Han Suyin : Doctor, Author, Internationalist
Dr. Han Suyin
Han Suyin : Doctor, Author, Internationalist
How many people know this person by the name Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chow? Or was it Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow? I didn’t know until a few days ago. It was the real full name of Han Suyin. Han Suyin? The younger generation may not know who Han Suyin was. She was a medical doctor, Dr. Han suyin. Perhaps as a writer she was better known. Han Suyin was the author of the famous novel “A Many-Splendored Thing”. Still don’t get it? A film, based on this book was made in 1955 called “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” that made Han Suyin famous internationally as an author.
Han Suyin passed away in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Friday, 2 November, 2012 at a ripe old age of 96. She was born on 12 September 1916, in Henan Province in China. Han Suyin lived a very fruitful and challenging life in various parts of the world, before settling down in Switzerland.
“Han Suyin” was the pen-name of Elisabeth Comber, the name she used as a medical doctor in Malaya and Singapore. “Suyin” in Chinese means “plain-sounding” or “ordinary voice”, and the surname “Han” most probably to denote the Han Chinese people.
Dr. Han Suyin through the years
Han Suyin and her life story
Han Suyin’s father was a well-educated Chinese railway engineer and her mother was a Belgian. During those early years in the1900s it was very rare, almost unknown of, for a Chinese to marry a Caucasian and to live in China. This was indeed an astonishing exceptional marriage arrangement. Han Suyin grew up to be a very tall and elegant Eurasain lady. “Eurasian” is a term we used to describe a person having European-Asian parentage. She was beautiful having what we called “Pan-Asian” features. I was fortunate enough to see her in person in New Zealand way back in the 70s when she toured the country giving talks on Chinese affairs. I was then a young university student.
Han Suyin was born in Xinyang, Henan, China. Her father was from the Hakka dialectic clan.Han Suyin spent her early years in China and attended Yenching University. She then went to Brussels to study medicine, but returned to China in 1938 and married her first husband Tang Pao Huang,a Chinese Nationalist military officer who later became a general, but was killed in the Chinese civil war in 1947. In 1944 Han Suyin went to London to complete her medical course at the Royal Free Hospital and graduated MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery) with Honours in 1948. In 1948 Han Suying went to Hong Kong to work at the Queen Mary Hospital. It was during this period that she met and fell in love with a married Australian war correspondent for “Times”, by the name of Ian Morrison. Her novel “A Many-Splendored Thing” was about this relationship. Sadly Morrison was killed in Korea in 1950.
In 1952, Han Suyin married Leon Comber, a British officer who was stationed in Malaya, and went to live in Johore, Malaya. Malaya was the old name for Malaysia, the country I am living now. Johore Baru is the town in southern Johore just across the causeway, north of Singapore. Singapore and Malaya were controlled by the British at that time. Because of the very close proximity between Johore Baru and Singapore, Han Suyin was able to operate her clinics in these two places. Her clinic was known as Chow Dispensary, and Han Suyin was addressed as Dr. Chow by her patients, although she called herself as Elisabeth Comber. Not surprisingly, she was very popular with her male patients!! She lived in Johore Baru for more than 10 years.
Unfortunately she divorced Comber in 1958. From her years working in British Malaya, she became aware of the political scene in Malaya and she wrote the novel "And the Rain My Drink" published in1956, about the suffering of the local people there, caused by the British suppression against the Communists during the "Malayan emergency" period.
In 1960, Han Suyin married Vincent Ruthnaswamy, a Colonel in the Indian Army. In 1962 war flared up between China and India. It was during that period that Han Suyin and Vincent became accidental “ambassadors” for China-India relations. Later both she and her husband were honored by the “Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries” as “friendship envoys”.
Both Han Suyin and Vincent later resided in Hong Kong and subsequently shifted to Lausanne, Switzerland. Although they were separated in later years, they remained married until Vincent’s death in January 2003. Han Suyin continued to live in Lausanne till her final years. Han Suyin was also a WHO consultant on China Affairs.
