China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



November 27, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright November 27, 2009 Alan Wachman. Used by permission.


In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Abraham Lincoln’s stance on national unity during the U.S. Civil War and his opposition to the institution of slavery have been summoned up by PRC officials, media, and elites in efforts to explain and legitimate their own response to those they disparage as “separatists” in Taiwan and Tibet.

To Beijing, vigorously opposing separatism and preserving Chinese territorial integrity is a cause no less noble than was Abraham Lincoln’s resort to war as a way of preventing the secession of southern states. In its quest for moral authority, Beijing has recalled the rhetoric and posture of Abraham Lincoln toward the Confederacy, apparently unaware that it has misconstrued Lincoln’s sentiments by citing his words out of context, drawing erroneous lessons from the example of the U.S. Civil War.

The resort to Lincoln is not new. Prominent Chinese leaders have manifested a touch of Lincolnophilia since the start of the twentieth century. Sun Yat-sen, the Abrahamic forebear of both the Nationalist Party (KMT) of Chiang Kai-shek that was long the ruling party of the ROC and the Communist Party (CCP) of Mao Zedong that established the PRC, explicitly called up Lincoln as a model for his own nationalist creed—The Three Principles of the People. According to Lyon Sharman’s volume, Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Its Meaning, a Critical Biography(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934), Sun reportedly wrote that his own three principles “correspond with the principles stated by President Lincoln—‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ I translated them into … the people (are) to have . . . the people (are) to govern and . . . the people (are) to enjoy.”

Sun’s admiring effort to emulate the bold simplicity and cadence of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became embedded in the hagiographic record of Sun’s contributions to China’s revolution, even though the Three Principles of the Peopleonly vaguely reflect the ideals Lincoln championed. The apparent link between Sun and Lincoln was enshrined in the first article of the 1947 Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC)—a document that remains in effect on Taiwan. It reads, “The Republic of China, founded on the Three Principles of the People, shall be a democratic republic of the people, to be governed by the people and for the people.”