Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s American Adviser
Lea had a reputation as an able, self-taught military expert when he first met Dr. Sun. He began his exploits in 1899, after dropping out of Stanford University, and working for several years as a military organizer for a Chinese reform movement, the Pao Huang Hui (Protect the Emperor Society), which sought to restore the deposed Emperor Kwang-Hsu to power. He later earned international acclaim as a geopolitical writer, most notably for his book The Valor of Ignorance(1909), which examined American defense and prophesied a war between America and Japan. Following the emperor’s death in 1908, he helped organize and lead a revolutionary plot known as the “Red Dragon” conspiracy to establish an independent republic in China’s two southern Kwang provinces. In the fall of 1909, as the conspirators faced increasing obstacles in advancing their plot, they approached Dr. Sun, who was on a fund raising trip in America, to propose joining forces with his revolutionary movement to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. Dr. Sun agreed to an alliance with the conspirators in early 1910 and made Lea his military advisor. In formulating their plans, Dr. Sun envisioned heading an interim military government if his revolution succeeded, with Lea serving as his army chief-of-staff, until a stable Chinese republic could be established.
The Red Dragon conspirators broke with Dr. Sun after an attempted revolutionary uprising failed in March 1911, but Lea remained loyal to him. In May 1911, he selflessly signed over the rights to a Japanese edition of The Valor of Ignoranceto help finance Dr. Sun’s revolutionary cause. In June 1911, Dr. Sun and Lea met in California and continued their revolutionary planning.
After the outbreak of the October 1911 revolution signaled the end of the Manchus, Lea assisted Dr. Sun’s return to China to lead the new republic. At that time Lea was in Germany being treated for his failing health, and Dr. Sun, on an American fund raising trip, cabled him to try obtaining Anglo-American financial backing for a new Chinese republican government. They both met in London where their efforts to secure financial backing failed, before sailing for China. American State Department officials covering the progress of their trip reported that Dr. Sun, who was to be the Chinese republic’s first president, did not make a move without first consulting Lea. Dr. Sun also issued an official statement announcing that Lea would become the army chief-of–staff and negotiate the surrender of the Manchus. Journalist Linton Wells of Shanghai’s English-language China Press, who was on hand for their arrival in Shanghai on December 25, 1911, observed that Lea “was closer to Sun than any other individual on earth” and “Sun came to rely upon his advice more than that of anyone else. . . .” After their arrival, however, internal political discord among Dr. Sun’s followers, coupled with American legal restrictions, quickly ended Lea’s ambitions to play an official role in China’s new government.
Lea remained Dr. Sun’s unoffical advisor until his health abruptly failed in early February 1912. He returned to California in his wife’s care with hopes of someday rejoining Dr. Sun, but he never recovered. He died in November 1912, several weeks before his 36th birthday. Shortly after his death, Dr. Sun wrote Lea’s widow: “In losing Gen. Lea I feel I have lost a great and true friend.”
Lea had a private funeral and his remains were cremated. He wished to be buried in China, but his wife could not afford the trip and kept his ashes until her death in 1934, after which she also was cremated. Her son (from her first marriage), Joshua B. Powers, finally fulfilled Lea’s last wishes in 1969, when the Republic of China received the Leas’ ashes and interred them at the Yangmingshan Public Cemetery in Taipei. The interment was marked by a large and formal ceremony to honor “General Homer Lea, American military advisor to Dr. Sun Yat-sen.” President Chiang Kai-shek took a personal interest in the arrangements. He believed the interment of the Lea’s ashes in Taiwan should only be temporary until they could be transferred to Nanking and interred by Dr. Sun’s mausoleum, when Taiwan and mainland China were finally reunited.