Differences across Strait but a common hero

Mr Wang Yu-chi (left), Taiwan's first official to visit China in a government capacity, paying respects to Dr Sun in the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing two weeks ago. Here, the political leader's body lies in sacred silence.

To reach the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, one mounts 392 steps flanked by pine, cypress and ginkgo trees. At the top, Dr Sun's body lies in sacred silence. No photographs are allowed, and guards stand sentry.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the spot to commemorate the same man has a rather different vibe.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, groups of hip-hop dancers practise slick steps under the eaves of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall just a 10-minute walk from the Taipei 101 mall. Outside, families gather to fly kites and chit-chat in a city that has always set great store by public recreational spaces.

This is just one difference in how China and Taiwan honour the man, the one political leader that both revere.

Both sides claim Dr Sun as its own in staking their legitimacy as the true ruler of China, tracing their respective roots to the 1911 Revolution which he helped lead to topple the Qing dynasty.

In the official Taiwanese history, he was the "Father of the Nation", having co-founded the Kuomintang (KMT) that formed the first Republic of China (ROC) government.

The KMT later fled to Taipei in 1949 where it re-established the ROC - Taiwan's formal name, after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the civil war. The ROC on the mainland was then replaced by the People's Republic of China.

In the mainland Chinese narrative, Dr Sun was a "revolutionary pioneer", who started - but did not complete - China's "democratic revolution", having left the country in disunity when he died in 1925. CCP leader Mao Zedong, who has attributed his political awakening to Dr Sun, was his "true successor" in completing the mission and reunifying China.

After his death, Dr Sun was laid to rest in Nanjing, the ROC's old seat of government.

There was thus a degree of calculated pathos as Mr Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan's first official to visit China in a government capacity, visited the Nanjing mausoleum two weeks ago.

Bowing thrice to Dr Sun's statue, Mr Wang said: "In the past, we could see him only from afar in Taipei. Today, I am able to pay respects to the Father of the Nation in person. I'm very happy and so moved." The ROC - the first democratic republic in Asia established by Dr Sun, he added pointedly, has existed for 103 years.

Over the past half-century, Dr Sun has been celebrated on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, even as the uneasy truce between them sometimes appears in danger of dissolving.

His political philosophy, as encapsulated in his "Three Principles of the People" - nationalism, democracy and livelihood - appears in the ROC Constitution and anthem, and is taught in classrooms in China.

In more recent times though, the emphasis on Dr Sun has evolved, in response to the tugs of different forces.

In China, he remains a powerful name, to be evoked when the official narrative needs underscoring.

Then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the 1980s, for instance, have been linked to the spirit of Dr Sun's teachings advocating openness, says historian Lee Kam Keung of the Hong Kong Baptist University.

A 2003 video made by China's State Archives Administration solemnly interweaved the two men's destinies, stressing how during the 1911 Revolution, Mao was an 18-year-old student who thrilled to the development and wrote an essay calling for Dr Sun's return from Japan to rule the country.

In 1924, he saw Dr Sun for the first time at a KMT meeting, where he delivered a "fiery speech" in support of the elder's call to cooperate with the CCP. "Mao's performance drew Sun's appreciation", according to the video.

Playing up its connection to Dr Sun is also a way to emphasis China's common links with Taiwan; in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, then President Hu Jintao called for China's peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

By contrast, it is Taiwan that has downplayed Dr Sun's role in more recent decades, as pro-independence sentiment - eschewing the idea of a one-China that binds both sides - grew. For instance, starting from the 1990s, under former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, university institutes and think-tanks which used to be named after the Three Principles have since been renamed.

Be that as it may, Dr Sun remains an important person on the island. Taiwan's official history archive launched a poll in 2010 to pick the most influential people in Taiwan's history. Dr Sun came in first in the political category.

On that Sunday, administrative executive Guo Teng, 40, a tourist from Jiangsu, was busy taking snaps of Dr Sun's statue at the Taipei memorial.

Never mind the differences between the people on both sides of the Strait; they have a common hero, he says. "Dr Sun contributed a lot to the Chinese people, whether mainlanders or Taiwanese."

xueying@sph.com.sg

.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.