Sun Yat-Sen: The Prince of Secret Societies of China

Sun Yat-sen and the Triads: A Revolutionary Alliance

Secret societies have played a significant role throughout history, often contributing to the downfall of powerful political regimes. The Chinese Triads, initially secret societies formed by the Han people, are criminal organizations that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries with the aim of opposing the ruling Qing dynasty (Manchurian rule). Following the establishment of a republic in 1912, the triads transitioned their focus from politics to engaging in criminal activities. 

Sun Yat-Sen standing at the front center of a group of revolutionary leaders

Image Credit:, Sun Yat-Sen and revolutionary leaders

Presently, the triads remain active and operate globally. One notable figure involved in the Triads was Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), who played a significant role as a Senior Standing in ousting the Manchurians from the southern region. Sun Yat-sen, also known as Sun Zhongshan, was a Chinese revolutionary and politician often regarded as the founding father of the Republic of China. He played a crucial role in uniting secret societies and political allies in the Chinese National Movement to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.

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Sun Yat-sen: Leading China's National Movement

As the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) approached its final years, it struggled to adapt to the shifting geopolitical landscape. Throughout its existence, the dynasty faced internal conflicts, external incursions, and social upheaval. The Opium Wars emerged as one of the catalysts for the Qing Dynasty's collapse, highlighting its vulnerabilities and exposing the extent of Western geopolitical influence. These wars revealed the dynasty's inability to effectively respond to external threats and address internal issues. As a result, the administrative shortcomings of the Qing Dynasty and its inability to address pressing issues fueled a clandestine objective for revolution among the Chinese population.

During this period of turmoil, Sun Yat-sen emerged as a prominent figure, recognizing the urgent need for China's modernization and liberation from external dominance. Influenced by both Western ideologies and traditional Chinese philosophy, Sun envisioned a nation free from oppression and dynastic rule. His education in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Japan exposed him to revolutionary concepts, democratic values, and nationalist sentiments, shaping his vision for China's future. The alliance of secret societies and political parties marked the beginning of the National Movement led under Sun Yat-sen's visionary leadership, which eventually led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.

Integrating the Triad into the National Movement:

Sun Yat-sen played a pivotal role in transforming Triads from secret societies into a national movement. In 1894, Sun Yat-sen established the Revive China Society and collaborated with various Triad societies to oppose the Qing dynasty and advocate for the restoration of the Ming dynasty. Sun Yat-sen recognized the utility of Triad membership for revolutionary activities due to the secrecy provided by Triad initiation rituals and codes.

During the Nationalist period of government (1912–1949), the alliance between Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and Triad societies became more pronounced. The Green Gang, the most powerful Triad society in Shanghai, formed a close alliance with the Kuomintang, providing physical violence and support in their struggle against the Communists. Sun Yat-sen's vision of a modernized and unified China aligned with the interests of the Triads, leading to a collaborative effort against the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.

Overall, Sun Yat-sen's vision served as a catalyst for transforming Triads from secret societies into a national movement, contributing significantly to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of modern China.

Sun Yat-sen's Democratic Legacy in the Republic of China:

Dr. Sun Yat-sen's vision of the Three Principles of the People, also known as the San-min Doctrine or Tridemism, played a pivotal role in China's history. These principles, which emphasized nationalism, democracy, and social welfare, served as the foundation for the Republic of China, effectively ending over 2,000 years of imperial rule. By modernizing China and challenging the existing dynastic governance, they contributed significantly to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

The Three Principles guided the policies of the Kuomintang during the Nationalist period, shaping the government's approach to governance, democracy, and social welfare. Despite the challenges and changes in Chinese politics, the Three Principles of the People continue to be relevant and influential in shaping political discourse in China.

He advocated for a form of democracy tailored to suit Chinese society, rather than a mere imitation of Western systems. Sun Yat-sen recognized the distinction between liberty and democracy, proposing a new machinery of government that would balance sovereignty and ability.

This map is showing the territorial boundaries and extent of the Great Qing Empire of China in 1820

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Map of Great Qing Empire of China

He argued for the empowerment of the people through universal suffrage, recall powers, initiative, and referendum. Additionally, he proposed expanding the traditional three governmental powers to five, including executive, legislative, judicial, civil service examination, and censoring or control. This approach aimed to provide a system of checks and balances to prevent an all-powerful government.

Although the Republic of China has yet to fully realize Sun Yat-sen's democratic ideals, his principles continue to inspire the nation. The commitment to the Three Principles of the People ensures that democracy in China remains a strong foundation, with a belief that government must serve its people.

The Rise of the Tongmenghui:

Dr. Sun Yat-sen's vision provided a beacon of hope for democracy in China. He emerged as a prominent figure acknowledging the imperative need for China's modernization and liberation from external dominance. Influenced by both Western ideologies and traditional Chinese philosophy, he envisioned a nation free from oppression and dynastic rule. Sun's education in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Japan exposed him to revolutionary concepts, democratic values, and nationalist sentiments that would shape his vision for China's future.

