Fading memory of a revolutionary hero

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-11-17 8:27:00

By Bill Siggins

As a Canadian in China, it's more than a little sad to see my natural PR advantage slip away in the sands of time.

I'm talking about the memory of Dr Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor and only foreigner to be eulogized as a hero of liberation.

It used to be that mentioning I was from Canada would be greeted with a warm and fuzz response about the great Baiqiuen Dai Fu (Dr Bethune).

Not being one to shy away from revelling in the doctor's good name and great deeds, I've used our shared nationality to good, almost unfair advantage and as a great conversation starter.

Bethune's deeds and sacrifice prior to liberation were completely altruistic and it cost him his life. Driven by his political ideals as a member of the Canadian Communist Party, the eccentric doctor abandoned his growing reputation and burgeoning medical practice in Montreal to support the peasant revolution in China.

Working on the frontlines, he operated on the wounded in makeshift hospitals, enduring unbearable hardship and saving countless lives. Then he cut his finger, which festered and he died of blood poisoning.

Bethune's real fame came from the pen of Chairman Mao. The helmsman's famous "old three articles" waxed poetically about self sacrifice in Serve the People, focused the country's ideological correctness in the Foolish Man who removed Mountains and paid tribute to fallen heroes in his ode In Memory of Norman Bethune.

Mao's poetic and poignant dedication was learned by the masses of school children in the 1960s, who spent endless hours reciting the three old articles over and over again.

So this brings us to today.

I've learned the opening line of Mao's Bethune article which I use as a fun challenge to people who ask where I'm from. "Yige waiguo ren bu yuan wanli lai dao Zhong Guo…' (A foreigner from more than 10,000 li away comes to China…).

This little test helps break the monotony of answering the countless inquisitors who also want to know how many children I have, where I work, how much money I make, if I can use chopsticks and do I like Chinese food.

I've now used the first line of Mao's Bethune article so many times I've discovered a yawning generation gap.

When I deliver the quote to someone over 40, or maybe by now it's closer to 50, they will immediately know whose words I'm speaking, who they are about and where I am from. Their answer is often just three words: Mao, Bethune, Canada.


Challenging younger people with my little test usually only elicits blank stares and a good degree of embarrassment that a foreigner is offering a Chinese history lesson they've never learned. Most are intensely interested in the answer and after telegraphing a few broad hints they start to clue in that I'm quoting Mao and there's a doctor involved and he's from…Russia, no Germany.

I do feel a little guilt using the good doctor's misery for my amusement but I am trying to keep his memory alive.

My quiz turned social experiment has got me thinking about what's happened over the last 20 years to knock Bethune off his pedestal of most famous foreigner in China.

It used to be that if you were introduced as a Canadian the next word from your new found friends was Bethune. I even faked being his grandson in order to get a plane ticket when there were absolutely none available. One of my first taxi rides in Beijing, before I knew how to pronounce Bethune in Chinese, featured the cabbie spontaneously pantomiming a gun battle and sewing up his chest wound.

It seems modern times have all but repudiated the past. China is all about forward thinking, and what people want now.

Despite my personal fondness for the eccentric doctor, replacing his memory with modern knowledge is not the worst thing that could happen.


Unfortunately, there are many important pieces of history that are also being allowed to simply slide into the sands of time as if they didn't happen or were unimportant.

Certainly school kids today need not recite Mao's lao san pian, but they remain important articles and good of examples of the thinking back in the day.

Teaching true history is how a country learns not to repeat the mistakes of its past, especially when there still exists a need for atonement.

The author is the founder of R.D. Communications. billsiggins@realdogcomm.cn

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