D. — 2011 is the centennial of the Chinese revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which overthrew 2,000 years of monarchial rule and established the Republic of China. The Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911 began a rapid period of revolutionary success after numerous failed attempts.


Sun served briefly as the first President of the Provisional Government and the Republic of China. He continued a turbulent and controversial political career in and out of office until his death in 1925. In 1949 the Chinese civil war resulted in the Communist takeover of mainland China by Mao Tse-tung, and exile of the Republic leadership to Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek. But all political factions have profound respect for Sun Yat-sen and continue to treat him as a national hero — the “George Washington of China.”

Hawaii played a very important role in forming Sun’s character for five years as an adolescent schoolboy and also during five additional visits to Hawaii when Sun was recruiting zealous followers and money to support his revolution. He arrived in Hawaii at age 13 in June 1878, attending Iolani School from 1879 through 1882 and Oahu College (Punahou School) in 1883. He was also in Hawaii November 1884 to April 1885; October 1894 through January 1895; January to June 1896; September 1903 to March 1904; and March to May 1910.

There’s a photography exhibit at Honolulu City Hall through May 27, focusing on Sun Yat-sen’s Hawaii background, sponsored by the Republic of China (Taiwan) to celebrate the centennial of China’s revolution. A crew from mainland China filmed a TV program there on the exhibit’s May 11 opening day, even though the exhibit was sponsored by Taiwan and half the photos are about Taiwan rather than Sun Yat-sen!

What were Sun Yat-sen’s views regarding the Hawaiian revolution of 1893 and annexation of 1898? I have done quite a bit of research and have spoken or exchanged messages with several experts on the history of the Chinese in Hawaii; but have been unable to find any answers. It appears Sun himself never wrote or spoke publicly about the Hawaiian revolution or annexation; and either he never discussed those events with his family or colleagues, or else they never mentioned what Sun had said. If anyone has information with documentation, I’d appreciate being contacted.

Sun Yat-sen was highly intelligent, as demonstrated by his record of achievement at Iolani and Punahou, his medical degree earned in Hong Kong at age 26, and his beginnings of a medical career in Macao and Canton. But after two years he gave up the medical career to pursue a political revolution.

Sun could not have been ignorant of the tumultuous events happening in Hawaii in 1887 (Bayonet Constitution), 1893 (revolution), 1895 (Wilcox attempted counter-revolution), and 1898 (Annexation). He had close relationships with leaders of the Hawaiian revolution and annexation, spanning several decades (1878 through 1910). He was present in Hawaii as a revolutionary activist in Fall 1894 when letters were arriving personally signed by Emperors, Kings, Queens, and Presidents of at least 20 nations on 4 continents giving formal diplomatic recognition de jure to the new Republic of Hawaii, including a letter signed by two Princes on behalf of the Emperor of China. Sun was still present when the attempted counter-revolution led by Robert Wilcox took place in early January 1895 resulting in one death and the imprisonment of about 190 men, including his Punahou classmate Prince Kuhio, plus ex-queen Liliuokalani.

One explanation for Sun’s apparent silence on these topics is that he was so deeply immersed in the politics of China that he “tuned out” what was happening in Hawaii and either didn’t pay attention or chose to ignore it. A more likely explanation is that he was well aware of the very strong feelings on both sides of the Hawaii issues, and he chose to remain silent to avoid offending any of his many friends on both sides and to keep collecting money and support from all of them for his revolutionary activities in China.

Following are two lengthy paragraphs, each providing a summary of reasons why Sun (a) probably approved of the Hawaiian revolution and annexation; or (b) might have disapproved of the Hawaiian revolution and annexation. These are only summaries, with no attempt to provide details. Some of the detailed facts supporting (a) or (b) are available on an extended webpage at

(a) Why Sun Yat-sen probably supported the Hawaiian revolution and annexation. He attended first Iolani and then Punahou school, where the teachers were Caucasian missionaries or their sons and most of the children (at Punahou) were from wealthy Caucasian families. He learned English fluently, because that was the language of instruction in both schools; but never bothered to learn Hawaiian even though many of the children at Iolani were Hawaiians. The teacher and mentor who was closest to him was Francis Williams Damon, who was a brother of Samuel Mills Damon, who became Vice President and Minister of Finance for the revolutionary Provisional Government under President Sanford B. Dole, and also Minister of Finance for the Republic of Hawaii. Sanford Dole was born on the grounds of Punahou two years after the school was founded by his father. As the decade of the 1890s unfolded, Sun probably observed what Dole was doing and envisioned himself following the same path as Dole, leading a revolution against a monarchy and becoming President of the successor Republic. The money and political support he got in Hawaii came almost entirely from Chinese and Caucasians, with neither financial nor political support from ethnic Hawaiians who were wealthy or were political leaders. Although he probably supported the Hawaiian revolution and annexation, Sun Yat-sen felt compelled to keep silent because many (perhaps most) Chinese men in Hawaii, both wealthy and poor, were married to native Hawaiian women or kept them as mistresses and made babies with them. Sun wanted to collect money from wealthy Chinese landowners and merchants and to recruit as many ethnic Chinese peasants as possible to return to China as soldiers.

(b) Why Sun Yat-sen might have opposed the Hawaiian revolution and annexation. Sun Yat-sen’s lifelong ambition was to get rid of foreign domination, exploitation, and colonialism in China; all of which were done under the influence of Christian missionaries and Caucasian-run foreign businesses. Several European nations, and the U.S., had divided up China into spheres of influence after defeating the Chinese in the Opium War, and had imposed unequal treaties on the government of China. Perhaps overthrowing the Emperor was only a secondary goal for Sun, made necessary in the fight against Western colonialism because the Emperor was a lackey under the thumb of European and American imperialists. The situation in Hawaii was similar. Hawaii was under the influence of Caucasian-run businesses. King Kalakaua had been forced to lease Pearl Harbor to the U.S. under an unequal treaty forced on Kalakaua under pressure from U.S. owners of Hawaii sugar plantations. So perhaps Sun Yat-sen saw a Hawaiian monarchy trying to resist U.S. imperialism and perhaps he saw the Hawaiian revolution and annexation as further implementation of the sort of foreign imperialism he was fighting against in China. Perhaps his heart was with his fellow Chinamen in Hawaii, most of whom had native Hawaiians as wives or mistresses. But he could not afford to speak out against the Hawaiian revolution or annexation, because he needed money and political support from the wealthy Caucasians, most of whom were Americans. He also needed the approval of Americans in Hawaii to be able to travel to the U.S. mainland where he could recruit lots more money from sympathetic Caucasians and wealthy Chinamen who had businesses in California, or where he might recruit Chinamen who were working as servants or “coolies” to join his army in China. Following annexation and the Chinese Exclusion Act he was able to travel to America only because Hawaii people of American origin condoned and assisted the issuance of a Territory of Hawaii birth certificate falsely showing him to have been born in Hawaii and therefore a native-born U.S. citizen under terms of the Treaty of Annexation and Organic Act; so if he wanted to travel to the U.S. mainland he needed to avoid offending the Americans in Hawaii.

The more likely analysis is paragraph (a); but paragraph (b) might be plausibly argued by today’s Hawaiian sovereignty activists. For further details, some supporting (a) and some supporting (b), see the extended webpage