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The man behind the myth

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-09-29 09:04

It is two months away from the 70th anniversary of the death of Norman Bethune, a Canadian surgeon who sacrificed his life in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

The man behind the myth

But it doesn't seem there will be any activities com

memorating this foreign hero.

Perhaps the best memorial of the doctor is the publication of the novella The Last Stage of the Journey to Paradise by Xue Yiwei - one of the best modern Chinese fiction works.

Bethune's popularity was at least as great as any of the most popular singers or film stars in the 1960s and 70s. At that time, most Chinese would recite an article about him written by late Chairman Mao Zedong.

A glimpse of the Canadian's inner world can be seen in the letters he penned to Communist authorities, which his friends later published in his final days, and The Last Stage of the Journey to Paradise (Tongwang Tiantangde Zuihou Na Yiduan Lucheng) includes some of these.

These reveal a Bethune beyond the one Mao immortalized in his article In Memory of Norman Bethune.

In the novella, the hero known as White (the transliteration of Bethune's first Chinese name is bai, the word for the color white in Chinese) is portrayed as being obsessed with the longing to write letters to his ex-wife, whose whereabouts are unknown. This demonstrates the solitude Bethune found hard to tolerate in his last days.

The surgeon described his powerful homesickness in a letter he penned to a friend.

In the few months before his death, he said that he wanted to drink coffee and read English-language newspapers.

He complained that he had not seen a single English paper in more than a year.

The Canadian had scheduled a trip to his homeland before his fatal blood poisoning accident, after which he planned to return to China. This coincides with the agitation the protagonist feels in the fiction.

Xue first learned about this Canadian doctor when he was instructed to recite every word of Mao's article In Memory of Norman Bethune as a first-year primary school pupil. That episode would have remained completely dormant in the back of his mind, had he not had a chance to live in Montreal, a city where Norman Bethune had spent eight years (1928-36).

Whenever he strolled down the same street Bethune had, he had the urge to reconstruct this doctor in a fictional work.

He spent two years studying the surgeon's letters, photos and other personal objects at the Montreal Museum. His research convinced him Bethune was a man of great morality and passion.

Xue also discovered Bethune was an excellent surgeon, an inventor of medical instruments, an accomplished painter, a professional photographer, a wise prose writer, a mediocre poet, and an amateur short-story writer and playwright.

Bethune could not tolerate a life of mediocrity. Facing a choice between the comforts of Canada and a harrowing but impassioned life thousands miles away in the battlefields in China, it was natural he went East as a volunteer.

But while he felt his time in China was worthwhile, he was also isolated. The language barrier prevented him from reading anything, listening to the radio or communicating with his comrades. He also couldn't receive letters from friends.

He expressed his desperation in his last letter.

In Xue's novella, the hero's persistence in writing letters to his ex-wife, although he never received an answer, appears to be a way to alleviate his loneliness.

But the more he writes, the more desperate he feels.

He faced a great dilemma. Operating on wounded soldiers 18 hours a day fulfilled his passion for life. But the solitude he suffered made it impossible for him to satisfy other dimensions of that passion.

Except for the significance of operating on soldiers who were fighting a meaningful war, life for this idealist was not at all ideal. That's the paradox Xue's novella conveys.

By discovering a multi-dimensional Bethune behind a single-dimensional character, we gain a deeper understanding of both a particular hero and of life. That is, I believe, the reason this novella is acclaimed as one of the best of its kind.

Rather than just telling an interesting story, a good fiction delves deep into the relationship between man and life or man and nature. So readers will develop their own solutions for, or understandings about, a particular problem.

Xue's study of, and novella about, Bethune reveals that people can be altruists - and we need such people - but often very complicated realities shaped them. It was absolutely right for Mao to write an article to encourage Communist members to learn from this Canadian doctor.

But life is much more complicated than anyone can imagine. And it's almost impossible for anyone to follow suit after learning from people like this hero.

To understand Bethune as a person rather than as a symbol can give us a better understanding of life. Models or heroes are still created today to encourage others to learn from them.

But it was impossible for any higher authorities to mobilize the entire nation by launching a campaign to learn from a particular model, as we did in the 1950s and 60s.

The fact that Bethune remained a passionate person and sought self-fulfillment through altruism can be a model we still need today.

That may be where the true value of Xue's novel with its message of philosophic thinking, lies.

A life of service

March 3, 1890: Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada. His father was a Presbyterian minister who had descended from a long line of clergymen, educators and medical practitioners, and his mother was an evangelical missionary. Bethune's early commitment to maintain the family tradition of service to the less fortunate remained throughout his life.

The man behind the myth

Norman Bethune operating on a wounded  soldier in a temple at Laiyuan, Hebei province, in October, 1939.

1914: Bethune left medical school at the University of Toronto to enlist in the Canadian army.

1920s: He pursued post-graduate studies in medicine in London and Edinburgh.

1928: He became the first assistant of Dr Edward Archibald, the Canadian pioneer in thoracic surgery at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

1936: Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he resigned his hospital position and offered his services to the Spanish Republican government.

1938: He made a perilous journey to the headquarters of the Chinese Eighth Route Army in Northwest China, to join the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

Nov 12, 1939: In a tiny peasant hut in the village of Huang Shikou in Hebei province, he died of blood poisoning.