CHINA / POLITICS
The Happiest and Most Meaningful Two Years in My Life — Stories of Chinese Communists in Norman Bethune's Last Letter
Published: May 17, 2021 12:18 PM
"Dear Commander Nie,

I feel really unwell today. Perhaps I have to bid farewell to you forever!

… I still have so much to say to our comrades. I'm afraid I'm not able to write any more. Thousands of heartfelt thanks to you and to all our dear comrades."

On 11 November 1939, Dr. Bethune wrote his last letter to Nie Rongzhen, commander of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei military area. In the early hours next morning, Norman Bethune, a great internationalist fighter, a member of the Communist Party of Canada, and a well-known thoracic surgeon, passed away at the age of 49.

Though it was only less than two years since he had come to China, Dr. Bethune wrote in his last letter that the two years were the happiest and most meaningful days in his life.

Dr. Bethune arrived in China with the support of the United China Relief, the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of the United States of America in January 1938. In late March, after travelling long distances by ship, plane, train, mule wagon and truck and escaping air bombs many times, he finally reached Yan'an, the sacred place for China's revolution. Comrade Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), met with him on the day after his arrival. It was the first time Dr. Bethune saw the person that the Western world called a legend. He was surprised by how plainly Mao Zedong was dressed: an ordinary black cotton-padded garment with patches on the sleeves and knees, and a pair of cotton-padded shoes of common Eighth Route Army soldiers. They had a long talk overnight about China and the world, about the frontline and the rear areas, and about military affairs and health. It was such a free talk that several hours slipped away quickly.

When Dr. Bethune left Mao Zedong's cave dwelling in the Fenghuang Mountain after their conversation, it was already deep into the night. He wrote in his diary that he sat face-to-face with Mao Zedong in the unfurnished room, listening to what he was saying and observing his poised manner. He thought about the Long March, imagining how Mao Zedong and Zhu De led the Red Army on the great 25,000-li (about 7,767 miles) journey from southern China to the loess region in the northwest mountains. Their strategic experience over those years helped shape the guerrilla tactics against the Japanese army, which put the invaders' advanced weapons at a disadvantage and thus saved China. He went on marveling that then and there he understood why Mao Zedong impressed the people he met with, and that Mao Zedong was a giant, one of the greatest people in the world.

During that meeting, Mao Zedong agreed to Dr. Bethune's request of going to the frontline to save more soldiers. In the following two months, Dr. Bethune travelled all the way through the Taihang Mountain, the Yellow River and the enemy's blockade to the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei military area.

Commander Nie Rongzhen warmly welcomed Dr. Bethune and invited him to serve as a medical adviser of this military area. During his stay there, he made acquaintance with many people and got many things done. Health Minister Ye Qingshan, Vice Health Minister You Shenghua, President of the rear area hospital Lin Jinliang and many others worked with Dr. Bethune and witnessed that episode in his life. Dr. Bethune was also deeply impressed and moved by every interaction with them. In a letter to his friends, Dr. Bethune said that he had found comrades with true humanity. The Chinese communists had suffered from cruelty, yet they treated others with kindness. They had experienced pain, yet they smiled a lot. They had gone through countless ordeals, yet never lost their resilience, optimism and wisdom.

In June 1938, President Lin Jinliang showed Dr. Bethune around the operating room in the rear area hospital. It was a classroom in a primary school. The surgical instruments there were nothing but several scissors, hemostats, scalpels, and amputation tools adapted from carpenter's saws. President Lin said those were all they got. Such primitive and tough conditions were far beyond what Dr. Bethune had expected. He picked up the instruments one by one and contemplated. He couldn't help grasping President Lin's hands and said emotionally, "It's really extraordinary for you to work under such rough conditions. The CPC does not have sophisticated weapons, but has the revolutionary fighters with fortitude forged in the Long March. With them, we have everything." At the inauguration ceremony of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Model Hospital which was built under his stewardship, he expressed appreciation to the Chinese communists for showing him the spirit of selfless devotion, cooperation and bravery, and for giving him such valuable takeaway.

