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China Focus: Cultural envoy Han Suyin remembered

Updated: 2012-11-08 14:30

BEIJING -- A funeral for Han Suyin, a Chinese-British writer who devoted her life to spreading Chinese culture and literature around the world, will be held Thursday in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she passed away last Friday at the age of 96.

In the literature world, Han is best known for her autobiographical novel "A Many Splendored Thing" published in 1952, which resulted in a 1955 film adaptation "Love is A Many Splendored Thing" by 20th Century Fox. The film earned three Oscars in 1956.

In the eyes of her relatives, Han was a workaholic, even in her late years.

"She often got up in the middle of the night to write, even at the age of 80. She was so obsessed with writing that she would not miss a minute," recalled Zhou Guangyong, Han's 88-year-old cousin.

Han was also known for writing biographies of late Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. She left the world with more than 20 books that have been translated into 17 languages.

Most of her works are written in English and based on her own experience, with special efforts made to unveil the mystery of Chinese culture around the beginning of the 1900s.

Born in 1917 in central China's Henan province, Han (known to her parents as Zhou Guanghu) grew up with ambitions to be a doctor. She studied medicine in Beijing, Brussels and London before achieving her goal.

Her literary career began in 1942, when her novel "Destination Chungking" was published, depicting the cruelty of the Anti-Japanese War.

Driven by her deeply-rooted passion to share her experience and thoughts while traversing between different cultures, she decided to become a professional writer in the mid-1950s.

"A Many Splendored Thing" tells the tale of an affair Han had from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, when she fell in love with a married U.S. correspondent in Hong Kong. She did not write the story until after the man died in the Korean War in 1950.

Malcolm MacDonald, the British governor of Hong Kong at the time, said in the introduction to the book that no book could be more insightful in analyzing pivotal issues regarding relations between modern Asia and the West than "A Many Splendored Thing."

Han's biographies of late Chinese leaders, including "The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution" and "Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China", have also gained her global recognition.

Han injected extraordinary passion into writing the biography of former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, one of her best friends.

"A two-hour talk with Zhou in 1956 changed my life. From then on, I met with Zhou many times. I was most impressed by Zhou's tolerance of different points of views. He said different views were welcome," she wrote in the preface of the biography.

The Chinese version of Zhou's biography, translated from the original English, came out in 1992, two years ahead of the English version, which was quite unusual for Han's works.

"When we heard Han was about to write Zhou Enlai's biography in the 1980s, we talked with her and signed the contract. Then she decided to publish the Chinese version first," said Tan Deshan, former editor-in-chief of the Central Literature Publishing House, publisher of Han's writings on the late premier.

In the preface of the book, she wrote that the Chinese version should be published first because all Chinese should be proud of their identity and of the fact that their country has cultivated many great people.

In order to create a better understanding of China among foreigners, Han also gave numerous lectures at conferences, universities, radio and television programs in different countries, with topics ranging from China's history and social reforms to diplomatic policies.

As a keen writer and lecturer on cross-cultural communication, Han also devoted her time and energy toward cultivating translators in China. She helped initiate the most influential translation competition in China, effectively enhancing the quality of China's translators. She was given the title of "Friendship Envoy" by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries in 1996.

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