STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In China recently, we encountered a distinctive sight. On this perfect spring evening in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, we're in a park which is filled with people, beneath a statue of a man who stands above us with his left hand on his hip and his right hand holding a cane as he looks off into the distance. The man on the pedestal is Sun Yat-sen. Though he died almost a century ago, people in the park know who he was.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Yeah. Sun Yat-sen, in my impression, is a great historic figure.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) I know that he has led many successful revolutions and uprisings.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) He's a hero in many Chinese people's hearts.
INSKEEP: But there's one more thing about this Chinese revolutionary that people in the park did not know.
Did you know that he spent a part of his life in the United States?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I didn't remember that.
INSKEEP: Sun Yat-sen had ties to America, so we include him as we report on people with a foot in two worlds. To bring him to life, we've called in the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Sun Yat-sen's relationship with Western culture began in the 1880s in Hawaii.
ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE: He was born in China in Canton. But at some point, you know, his brother Sun Mei moved to Hawaii and becomes a very successful businessman.
ABDELFATAH: He sent for Sun Yat-sen, who was a teenager at the time, to come study in Hawaii.
BEN-DOR BENITE: He goes to a Christian school.
ABDELFATAH: This is Zvi Ben-Dor Benite.
BEN-DOR BENITE: I'm a historian of China at New York University.
RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Sun Yat-sen even converted to Christianity.
BEN-DOR BENITE: In that particular moment, it is associated with a desire to break with, you know, old Chinese belief systems.
ARABLOUEI: He also admired American ideas about economics and government, and he applied them when he continued his studies back in China. He became politically active at a very chaotic time.
BEN-DOR BENITE: The country itself is in a state of crisis. They lose wars. They're in debt. They've been colonized.
ABDELFATAH: China was ruled at that time by the Qing dynasty. Many people in the country blamed them for China's problems and wanted to see the Qing pushed out of power. But some wanted something even more radical.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEN-DOR BENITE: There is a perception that there is a crisis in the dynastic system itself.
ABDELFATAH: In other words, people wanted to trade dynasty for democracy. And eventually, Sun Yat-sen joined this call.
ARABLOUEI: In 1894, he started an organization called Revive China, which was a revolutionary group. And a year later, Sun Yat-sen helped organize an effort to overthrow the Qing government.
ABDELFATAH: The plan was to sneak 3,000 armed revolutionaries from Hong Kong into China and start an insurgency. The only problem was the Qing found out and met the revolutionaries with force.
ARABLOUEI: They scattered. Several of them were captured. Sun Yat-sen managed to escape and left China.
ABDELFATAH: After the failure of the rebellion, Sun Yat-sen, like many other anti-Qing revolutionaries, was forced into exile. He would spend 16 years living outside China, many of them in the U.S., where he raised funds and plotted new rebellions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can refer to the people of the United States of America. Such a nationalism is possible, and we must pursue it.
ARABLOUEI: This is a reading from Sun Yat-sen's autobiography, "Memoirs Of A Chinese Revolutionary."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A government by the people, of the people and for the people - I believe in this since I believe in the Chinese people.
ARABLOUEI: But Sun Yat-sen's view of America wasn't all good. He saw Chinese Americans in the U.S. suffer discrimination.
ZHAO MA: He can view America both as an inspiration and also an example of abusing powers and - especially when they treat the minorities.
ARABLOUEI: That's Zhao Ma. He's a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.
BEN-DOR BENITE: In 1904, when he wants to get in, he can't get in because there is the anti-Chinese immigration act. So the reason why he gets in is, basically, some of the contacts in Hawaii basically forge a Hawaiian birth certificate, OK? So Sun Yat-sen was born in China and was reborn in the United States.
ARABLOUEI: The good and bad he saw in the U.S. seems to have influenced his political thought because, while in exile, he develops a theory that would provide the basis for the Chinese Republic. It was called the three principles of the people - nationalism, democracy and the people's welfare.
ABDELFATAH: For years, Sun Yat-sen tried and failed to overthrow the Qing government and establish a Chinese Republic. A lot of his colleagues ended up dead or in prison. But finally, in 1911, the Qing dynasty was brought down.
MA: So Sun Yat-sen learned of this news on the 12th of October in 1911 while he was at Denver, Colo., in the United States.
ABDELFATAH: You heard that right. He was in Denver.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: On my way, I bought a newspaper and, arriving at the restaurant, unfolded it. Immediately, my eyes were met by a telegram about the capture of Wuchang by the revolutionary troops.
ARABLOUEI: Sun Yat-sen dropped everything, made his way to China and became the provisional president of the Republic of China.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ARABLOUEI: He finally saw China shake off dynastic rule and become a modern nation-state, but this victory would be short-lived. The country slipped back into dictatorship, and Sun Yat-sen once again led a revolution to bring back a republic. He wouldn't live long enough to see that happen. In 1925, after a short bout with cancer, he died.
ABDELFATAH: Then China was plunged into a dark period of civil war and political chaos. Sun Yat-sen's image became frozen in time. This man, who was deeply inspired by American ideas, came to be known as the pioneer of the revolution in the People's Republic of China.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, hosts of NPR's podcast Throughline.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.