Han Suyin wrote sweeping fiction
Margalit Fox, Nov 7, 2012, 23:49 IST
She stopped practicing medicine in the 1960s to concentrate on lecturing and writing.
Han Suyin, a physician and author known for writing the sweeping novel that became the Hollywood film “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” and for her outspoken championing of China under Mao Zedong, died Friday at her home in Lausanne, Switzerland.
As with many aspects of Han’s life, the precise year of her birth is uncertain, but she was believed to have been 96. Her granddaughter, Karen Shepard, confirmed the death.
The daughter of a Chinese father and a Belgian mother, Han was born and reared in China but wrote primarily in English and French. In more than two dozen books, including novels, a multivolume memoir and laudatory biographies of Mao and Zhou Enlai, she had the singular task, during the 1950s and afterward, of simultaneously explaining China to the West and the West to China.
“Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” was released in 1955. A drama set in late-1940s Hong Kong amid the Chinese Civil War, it starred William Holden and Jennifer Jones as ill-fated lovers: he a dashing, married Western journalist and she a widowed Eurasian doctor. The film’s lush, sentimental theme song, with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, quickly became a standard and won an Academy Award for best song. The film also won Oscars for musical score and costume design.
The movie was based on Han’s second novel, published in 1952 as “A Many-Splendored Thing.” A highly autobiographical work, it was rooted in the affair she had in Hong Kong with an Australian correspondent who was later killed in the Korean War. The film adaptation in turn inspired an American television soap opera, “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” broadcast on CBS from 1967 to 1973.
Among Han’s other books are the novels “Destination Chungking” (1942), “The Mountain Is Young” (1958) and “The Enchantress” (1985); volumes of memoir including “The Crippled Tree” (1965), “A Mortal Flower” (1966) and “My House Has Two Doors” (1980); and the biographies “Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1975” (1976) and “Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976” (1994).
Han was born on Sept. 12, most likely in 1916, her granddaughter said – not in 1917, as has been reported over the years. The city of her birth is uncertain: it may have been Xinyang, in Henan province. Her parents eventually settled in Beijing, where she grew up.
At birth, Han was given the Chinese name Kuang-Hu Chou; she was also known early on by a Western name believed to have been Rosalie Matilda Chou, though she preferred to call herself Elizabeth. (At the start of her writing career she took the pen name Han Suyin, which she liked to translate as “a common little voice.”) Growing up as a mixed-race child, Han later said, she felt she had a foot in each of two words but a secure footing in neither.
After studies at Yenching University and the University of Brussels, Han received her medical degree from the University of London. By this time she was a widow: her first husband, Tang Pao-Huang, a general in the National Revolutionary Army of Chiang Kai-shek, was killed on the Manchurian front in the 1940s. (Their marriage had been a miserable one, Han told The Times in the 1985 interview, saying that her husband beat her whenever she expressed her desire to become a doctor.)
In the late 1940s, working as a doctor in Hong Kong, Han fell in love with Ian Morrison, the journalist who was the model for Holden’s character in “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” He was killed in 1950. Han’s second marriage, to Leon Comber, a British intelligence officer with whom she lived in Malaya, ended in divorce. Her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, an Indian engineer with whom she lived in Bangalore and Lausanne, died in 2003.
Han stopped practicing medicine in the 1960s to concentrate on lecturing and writing. Her fiction, which was set variously in China, Malaya, Nepal and Cambodia, was often praised for its ability to evoke tumultuous times and places. But her nonfiction was often castigated in the West for its seemingly unreserved admiration of Mao, Zhou and other Communist leaders.
She was widely criticised, for instance, for having called the Cultural Revolution – the Maoist social programme of the 1960s and '70s in which hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, were killed – “a creative historical undertaking,” as she described it in “Wind in the Tower.”
Though Han revised her position on Chinese Communism somewhat in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, she remained, at bottom, an unapologetic patriot. In a 1982 interview with The Washington Post, she articulated her position at the time: “I’m afraid that some people don’t understand my conduct,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. If 1 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.”