..revolutionary passion lent a terrible drama to each horrific setback

Given [Sun Yat-Sen’s] propensity for disaster, we might be forgiven for wondering how he maintained his hold on his followers. What was his magic? In retrospect, with the advantage of hindsight, Sun’s adventures take on a picaresque folly that would endear him to Viennese fans of opera bouffe. But this was not apparent in Sun’s day. The participants were too close to events. Revolutionary passion lent a terrible drama to each horrific setback. It was not possible to recognize the comic proportions of a fiasco when it resulted in gruesome beheadings, mutilations, and slow strangulation. Suns’s pratfalls were not comic opera so much as grand guignol, taken with deadly seriousness by the participants, if not by all of the audience.

Also, there were many conspirators involved, and Sun only appears to blame when his case is seen in isolation. He was unquestionable gifted. He was an impassioned orator, able to illuminate the cause he championed, and to inspire to action those who might otherwise have wasted their energy and ardor in drunken conspiratorial discussion, where most revolutions are stillborn. If he was in some respects superficial, it might have been this quality alone that kept him alive while other, better revolutionaries were being murdered. There was a great deal of carnage going on. Many firebrands and plotters died grisly deaths. Perhaps there were among them men and women of much greater nobility than Sun, but they were too engaged to last. Sun’s quirks kept him slightly disengaged, so Sun always survived.

– Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985)

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