Xinyang, Henan, China
Johore Baru, Malaya (Present-day Malaysia)
Han Suyin and her writings
I first came across one of Han Suyin’s books by accident in a library. It was the first Han Suyin’s book I ever saw. I had no idea who she was then. The contents of the book caught my curiosity. This book was a very thick one, nearly 3 inches thick. It was called “The Morning Deluge : Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954”. It was published in 1972. It was from this book that I learned about life in China during those turbulent years. The history of China during this period was closely related to the life of Chairman Mao. It was a masterpiece, or at least to me. Han Suyin later wrote a second biography of Mao in “Wind In The Tower” published in 1976.
It was in 1970, in Wellington, New Zealand, that I bought the book “Destination Chungking” not knowing that it was Han Suyin’s first book. It was published in 1942, when she was just 26 years old. This book was about the political upheaval in China fighting the Japanese, when the Nationalist government decided to retreat to Chungking. “Destination Chungking”, according to Bertrand Russell, had provided him an account of China in an hour than he had learned there in a year.
I then read another of her books, “The Crippled Tree” which was published in 1965, and from there I read about Han Suyin’s growing years and her family life from 1885 to 1928. It was a very fascinating story narrated first-hand. This was the Eurasian who could not fit into either the west or the east. Han Suyin, in her own words which I quote: “We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, ‘Look at us, the Eurasians!’...The meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization."
Admirers and critics of Han suyin
And so began her journey as a “world personality” being able to communicate with the Western world about her Chinese roots, and to open the eyes of the Chinese about the happenings in the West. She was the unofficial envoy for both the East and the West. From her more than 2 dozen books, I personally consider her greatest book to be “The Morning Deluge”. (By the way, Han Suyin also wrote in French and Chinese.) It was from this book that I learned about the political events of China during Chairman Mao’s lifetime, his struggle against the corrupted Nationalist regime, and the terrible suffering and struggle of the Chinese people, resulting in the infamous “Long March”.
Of all her books, of course, the most famous is none other than “A Many-Splendored Thing”. As with most great personalities, there are not only fervent admirers but also very harsh critics. She had been criticized for her over-zealous support for the Communist Regime in China, especially her unreserved support for Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, whom she described in the biography “Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China “ as "the most dedicated and selfless personality in China's history".
Whatever had been thrown against Han Suyin, I think this article will end with a fitting rebuttal by the “many-splendored” lady herself, which was printed in the Washington Post over a 1982 interview which I quote:
“I’m afraid that some people don’t understand my conduct,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. If one billion Chinese like me and think that I have done good, I don’t care about a couple of foreigners who don’t understand me.”
Han Suyin's Bibliography
- Destination Chungking (1942)
- A Man-Splendoured Thing (1952)
- And the Rain My Drink (1956)
- The Mountain Is Young (1958)
- Two Loves (1962), which consists of two novelettes: But One Shadow and Winter Love
- Cast But One Shadow (1962)
- Four Faces (1963)
- L'abbé Pierre (1965, French only)
- L'abbé Prévost (1975, French only)
- Till Morning Comes (1982)
- The Enchantress (1985)
- The Crippled Tree (1965) - covers China and her and her family's life from 1885 to 1928
- A Mortal Flower (1966) - covers the years 1928 - 1938
- Birdless Summer (1968) - covers the years 1938 - 1948
- My House Has Two Doors (1980) - covers the years 1949 - 1979 - split into two when released as paperback in 1982, with the second part called Phoenix Harvest
- Wind In My Sleeve (1992) - covers the years 1977 - 1991
- A Share of Loving (1987) - a more personal autobiography about Han Suyin, her Indian husband Vincent and Vincent's family.
- Fleur de soleil - Histoire de ma vie (1988) - French only: Flower of sun - The story about my life
- China in the Year 2001 (1967)
- Asia Today: Two Outlooks (1969)
- The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954 (1972)
- Lhasa, the Open City (1976)
- Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1965 (1976)
- China 1890-1938: From the Warlords to World War (1989; historical photo-reportage)
- Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994)
- Tigers and Butterflies: Selected Writings on Politics, Culture and Society (London: Earthscan, 1990)
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