Representations of History in Chinese Film and Television


Sun Zhongshan
(Sun Yat-sen)


(PR China, 1986)


The movie "Sun Zhonshan" (Sun Yat-sen) produced in 1986 is an officially sponsored movie with the aim to show the life of the "great revolutionary and patriot" Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). In his youth Sun spent a long time in Hawaii, where he attended a missionary school and came under Christian influence. He was involved in a series of insurrections against the Qing dynasty from 1895 on. After his first uprising he fled China to avoid punishment. From 1895 until 1911 he toured the world in search of assistance and money in order to support the anti-Manchu revolutionary movement in China. In 1912 he became provisional president of the Republic of China, but soon had to resign in favour of the more powerful military leader Yuan Shikai. After that he continued to struggle for a united, republican China together with the party he had help to found: the Guomindang. In his last years he managed to build up a power base in South China to challenge the government in the North, accepted help from the Soviet Union and restructured the Guomindang along Leninist lines, agreeing to incorporate also Communists into the party (the so-called First United Front). His attempt at reunification of the whole of China was cut short by his early death, caused by cancer, in 1925.

The movie starts not with Sun's early years, but with his revolutionary career, i.e. with the first uprising. It shows scenes of his search for assistance abroad (interestingly not in the West but primarily in Japan – which underlines the message of Sino-Japanese friendship and of a rather "Asian" Sun in this film), and a series of uprisings by his fellow revolutionaries in which Sun usually did not participate directly. When Sun takes over the role of provisional president (an event that is described quite in detail), he immediately faces a lot of problems that eventually lead to his resignation. After the taking over of Yuan Shikai and Sun's failed "second revolution" against Yuan's dictatorship, we witness a period of attempts to rebuild the revolutionary movement by Sun, mainly in Japan. From 1920 on the focus is again on China and Sun's cherished Northern Expedition, but Sun has to face too many problems and time and again suffers setbacks which prevent him from fulfilling this dream. Finally Sun gets into contact with the Communists, and everything seems to take a more sanguine turn for the future.

During the movie several of Sun's comrades-in-arms appear who died in the course of the revolution. At each time this happens, Sun is very moved by the deaths of these "martyrs". At the end, Sun is too weak and ill to continue the revolution by himself but passes on this task to the next generation of revolutionaries.
The movie has been highly decorated in the PR China and continues to be seen as the "official" filmic portrait of Sun Yat-sen. It was produced in commemoration of his 120est birthday.

For some background information on the film and its production see here. For a synopsis of the film please see here. For comments please contact us .

© 2006 Gotelind Müller-Saini