Sun Yat-sen in Cottered – The father of modern China, and his surprising link to village near Baldock

PUBLISHED: 11:52 04 March 2017

Sun Yat-sen, pictured as provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912.

Sun Yat-sen, pictured as provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912.

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Visitors to the village of Cottered, between Baldock and Buntingford, may be surprised to see a blue plaque on one of the houses, marked with Chinese writing.

Sir James Cantlie, painted by Harry Herman Salomon, c. 1925. Picture: Wellcome Library, LondonSir James Cantlie, painted by Harry Herman Salomon, c. 1925. Picture: Wellcome Library, London

Incredible as it may seem, the plaque bears the name of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China – and explains that he was a regular visitor while in exile between 1896 and 1911.

Dr Sun, who in 1912 became the Republic of China’s first president, uniquely remains widely respected on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. He is known as the Father of the Nation in Taiwan and as the Forerunner of Democratic Revolution in mainland China.

His connection to the property, called The Kennels, comes from his life-long friendship with physician Sir James Cantlie, who owned the house, earlier taught him medicine in Hong Kong – and in 1896 saved him from imprisonment by agents of the Qing monarchy at the Chinese Legation in London.

Dr Sun visited the Cantlies in London and Cottered whenever he was in Britain – and writing the introduction to a 1969 pressing of Dr Sun’s Kidnapped in London, Sir James’ son Kenneth recalled one of the statesman’s visits to the village.

He wrote: “I must have been about five years old. It was sunset on a summer evening, and Dr Sun was walking up and down in the orchard.

“He was wearing a grey frock-coat and his homburg hat was tilted forward to keep the level sun out of his eyes. He had his hands behind his back and was pondering deeply.

“I was about to rush up to him in my usual impetuous way, when I stopped. ‘He is probably thinking great thoughts,’ I said to myself, and I went quietly away.

“I was not in the least afraid of Dr Sun, who was kindness itself – but my parents and my nurse may have put the idea into my head that here was a great man who must not be interrupted when he was thinking.”

In 1912, after the success of the Xinhai Revolution – which established a Chinese republic, with Sun Yat-sen as its first provisional president – the doctor wrote with clear affection to the Cantlies.

On paper headed ‘The President’s Office’, he wrote: “It makes me feel more grateful to you when from the present position I look back on my past of hardships and strenuous toil, and think of your kindnesses shown me all the while that I can never nor will forget.”

After Dr Cantlie died and was buried at St John’s Church in Cottered in 1926, the Chinese minister to Britain, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, laid a memorial tablet at the church. Dr Cantlie’s grave in the churchyard is engraved with a Chinese translation of the gospel verse Matthew 5:7.

China Central Television visited the house in 2001, and again in 2011 as part of filming for a documentary series on the Xinhai Revolution.

Around that time its current owners installed the blue plaque that is now seen by travellers along the A507.

To find out more about the house and Cottered’s Chinese links, have a look at sunyatsenhouse.com

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