Sun Yat-Sen And Yen How


An excerpt from

“Some Contemporary Themes in Shiel’s Early Novels:

I: “The Dragon’s Tale: M. P. Shiel on the Emergence of Modern China”



John D. Squires

[Morse, A. Reynolds, ed,

M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands:

A Collection of Essays on M. P. Shiel,

Cleveland: The Reynolds Morse Foundation, 1983, pp 267-268; 287,

With Notes added in 2004.]


            In Empress[1]  this suicidal European war was, of course, masterminded by Shiel’s Sino-Japanese villain, Dr. Yen How.  Given Shiel’s penchant for basing his characters on real personalities, were there any Sino-Japanese figures about in 1898 who Shiel could have had in mind for Yen?  The most likely candidate may be the Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), hailed today by both the Communists and the Nationalists as the father of modern China.  (See Newsweek, June 8, 1981 for an obituary note on Sun’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, who died on 29 May 1981, described as elder stateswoman of Communist China.)

            While their physical descriptions are dissimilar, other factors suggest a connection between Yen and Sun.  Shiel tells this about Dr. Yen How:


                                    He was not really a Chinaman–or rather, he was that, and more. 

                        He was the son of a Japanese father by a Chinese woman.  He combined

                        these antagonistic races in one man.  In Dr. Yen How was the East.

                                    He was of noble feudal descent, and at Tokio, but for his Chinese

                        blood, would have been styled Count.  Not that the admixture of blood

                        was very visible in his appearance; in China he passed for a Chinese, and

                        in Japan for a Jap.

                                    If ever a man was cosmopolitan, that man was Dr. Yen How.  No

                        European could be more familiar with the minutia of Western civilization. 

                        His degree of doctor he had obtained at the University of Heidelberg; for

                        years he had practised as a specialist in the diseases of women and, children

                        of San Francisco.   

                                    He possessed an income of a thousand tael (about £300) from a

                        tea farm; but his life had been passed in the grinding industry of a slave. 

                        Nothing equalled his assiduity, his minuteness, his attention to detail...      

                                    In the East he could have climbed at once, almost without effort,

                        to the very top of the tree–even in the West he might have done it, had

                        he chosen.  But he chose to lie low, remaining unnoticed, studying,

                        observing, making of himself an epitome of the West, as he was an

                        embodiment of the East.

                                    In whatever country he happened to be–and he was never for

                        very many years in any one–he was most often to be found in the

                        company of people of the lower classes, and of these he had a very

                        intimate knowledge.  So great was his mental breath, that he was

                        unable to sympathise in the least with either Eastern or Western

                        distinctions of class and rank.  He often struck up chance friendships

                        with soldiers and sailors about the capitals of Europe; and these

                        patronised and exhibited him here and there.  (Chapter I, Short

                        Stories, 5 Feb 1898, 162.)


            Sun Yat-Sen had also received training in Western science and medicine.  He practiced as a doctor for some years in Hong Kong, Macao, and Canton before devoting all his time to revolutionary activities.  In 1894 he had an interview with viceroy Li Hung Chang, who joins in Yen How’s schemes in Empress.

            In 1895 Sun had to flee to Japan following an unsuccessful revolutionary attempt.  Though apparently a full blooded Chinese, Sun, like Yen, could pass for a Japanese and often did so for security reasons.


                        At Kobe, whither I fled from Hong Kong, I took a step of great

                        importance, I cut off my queue, which had been growing all my life. 

                        For some days I had not shaved my head, and I allowed the hair to

                        grow on my upper lip.  Then I went out to a clothier’s and bought

                        a suit of modern Japanese garments.  When I was fully dressed I

                        looked in the mirror and was astonished—by the transformation. 

                        Nature had favored me.  I was darker in complexion than most

                        Chinese, a trait I inherited from my mother, for my father resembled

                        more the regular type.  I have seen it said that I have Malay blood in

                        my veins, and also that I was born in Honolulu.  Both these statements

                        are false.  I am purely Chinese, as far as I know; but after the Japanese

                        War, when the natives of Japan began to be treated with more respect,

                        I had no trouble, when I let my hair and moustache grow, in passing

                        for a Japanese.  I admit I owe a great deal to this circumstance, as

                        otherwise I should not have escaped from many dangerous situations.

