Canada’s own medical marvel

Legendary in China, Norman Bethune is all but forgotten at home


Toronto Star

On March 31, 1938, Mao Zedong, a young Communist revolutionary destined to bring about generations of social trauma, invited Dr. Norman Bethune to visit him in his quarters in Yan’an, China, for a conversation that lasted until early morning. In the weeks leading up to this visit—now forever enshrined in Chinese lore—Bethune, a brilliant and intrepid Canadian surgeon, traveled great distances, often on foot and under attack, helping Mao’s Communists fight fascism by tending to wounded soldiers and civilians, the only foreign doctor among 13 million Chinese.

After Bethune’s death a year later (he cut his finger on a patient’s bone shard and the wound became infected), Mao eulogized Bethune in a lengthy letter that schoolchildren would be required to memorize, word for word, for decades. In her new biography, Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune, Adrienne Clarkson, Canada’s former governor general and a veteran journalist, revisits the story of the man a billion and a half Chinese came to know as Pai-Chu-En—White One Sent.

Clarkson, who is herself Chinese Canadian, felt compelled to explore China’s great attachment to a man who is, with a few exceptions, all but forgotten in his homeland. “The Chinese understood him,” she writes. “His impatience they loved as unlimited eagerness, his stubbornness as unequivocal determination, and his domination as unshakeable commitment.”

Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ont., in 1890, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was a humanitarian, an artist, and an inventor. But first and foremost, Clarkson says, he was a gifted doctor with a global perspective. Necessity drove him to great invention: during the Spanish Civil War, he drastically cut the number of soldier casualties by developing a revolutionary system for administering front-line blood transfusions.

“He is, quite simply, the best-known Canadian in the world,” says Clarkson, despite the fact that here in Canada his memory has faded. “I think it’s because he was a Communist,” she says. “But he would never have made a Communist political figure. He used it as an idea for sharing things among people. He was kind of in a rage about helping people.”

In a letter to a friend, Bethune once predicted that his audacious journey would end poorly. “My father was an evangelist,” he wrote, “and I come from a race of men violent and unstable, of passionate convictions and wrongheadedness, intolerant, yet with it all a vision of truth and a drive to carry them on to it even though it leads, as it has done in my family, to their own destruction.” It was nevertheless the only life he could endure.

by adrienne clarksonHaving returned from Spain with renewed purpose in 1937, Dr. Norman Bethune, now in his mid-40s, retrained his focus on China.

Why China? What caused Bethune to end his hugely successful speaking tour of North America raising funds for the Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy? He felt at first that he wouldn’t be very good at giving these speeches, but as the tour went on, he drew thousands of people and proved to be a riveting speaker. It must have flattered his ego and his profound sense of what he was as a person that he could engage huge audiences and tell them what he believed: that fascism must be defeated at all costs.

But Bethune was not good in supporting roles. He needed to turn the spotlight on himself because he sincerely believed that was where he belonged. Rather than raising money for the cause, he needed to be the person implementing the cause.

At the beginning of July 1937, he began to sense what that cause should be. The Japanese had launched a full-scale attack against China’s major cities, and the Canadian newspapers were filled with it. Canada felt benevolent toward China. There were still relatively large numbers of Canadian missionaries even in the remotest parts of China, and churchgoing Canadians must have heard many a sermon encouraging them to fill rice bowls and save little girls from bound feet and prostitution. After conquering Manchuria and installing the puppet emperor in 1931, the Japanese were ready to continue conquering the rest of China. The Chinese appeal to the League of Nations to take action against Japan was not acted upon, and the Japanese undoubtedly felt emboldened.

It didn’t help that China itself was torn by civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek (quartered in Nanjing in the southeast) and the Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong, which had just completed the Long March to the northwest. Initially, Chiang Kai-shek had been bested by the extraordinary Communist general Zhu De, but Chiang struck back with an army of 400,000, encircling the Communists and killing or starving to death a million peasants. About 100,000 men, women, and children were forced into a circuitous retreat that took them from Jiangxi west to Yan’an, in the mountains of Shanxi Province. The first 6,000 soldiers arrived in Yan’an under the leadership of Mao more than a year later, in October 1935. They had fought their way over 6,000 miles. Another 14,000 followed in different battalions. Eighty thousand had perished on the way.

The Canadian Communist leader, Tim Buck, got Bethune the support of the Communist Party of the United States of America, the China League Council, and the American League for Peace and Democracy. In early January 1938, Bethune left Vancouver for Hong Kong on the SS Empress of Asia. He was accompanied by an American surgeon, Dr. Charles Parsons, and a Canadian nurse, Jean Ewen. Ewen had been working in Canada after spending five years in China as a midwife-paramedic and spoke fluent Chinese.

They had gone to China to offer themselves as medical help in the same spirit in which Bethune had gone to Spain; he was simply a doctor joining the United Front, the coalition of nationalists and Communists fighting the Japanese, and hoping to be helpful.

The group was asked by Dr. Lim, the head of the Chinese Red Cross, whether they would be willing to join the Eighth Route Army, then in the northwest, in the Chin-Ch’a-Chi border region in the mountains of Shanxi province, 200 miles from Yan’an and 300 from Xian.

Their journey of six weeks to Yan’an was a strenuous zigzag route by foot and rail; they waited at stations for trains that would take them more or less in the right direction and they dodged Japanese bombs and bullets. They left Hangzhou by third-class train, joining refugees, and made their way to Zhengzhou in Henan province. Having missed their connection for Xian, they spent the night on the floor of a freight shed at the end of the platform with a woman and her baby, whom Bethune was able to spoon-feed with some dried milk reconstituted with boiling water. The woman had no money and Bethune gave her some, which she accepted reluctantly and with tears because she felt humiliated. To help her save face, Bethune told her that it was not charity; when the war was over he would come back for repayment. As soon as they reached Dong Guan, Bethune started operating, setting shoulders, removing bullets, and performing an amputation on a leg that was gangrenous.

