Dr. Bethune’s Children: A Novel

By Xue Yiwei

Translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Xue Yiwei

Living to Learn with Everything You Knew Was a Lie

A few weeks ago more than a hundred people holding up signs squeezed into Montreal’s Norman Bethune Square to protest the acquittal of a white farmer for killing a young native Canadian. Perhaps the organizers of the protest chose the site of Bethune’s statue because they felt a symbolic kinship with a Canadian who fought in his own way for human rights, even though long after his death his movement would later be discredited as a major violator of human rights.

Did they know Dr. Bethune was a communist who left Montreal in 1938 to enlist in the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, and that he died of septicemia while operating on wounded soldiers in Mao Zedong’s Red Army? Did they know that Bethune was turned after his death into the most revered Westerner in China—right after Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—an icon commemorated by several generations of Chinese schoolchildren who were required to recite by rote Mao’s “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” from The Little Red Book—a book whose print distribution would have dwarfed that of Harry Potter if the latter had been published in the 1960s or 1970s?

Most likely the protesters chose the spot because it was meters away from an entrance to the Metro through which thousands of people pass every day, maximizing exposure for their cause.  A short piece in the Montreal Gazette doesn’t elaborate.

Bethune has nearly been forgotten in Canada and perhaps now, long after the passing of Mao, he is fading from memory in China as well. But he was a lifelong obsession for the Chinese-Canadian writer Xue Yiwei, who, now 53, was among the last generation of Chinese who had to memorize Mao’s eulogy to the Canadian doctor. Bethune’s eminence still haunts the writer, years after the Cultural Revolution ran its course, after the Great Leader died, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 disabused youths of the notion that the country might see a more democratic future.

Xue, who has a degree in English literature and a doctorate in linguistics, feared official reactions to his writing would land him prison, so in 1990 he escaped by way of Hong Kong, and in a reversal of Norman Bethune’s path he eventually landed in Montreal, where he was an unknown famous writer because all of his work was available only in Chinese. That is until last year, when Dr. Bethune’s Children was published in English translation by Darryl Sterk. It had first been published in the Chinese in Taiwan in 2012 and read surreptitiously on the mainland. No publisher in China has so far dared to publish it. He returned 1997 to teach Chinese literature at Shenzhen University and in 2009 and 2010 was a visiting scholar at City University of Hong Kong, but he now considers himself a Canadian.

Xue had long wanted to write a book about the mysterious figure who had loomed so large over his life. What he had known growing up was that Dr. Bethune died in 1939 while serving with the communist 8th Route Army, and immediately after his death Mao made him a martyr, inducting him into the pantheon of spiritual avatars of Chinese Communism. Mao’s letter, titled “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” would be incorporated into the Little Red Book and become required reading for schoolchildren for succeeding generations, culminating in that of Xue and his contemporaries. At first he considered writing a biography and was given access to Bethune papers and letters in Canada and China. One letter stood out. He wanted to try to understand the statement in Bethune’s last letter to his girlfriend in Montreal: “I must go to China.” Why, Xue wondered, did he use the word “must”?

Why did the doctor have to go to China? Why would anyone have to go halfway around the world to a country where he didn’t speak the language to fight for an ideal? In Bethune’s case the ideal was the worker’s paradise promised by communism.

Xue says that as he looked through the archives he decided that he particularly wanted to write about the young people who were his contemporaries, those of whom the mother of one of the characters in the book says: “You are all Dr. Bethune’s children.”

This book is complicated because Xue calls it a novel, yet many of the events closely parallel those in his own life, and even in his author’s note—is it the author Xue who is speaking, or the fictional author of the book?—he speaks of himself writing the book while talking about characters in the book as though they were people in his own life. He says most of the children of Dr. Bethune are still living in China, except for the three main characters in his novel. Two, he says, “died an unnatural death for reasons related to their spiritual father [Bethune].” The narrator says, “I am the only survivor of the three, and I fled China in the early 1990s, taking these memories of pain and loss with me.” Is this the character who is the narrator? Is it the author? Perhaps both?

It’s a remarkable book and one in which we are looking into a hall of mirrors, never knowing for sure when we are in the fictional world or the real world. I won’t say it is split between “fiction” and “truth” because I think Xue believes that fiction can aim for a higher truth that nonfiction. He says—Is it Xue or the fictional author?—“I feared the cruel limitations of reality would confine my imagination and restrict my freedom of expression.” In an interview, Xue said that reality (sticking to facts) is confined by space and time. He wanted to dispense with those restrictions.

He chose to write the “novel” in epistolary form. Each chapter is a letter to Dr. Bethune in which he asks the doctor questions, which of course he can never answer. We wonder if the author of the letters is the narrator in the novel or Xue himself.

What we know is that the narrator, who is never named, has a friend named Yangyang, with whom he shares a dark secret, and later on in the story a wife, Yinyin, whose life ends tragically. The names of the characters are among the whimsical touches in a book that is humorous and disturbingly grim—sometimes in the same paragraph.