The Tongmenghui, also called the Chinese United League or the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, was a secret society and resistance movement founded by Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren in Tokyo, Japan, on August 20, 1905. This Alliance was formed by amalgamating various Chinese revolutionary factions in response to the anti-Qing sentiment brewing within secret societies towards the end of the Qing dynasty.

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In 1905, Sun Yat-sen and his associates, propelled by the anti-Qing sentiment gaining momentum among various secret societies, played a pivotal role in establishing the Tongmenghui, also known as the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance. The term "T'ung Meng" translates to "Union" or "Alliance," symbolizing the amalgamation of these secret societies united by a common goal – the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a republic in China. The Union aimed to bring together diverse groups, ethnicities, and regions towards this singular objective.

Objectives of Tongmenghui: 

The Tongmenghui, also known as the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, was founded by Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren in Tokyo, Japan, on August 20, 1905. This alliance aimed to unify various Chinese revolutionary factions with the goal of overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing a republican form of government.

Overthrowing the Qing Dynasty: The primary objective of the Tongmenghui was to end centuries of dynastic rule and establish a republican government in China.

Modernization and Nationalism: Recognizing the need for modernization, the alliance sought to embrace Western ideas and foster a sense of national pride among the Chinese people.

Addressing Land Inequality: The Tongmenghui advocated for the redistribution of land to reduce poverty and uplift the lives of the common people.

Ending Foreign Exploitation: The alliance aimed to end the exploitation of China's resources by foreign powers, promoting economic self-reliance through industrialization and trade reforms.

Preservation of Chinese Culture: Sun Yat-sen's vision emphasized the importance of preserving China's cultural legacy while embracing modernity, aiming to forge a unique Chinese identity.

The Challenges Faced by Tongmenghui:

The formation of the Tongmenghui marked a crucial turning point in China's journey towards modernization, but it was not without its challenges. One of the major obstacles was the lack of unity within the alliance. Despite Sun Yat-sen's efforts to bring together various secret societies, differences in ideologies, strategies, and regional loyalties made complete organizational unity difficult to achieve.

Another significant challenge came from the Qing government itself, which was vigilant in suppressing any anti-dynastic activities. Tongmenghui members faced constant threats of detention, torture, and execution, forcing them to operate covertly and navigate through a hostile environment.

Foreign interference also posed a formidable barrier to the success of the Tongmenghui's objectives. Western nations and Japan, motivated by their own interests and spheres of influence, were wary of the revolutionary forces that sought to bring about change. Their involvement and opposition created additional hurdles for the alliance.

Financial constraints and limited access to weapons and supplies further hampered the Tongmenghui's efforts to organize effectively. The lack of funds and resources made it challenging to mobilize and sustain their revolutionary activities.

However, despite these challenges, the Tongmenghui played a pivotal role in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, also known as the 1911 Revolution. 

The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, a historical site honoring the founding father of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sun Yat-sen Memorial

The Chinese Revolution of 1911: Overthrowing the Qing Dynasty

In October 1911, revolutionaries in southern China successfully overthrew the Qing Dynasty, leading to the establishment of the Republic of China and the end of imperial rule. This marked a significant political shift, signaling the dawn of a new era in Chinese history. The Qing Empire had faced numerous challenges, including foreign incursions and territorial losses, which fueled growing nationalism and revolutionary ideas. The Revolutionary Alliance, led by Sun Yat-sen, advocated for a republican government to replace Qing rule. 

After several failed revolts, the conditions were ripe for a nationalist uprising in Wuchang, and the Qing court responded with limited concessions. As provinces declared their allegiance to the Revolutionary Alliance, Dr. Sun was elected the provisional president. Eventually, the emperor and the royal family abdicated, solidifying the transition to a republic. However, the revolution was only the first step, and the Republic of China faced challenges of regional warlords and the need for further reforms. 

The international reaction to the Chinese Revolution of 1911 was largely supportive, with the United States taking a leading role. In 1913, the United States became one of the first countries to establish full diplomatic relations with the newly formed Republic of China. This support was followed by Britain, Japan, and Russia, who also established diplomatic relations with the new Republic.


Sun Yat-sen's indelible influence on China's revolution has rightfully earned him the title of the "Father of the Nation" as well as "Father of Modern China." His ethical principles and visionary ideas have left a lasting impact on successive political movements and leaders, including the Chinese Communist Party. 

The formation of the Tongmenghui on August 20th, 1905, under Sun Yat-sen's guidance, stands as a pivotal moment in Chinese history. This alliance of secret societies united with the common purpose of liberating China from the Qing dynasty's grip, paving the way for a path towards modernization, national identity, and ultimate freedom.

Sun Yat-sen's vision and the revolutionary movement he ignited continue to shape China's trajectory, inspiring generations to strive for a better future. Today, as we reflect on the journey from secret society to national movement, we are reminded of the transformative power of collective action and the indelible mark left by visionaries like Sun Yat-sen on the pages of history. As China also needed a clandestine organization for such a national movement, so Sun Yat-sen can rightfully be called "The Prince of Secret Societies of China".