At the beginning of the long and dangerous journey to Yan’an, Bethune had told Ewen what he expected of her:

I was never to call him by his first name, a sin I had not yet committed. Ours was to be a doctor-nurse relationship, otherwise we were to have no particular contact. I told him not to worry. It could be no other way in professional work. Then, too, I was not to take it upon myself to diagnose or treat patients. He knew I had not but he was just telling me. I wondered what brought that on and I was hopping mad. I was a servant, no more, no less. I did not show my anger, at least I hope I didn’t. I resolved to put forward every effort to please the good doctor.

Every place they stopped, their little group, which included several servants and an interpreter, was approached for medical help. Bethune was, says Ewen, “like the good Samaritan [binding] the wounds of all who came to him.” Once, with 40 cars on one train, they became a very visible target and were badly bombed. Bethune looked after the wounded as best he could, but Ewen felt she could hardly function, she was so afraid. “Dr. Bethune didn’t get angry,” she said, “but he pontificated: ‘Every man must have two baptisms in his life—once with water and once with fire. You have just had your baptism of fire.’ ‘You are nothing but a bloody missionary,’ I said, without thinking.” Bethune flew into a rage. “He yelled and screamed, talking so quickly that I don’t think he knew exactly what he was saying. ‘Don’t you ever say anything like that again, you dizzy bitch!’ ”

More and more soldiers were coming in, their wounds infected, and they found themselves in a no-man’s land on the Fen River in southwest Shanxi province, still 100 miles from Xian and ahead of the advancing Japanese army by only a few miles. They were at the rear of a retreating Chinese army.

In this region, they witnessed a battle and saw machine gun bullets striking the water 100 yards away from them. They had to make a dash across a piece of open land, where they were fired on again. They’d heard that the Japanese force pursuing them consisted of about 500 cavalry and several batteries of field guns and infantry—altogether 20,000 men. The next day the Japanese artillery arrived on the opposite bank and shelled them all day for three days. It would take them a month to cover the entire 600 miles; and the last 220 miles to Xian was entirely by foot.

At 11 o’clock on the very night they arrived in Yan’an, they were summoned to meet Mao Zedong. Bethune was already in bed, but it took him only two minutes to get dressed. Ewen’s account of this meeting is immediate and fresh:

The messenger who escorted us to Chairman Mao’s quarters explained that the chairman worked during the night hours, from midnight to sometimes eight or nine in the morning when it was quiet, and that he did not usually see people unless they were important . . . The guard outside Mao’s house pushed back the heavy padded drape (there was no door) which covered the entrance . . .

A man stood at the table with one hand resting on a book near its edge, his face turned to the door. He wore a blue cotton uniform like any other soldier in Yan’an, but his cap was a peaked cap with the red, five-pointed star on it. His shadow on the wall seemed to accentuate his height. The flickering shadows on the walls lent a strange quality to the scene, a murkiness broken only by the glow of the candle.

The man came toward us smiling, and in a rather high-pitched voice said, “Welcome, welcome.” He held his hands out to Dr. Bethune, who accepted his greetings in a like manner. The Chinese leader’s hands were long and sensitive, soft as a woman’s. Without speaking, the two men just stared at each other for a moment, then they embraced like brothers. The chairman’s face was crowned with a high forehead and a shock of very thick unruly black hair. His sensual mouth flashed into a beaming smile as he sat down at the table where he had been working with his secretary. The secretary could speak fluent English so I was relieved of my duty. Chairman Mao spoke no language but Chinese . . . After small talk about the weather, Dr. Bethune presented his credentials from the Communist Party of Canada. His card was printed on a square of white silk, signed by Tim Buck, secretary of the party and adorned by the party’s seal. Chairman Mao took the credentials with great ceremony, bordering on reverence, and said, “We shall transfer you to the Communist Party of China so that you will be an inalienable part of this country now.”

Mao told them how much the partisans were in need of good medical care in the Wutai mountains and said that he thought Dr. Bethune would do very well; he was concerned, however, about how the nurse would be able to survive. Then the conversation took a different turn:

After a time Mao asked me, “Don’t you think that Dr. Bethune looks like Lenin?” He stood up where he could look at the doctor’s profile.

“Oh yes, only Dr. Bethune has a better shaped head at the back than Lenin,” I chirped brightly.

The secretary told Bethune the gist of our conversation. To say that the doctor was delighted would be to state his feelings mildly. He was flattered. Eventually the four of us got into a discussion of flat heads, and the subject took up a great deal of time without us reaching any reasonable conclusions. The night flew by on wings, and before we knew it, April 2 had arrived.

That fateful meeting has been recorded in one of the most famous propaganda posters of all time, showing Chairman Mao and Norman Bethune sitting at a table together. They are portrayed as equals, two men deep in earnest conversation, alone, without interpreters, without any distractions. When Bethune met the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, it was as if water had suddenly found its own level. The man who had condemned his father as a hypocrite, who threw surgical instruments with impatience, treated poor people for free, and taught children art was totally fused with the Chinese purpose. He was welcomed and given the keys to the kingdom, a freedom offered only to the top echelon of the party. The Communists, determined to drive out the Japanese, admired Bethune’s pragmatism and concern for the peasants as well as the soldiers. They identified with his desire to innovate and his genius for improvisation. He could do no wrong, and that, for a human being, was a big responsibility.

From Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune by Adrienne Clarkson. Copyright © Adrienne Clarkson, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

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