While struggling to come to terms with the deaths of the two people closest to him he concludes that Dr. Bethune was complicit in both their deaths. We find out why as in the end we come to see why Bethune used the word “must” in his letter to his lover. Who was Bethune?

Norman Bethune was born into a wealthy family in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 4, 1890. Following in his paternal grandfather’s path, he enrolled in the University of Toronto with the goal of becoming a doctor. He apparently bounced in and out of school, and in 1915, at the start of World War I, he took leave from his studies to serve in a field ambulance corps in France. A shrapnel injury sent him back home. After recuperating and completing his medical training he returned to the war serving as a lieutenant-surgeon in the Royal Navy. As a practicing surgeon in Canada over the next two decades he fought hard for universal healthcare. The failure to make this happen may have fed his decision to volunteer in Spanish Civil War. In 1935 he became a combat physician for the Loyalists; it was the same year he joined the Communist party. While in Spain he developed mobile blood banks that were reported to have saved many lives on the battlefield. He took some of those same tools with him when in 1938 he went to China to serve as a field surgeon in the Second Sino-Japanese war.

Bethune either volunteered or was ordered by the Communist party to go to China—this may be where the “must” in the letter lies—to aid the Communist faction in the war against the Japanese, a war that was complicated by the civil war between Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Red Army. The doctor was said to have worked tirelessly performing numerous surgeries, some in the midst of battle.  In one his final operations he cut a finger and an infection led to his death from septicemia on November 12, 1939. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame says, “Canada remembers Bethune as a medical genius. China reveres him as a saint.” It also says: “He was an idealist. He was a dreamer.”

(I confess that I was one of those idealists back in my callow youth. I was among the young people growing up in the 1950s and 1960s who imagined, without knowing better, that Mao was a heroic figure. And that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were champions of freedom. Of course, what they really were, were hardcore Stalinists.)

The irony is that Mao would eventually imprison or kill all the idealists, the dreamers, the intellectuals, the artists, whoever didn’t cleave to the party line. But early on, before the purges, before the bloodbaths, Mao was a cunning strategist. It didn’t take long for him to figure out how to use Bethune’s death to great advantage. He would make him a martyr. He would use him to demonstrate that communism had universal appeal, proven by the fact that even a prominent Canadian doctor would join the cause.  Just six weeks after Bethune’s death, on December 21 Mao published his epitaph, which would be included in the red book and would become part of the DNA of future generations.

He says in the memoriam, “What kind of spirit in this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism, from which every Chinese Communist must learn.”

In the novel Mao seems to be our main source of knowledge about Bethune. And Mao is often referred to in the narrator’s letters to Bethune as “your great friend” or “your dear friend.” In the Little Red Book, the epitaph says: “Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people.”

“I have many things to tell you,” the narrator says in one letter to Bethune. He writes: “You would find the way China has evolved unimaginable. In today’s China, money, which you despised, has become the symbol of ability and happiness. Doing things ‘without any thought of self,’ as your great friend described your own spirit, is now seen as either idiocy or hypocrisy.”

The narrator’s neighbor in Montreal calls China “the biggest capitalist country in the world ruled by communists.” And he hates capitalism (although he is a lifelong Canadian). Bob’s father, the narrator explains, died in Spain. At first Xue, or the narrator, brushes this off as the words of someone who doesn’t really understand China. But in the end, he decides that maybe he was right. If you could have socialism without democracy, why not capitalism without democracy?

A character in the book is given the nickname of “Dumb Pig” by one of his teachers because he can’t remember the words in Mao’s Bethune tribute. The name sticks, and it becomes the only name he goes by. But his school chums know that he is actually smarter than the teachers. He knows how to use his label to skirt the rules and gain personal advantage.  In the 1990s Dumb Pig becomes a major entrepreneur in the new economy—a capitalist within the “socialist” system, the narrator says. Dumb Pig never learned to recite “In Memory of Norman Bethune” because he thought it was bunk. No one really acts selflessly and survives.

The characters closest to the narrator, Yangyang and Yinyin, are too fragile to survive in the world of Dr. Bethune’s dear friend.  Yangyang is a suicide, and Yinyin enters the narrator’s life after he has found a teaching position in a university. She is a promising young writer with a short story about to be published and is carrying their first child when she becomes an accidental victim of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is 1989, and in one night the narrator finds his life destroyed. In retrospect, after he has fled to Montreal, he decides that Dr. Bethune is culpable for the deaths of the two people closest to him. Without the martyrdom, then sainthood of Dr. Bethune, Yanyang and Yinyin would not have been erased from his life.

Xue/the narrator suggests that the must in Bethune’s letter meant that he had to go to China for the history of China of the mid and late 20th Century to play out as it did. Mao, the puppet master, pulled the strings of his dead comrade to design a China in which the narrator’s best friend and his wife and millions of others would be swallowed up by history.

I’m glad that Xue wrote this book rather than the biography he started out to write. We get closer to the truth here than we do in most biographies.

Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor of The Neworld Review

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