                        (Quoted in Sun Yat-Sen: A Portrait by Stephen Chen and Robert Payne,

                        page 35.)


            In October, 1896 Sun arrived in England after being shadowed from San Francisco (one of Yen’s old haunts) across America by Chinese agents.  On October 11, while walking to visit friends, he was engaged in conversation by a Chinese gentleman who steered him into an unfamiliar building.  Sun soon found himself locked in an apartment at the Chinese embassy.  He was to be returned to China for execution as a revolutionary. 

            Fortunately, he was able to convince a servant to slip out word of his plight to some friends.  They contacted the authorities and the newspapers.  Soon the headline “CHINESE REVOLUTIONARY KIDNAPED IN LONDON” drew throngs to gape outside the embassy.  At last the government intervened securing his release.  Sun commented: “The reporters drew me into the hotel more forcibly than Tung drew me into the legation building, and they coveted news from me more anxiously than the Manchu government wanted my head.” (op. cit., p 46.)

            Sun had been converted from a dedicated but little known revolutionary into a public symbol of the forces of change working to transform China.  Though now famous, Sun set himself to more hard study for the future.

            Like Shiel’s Yen How, Sun spent much of his time in London at the British Museum reading room studying books on politics, law, agriculture, mining and engineering, military and naval strategy.  He became particularly interested in Shiel’s idol, Henry George, though he also read other socialist thinkers and apparently met a number of Russian revolutionary exiles during this period. 

            It is not inconceivable that he met or was at least seen by Shiel at the reading room, though we have no record of it.  It seems the sort of thing Shiel would have crowed about in “About Myself” if it had happened.

            Whether he ever saw Sun or not, Shiel would have heard of the kidnaping incident.  Indeed, similar kidnapings occur in several of Shiel’s subsequent novels, including The Dragon (1913) and How the Old Woman Got Home (1927.)

            Sun left England for a tour of Europe in 1897, but appears to have returned to Japan in August, a few months before the 1897 crisis began.  In Empress Yen How would similarly return to the East to begin the unification of the yellow races.                       [pp 267-268]




[Discussion of The Dragon[2] and the basis for Shiel’s second Asian villain, Li Ku Yu]


            Li Ku is recalled to China early in the novel.  In this he, like Yen How before him, suggests again Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who was recalled home early in 1912 to become first president of the Chinese republic following the revolution of 1911.  It was probably the revolution which drew Shiel back to the subject at all, though in 1924 he inscribed a collector’s copy of The Dragon thus:


                                    The fact that God has a predilection for pigtails and

                        microbes (to judge from their number) had always struck me,

                        and there seemed to me such a ‘picture’ in their overflowing

                        with a stare into the west, like the Gadarean pigtails, ‘snout up,

                        tail cocked’; that I was led into writing my second book[3] on one

                        subject....(Quoted by Morse in Works Updated, Vol II, p 185.)


            The revolution is only directly mentioned once, on page 41 where he describes the (fictional) Dowager Empress, even comparing her to her probable historical role model, Tzu Hsi.                                                                                                           [p 287]







[1]. The Empress of the Earth by M. P. Shiel, ills by Lawson Wood, serialized in Short Stories, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, London, Vol 4, # 475-# 494, February 5, 1898 - June 18, 1898. [Published in book form as The Yellow Danger, 1898.]

[2]. First serialized as To Arms! by M. P. Shiel, ills by Christopher Clark, R. I., in The Red Magazine, Vol XV, No 90, Jan 1, 1913 - Vol XVI, No 95, March 15, 1913.  [Published in book form as The Dragon (1913), revised as The Yellow Peril (1929.)]

[3]. Note that Shiel calls The Dragon his “second book” on this topic.  Though sometimes described as a similar future war novel, Shiel’s The Yellow Wave (1905) is actually a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in a novelization of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.


Copyright © 1983, 2010 by John D. Squires

Used by permission.


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