Revolutionary travails transform Norman Bethune

Dr Norman Bethune in 1922 Photo: wikipedia

“Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was reflected in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness toward all comrades and the people.”

This is an excerpt from an essay entitled “In Memory of Norman Bethune” written by Chairman Mao Zedong in December 21, 1939.

Months before, the Canadian surgeon cut his finger while operating on a Chinese soldier in the battlefield during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45). His condition deteriorated and later succumbed to blood poisoning.

A statue of Norman Bethune at Tang County in Hebei Province Photo:

Norman Bethune (1890-1939)

Born on March 4, 1890 in Gravenhurst, Ontario,Canada

In 1914, he suspended his medical studies and joined the Canadian Army to serve as a stretcher-bearer in France during World War I. He received his M.D. in 1916.

In 1923, he married Frances Penny.

In 1935, he became a committed communist and joined the Communist Party of Canada.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Bethune went to Spain to offer his services to the government forces.

In January 1938, Bethune travelled to Yan'an of Shaanxi province in China where he joined the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong in the War of Resistance against the Japanese invaders.

Died on November 12, 1939 (aged 49) in Tang County, Hebei Province, China

白求恩 (Bethune in Chinese) is a household name all over China and is synonymous with Canada to Chinese people. The Norman Bethune Medal is the highest medical honor in China, recognizing an individual’s outstanding contributions, heroic spirit and great humanitarianism in the medical field.

Bethune is buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Hebei Province, ensconced in a tomb and memorial hall for his internationalism and humanitarianism. The prestige he enjoyed equals to ancient emperors and contemporary members of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China.

The other side of Bethune

Canadian historian Roderick Stewart and his wife Sharon Stewart published their book -- Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune -- in 2011 after 10 years’ field trips and research on the Canadian physician.

“I know Bethune possessed a lofty position in Chinese people’s heart. We didn’t create a hero nor disfigure a hero. What we did was to tell a story of a charismatic man,” said Roderick who began studying Bethune since 1968.

Recklessly, Bethune followed his heart to convert to the Communist Party of Canada, which was illegal in Canada in the 1920s. This commitment took him to the Spanish Civil War in 1936, where he organized a mobile blood transfusion service, the first of its kind, to operate on a 1000 km front and saved far more lives than any other services, said the author.

“However, he was forced back by the Spanish government to Canada because of womanizing, boozing and recalcitrance,” he said.

Bethune married an extremely beautiful Scottish woman whom, when he later contracted tuberculosis and believed himself to be at death’s door, he persuaded to divorce him and return to Scotland. He later recovered and begged her to remarry him, which she hesitatingly did in 1929. Ante-climactically, the marriage broke up two or three years later.

“I’m trying to tell the truth as people only see one side of Bethune who is a super hero in China. Actually, China offered the best opportunity for the high-spirited medic to rebound from his lowest ebb (after Spanish Civil War) and write himself in history,” said Roderick.

Norman Bethune (right) operates in a field hopsital in Oct 1939 in China, 9 miles from the frontlines. Photo: wikimedia

In a retrospect on the gutsy communist at Peking University, we learned of a man more of flesh and blood, who is different from the portrayal in the primary school textbooks.

Bethune was ill-tempered, violent, wrong-headed, inquisitive and alcoholic.

He was not picky about food and clothes but could not live without cigarettes. He was unwilling to treat Japanese captives.

He refused a blind date with a Chinese woman, which was set up by a Chinese senior official, simply because of language and cultural barrier.

The doctor was meticulous about disinfection and surgical instruments. He would be abusive if nurses dozed off on duty or complained of the dirty work.

No surgical gloves, no bandages. He was shocked at a battleground clinic, which was more like a makeshift shelter in the frontline where shrapnel wounded soldiers were treated.

Norman Bethune's (left) mobile medical team in China included 18 members. The white horse, captured from the Japanese, was a gift. Photo: Canadian Encyclopedia

Two years of grueling work in the Shanxi-Hebei border region with the Communist Party of China’s 8th Route Army took the edge off him and turned him into a tireless and inventive surgeon, teacher and publicist, and he adopted the communist cause and the Chinese people as his own. 

He was elected the No.1 Foreign Friend of China in 2009 by Internet users in a poll organized by the China Radio International, Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.

According to the poll, the top 10 foreign friends of China include American journalist Edgar Snow (斯诺), Jewish Chinese war reporter Israel Epstein (爱泼斯坦) and former president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch (萨马兰奇).

“We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful for the people. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, then he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people,” Chairman Mao wrote in the essay.

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