-- Norman Bethune
This photo of Bethune in China (at the front of the procession) is filched from the Communist Party of Canada website. Since they abhor ownership of private property, I'm sure they won't mind.
I wrote a brief post about Norman Bethune a few weeks ago. I had heard about him before coming to China, of course, but knew very few details. Recently I downloaded Phoenix, a comprehensive biography of Bethune on my Kindle. Phoenix draws on a rich store of oral testimony, official records and correspondence to trace the path of a man born in 1890 to sternly religious parents in Gravenhurst Ontario, and who died fifty years later of blood poisoning in a peasant hovel in the hills of rural China.
The Chinese revere Bethune to this day and there is no denying his utter commitment to his fellow man. It was an extraordinarily unusual thing for a western-trained surgeon to attempt to provide medical care to a ragged guerrilla force, as the Red Army then was. The authors hint that the medical supplies sent by the Communist Party of Canada to China that were intended for Bethune, may have been diverted by the Chinese Communists because Bethune was operating in remote regions and it was easier to send the much-needed supplies to other battlefield fronts. In fact, reading of Bethune's travels through the mountains on horseback and on foot, often in driving snow or rain, or skirting the Japanese forces, makes for an interesting counterpoint for the modern traveler stuck in a stifling hot train station or jammed into a subway.
The book is titled Phoenix because when Bethune went to China, his life was in ashes and he desperately wanted to redeem himself and prove to himself and others that his life mattered. His drinking problem and his personal demons had helped sabotage his career and even caused his comrades in the Spanish Civil War to demand his recall to Canada. By publicly acknowledging he was a member of the Communist Party, Bethune effectively turned his back on his old life as a doctor and surgeon in North America.
In rural China, away from city life with its distractions and temptations, Bethune gave himself completely to the Chinese -- training the "barefoot doctors" who served the army, setting up training centers, and insisting on getting to as close to the fighting as possible so he could save more lives. To people in need he was often incredibly compassionate and empathetic. He saw the Chinese soldiers and peasants he helped not as a strange alien race but as members of suffering humanity deserving of care. In the last 12 months of his life he produced "an amazing number of letters, articles and reports," to help publicize the desperate straits that the Chinese faced as they resisted the Japanese occupation. He shared his own rations with his patients and he donated his own blood and encouraged others to do so, at a time when the idea of donating blood was foreign to many Chinese.
Bethune was not even intended to be the head of the medical mission being sent to China. That post was reserved for one Dr. Charles Edward Parsons. Bethune could be an angry drunk but according to the authors of Phoenix, Parsons was a hopeless alcoholic who was shipped back to the United States after he drank all the seed money intended for the mission, so it is Bethune who found immortality in the hills of Shanxi Province. Had Parsons stayed with the mission, Bethune undoubtedly would have quarreled with him and probably burned another bridge. Instead he died, fighting a raging fever and an infection which even his stubborn will-power could not overcome. But by the time he died, he had made himself a legend to the Chinese soldiers and peasants in the region. The cult of Bethune was not a Mao invention. In Phoenix, we learn that the "villagers of Jun Cheng built a tomb for Bethune, walking thirty miles to a quarry each night through Japanese lines to bring back marble for it."