Han Suyin; A fiery Chinese patriot who opened doors to her country

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''You mustm come to China with me!'' she crows, throwing up both arms and literally leaping out of her chair with excitement. ''Then you would see China as it really is!''

To hear Han Suyin talk about her native land is to be transported to the dusty streets of Peking, to walk through Tian An Men Square and listen to an impromptu rally or demonstration.

''There are debates going on day and night,'' she continues. ''There are more than 3,000 magazines, and still there isn't enough paper to print what everybody has to say.''

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

While she sits down, smoothing her emerald brocade jacket and electric-blue silk pants with a single graceful movement, our photographer clicks away, trying to capture the energy and animation of this diminutive looking woman.

She begins again with quiet fervor. ''My heart is free and liberated with joy that there is so much innate stability in the Chinese people. Despite all the tremendous upheavals, the country has stood together, unified, and can even now indulge in shaking up its own bureaucracy.''

A fiery patriot who was instrumental in setting up some of the initial US contacts with mainland China in the early 1970s, Han Suyin now spends much of her time lecturing in China, Europe, the US, and Third World countries. Since giving up her medical practice to devote her time to writing, she has turned out almost 20 books, including a biography of Mao Tse-tung, an account of the guerrilla war in Malaya, a three-volume autobiography of her own family, and a number of novels set in China, India, Nepal, Cambodia, and Tibet.

For all her outspoken political views, Han Suyin is perhaps best known as the author of an unforgettable love story. Her autobiographical portrayal of the love affair between a Eurasian woman doctor and an English journalist working in Hong Kong in the late 1940s was the basis of the Hollywood movie ''Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,'' starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones.

Next month marks the publication of another already much heralded love story. ''Till Morning Comes'' (New York: Bantam Books) takes a panoramic look at China from the days of the Japanese invasion through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to the Vietnam War, as seen through the eyes of a Chinese surgeon and his American wife.

''I wanted to write a love story because I do believe in love,'' she explains. ''I also believe that a love story is the best way to get people to absorb an awful lot of facts, and I wanted to show where our two nations -- China and America -- are today. There are going to be many people like Jen Young and Stephanie who are going to fall in love and get married, and what's going to happen to them and to their children?''

One reviewer has written of her previous work: ''[Han Suyin] makes no pretense of being a detached observer and succeeds . . . in making an eloquent plea for nationalism.''

Dr. Han puts it even more directly: ''The cause that I believe in is the cause of the Chinese people. I don't care if China goes red, white, blue, or yellow . . . your people are your people and your country is your country.

''Of course there are mistakes, and of course the wrong people are still going to jail, and of course there are still abuses, and of course there is still bureaucracy -- you can't do it all in a day. But I'm very hopeful because I feel that China has come out of medievalism at last.''

A number of Western scholars and journalists, including the New York Times' Fox Butterfield and Time magazine's Richard Bernstein, have recently documented the long-range damage to Chinese society of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Han Suyin might agree with some of their assessments -- but not all.

''In the past Western journalists have predicted civil war and military dictatorship and military takeover -- and none of those has come to pass,'' she notes. ''You have to realize that the Cultural Revolution began as the highest idealism, on behalf of the freedom to write and say anything you wanted, freedom to travel, freedom to combat any official who was misbehaving. As it turned out, it was not realistic enough and it unleashed evil forces which were latent in Chinese culture. It was the old Chinese tyranny coming back, disguised in revolutionary phrases and being utilized by ambitious people.

''But because of the bitter lessons of the Cultural Revolution, the desire of the Chinese people now is somewhat away from politics, and toward economic advance. The young people especially are searching for an ideal, because you cannot live without ideals.''

Dr. Han now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland with her Indian husband, Colonel Vincent Ruthnaswamy, and spends between two and five months in China each year, visiting family and friends and lecturing to student groups and writers associations, as well as the country's eight non-communist parties. But she hasn't always had the freedom of movement she now enjoys.

After accompanying her first husband to London in 1942, where he was posted as a military attache to Chiang Kai-shek, she was unable to return to her homeland for a number of years because she represented the old regime to those supporting the new Communist revolution. After her husband was killed during fighting in Manchuria, she and her daughter lived first in Hong Kong and later in Malaya and Singapore, until she finally obtained a visa to return to China in 1956. There followed 20 years of interviews with Premier Chou En-lai and other Chinese leaders that culminated in a two-volume study of Mao Tse-tung and his policies from the start of the twentieth century until his death in 1976.

In an ironic turn of events, Dr. Han was blacklisted in the US during the McCarthy era for going to Peking to attend her father's funeral, and later branded as an American spy by Madame Chiang Ching when she refused to write a book about Mao's widow.

Dr. Han's manuscripts, journals, notebooks, and correspondence now are being collected at Boston University's Mugwar Memorial Library. Says director of the Department of Special Collections Howard Gotlieb, ''Dr. Han has of course been called an apologist for the People's Republic for many years, particularly because of her close friendship with Chou En-lai and her personal relationship with Mao. But I think what is remarkable about her is that for so many years she really was the open window to China. The fact that she was allowed to travel back and forth when China was closed to all others, and that she could take in Occidental ideas for discussion, was extraordinary.''

When she talks about the aspirations of today's young people in China, Dr. Han relaxes in her chair, a visibly contented and proud grandmother and aunt. In addition to her American families (her daughter and two sisters are married to Americans) and her husband's Indian family, the three generations of her Chinese family now number 102 members. Many of her nieces and nephews are working in molecular physics, pharmacology, and other sciences, and have scholarships to continue their studies in the US and several European countries.

''So many countries lose students who go abroad to study because the standard of living is so much lower at home, and because when they go home they often have to lower their expectations and so feel they are being unused,'' she explains. ''But what the Chinese are trying to do is to let young people have a period of working for several years in China to find out what their country needs. Then they can go out to study with a fixed aim to learn certain things that they can apply.''

Like their parents who studied abroad and returned to China in the 1950s, Dr. Han is confident that her nieces and nephews also will return. Why? Because, she says, ''You've got to love your native land and people.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...