Dr. Bethune addressing the inauguration ceremony of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Model Hospital

Dr. Bethune addressing the inauguration ceremony of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Model Hospital

Soon, Dr. Bethune put to use in the hospital his adept blood transfusion technology he learned on the battlefield in Spain. Back then, blood transfusion was unimaginable in a field hospital. One day, Minister Ye Qingshan rolled up his sleeves, becoming the first blood donor in the history of the Eighth Route Army's field surgery. In the next four months, Ye made another two blood donations. Dr. Bethune said with admiration that he'd been to many places in the world but never seen such a noble man. Later, the health authorities set up a field blood transfusion squad. That was a new approach to save the wounded. Dr. Bethune hailed this approach as a great pioneering move in the history of surgery.

Given the poor mobility of the rear area hospital, Dr. Bethune believed that surgery service must be brought close to the frontline so as to save the wounded in an effective and timely manner. Based on his proposal, a field surgery team was established in this military area. Together with Dr. Bethune, Vice Minister of Health You Shenghua led the team to different sub-areas of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei military area to save the wounded on the frontline. Within four months, they travelled 750 kilometers, performed over 300 operations, and set up 13 surgery rooms and dressing stations, treating and saving a large number of wounded soldiers. You Shenghua became more and more skilled as he worked as Dr. Bethune's assistant. Dr. Bethune described him as his favorite surgeon.

Dr. Bethune performing an operation

Dr. Bethune performing an operation


More than a year later, the foreigner Bethune already became the well-respected Dr. Bethune in the eyes of the soldiers and people in the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei border area. He looked different and might be quick-tempered, but he gave all his tender heart and patience to the wounded soldiers. Nobody had expected that this brave, selfless, brilliant and noble man would come to the end of his life that soon.

In July 1939, due to the Japanese blockade, there was a severe shortage of medicine and medical instruments in the border area. Dr. Bethune decided to go back to Canada to raise money, medicine and medical instruments, and to tell the world about China's fight against Japanese invasion and expose the atrocities of the Japanese fascists. In October, just before Dr. Bethune's planned departure, the Japanese aggressors launched another large-scale "mopping-up" campaign. Dr. Bethune decided to stay. He told Nie Rongzhen that he couldn't leave the army when the battle was still going on and he would make the trip when the battle was over.

Dr. Bethune led the medical team to the frontline in Motian Ridge, Luanyuan. They set up an operation room in a small temple in Sunjiazhuang Village close to the battlefield. One afternoon when he was doing an operation, Dr. Bethune's left middle finger was hurt and became partly inflamed and swollen. On 1 November, when he was treating a patient with neck erysipelas and cellulitis, his injured finger got infected with fatal bacteria, which spread quickly in his body and caused prolonged fever. Nevertheless, Dr. Bethune insisted on working on the frontline. Despite the excruciating pain, he completed 13 operations and wrote a lecture outline on malaria treatment. With repeated orders from Nie Rongzhen, Dr. Bethune finally agreed to return to the rear area hospital for treatment, but the infection had already developed into blood poisoning, turning his left arm black. It was incurable.

On the early morning of 12 November 1939, Dr. Bethune passed away in Huangshikou Village, Tang County, Hebei Province. The soldiers and people in the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei border area deeply grieved over his passing. On 17 November, the Party, political and military authorities and local people in the border area held a solemn funeral for him.

Memorial meeting for Dr. Bethune

Memorial meeting for Dr. Bethune

On 1 December, people from all walks of life in Yan'an held a memorial meeting for Dr. Bethune. Mao Zedong inscribed the elegiac words. On December 21, in the article entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune, Mao Zedong wrote: "Comrade Dr. Bethune and I met only once. Afterwards he wrote me many letters. But I was busy, and I wrote him only one letter and do not even know if he ever received it. I am deeply grieved over his death. Now we are all commemorating him, which shows how profoundly his spirit inspires everyone. We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man's ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people." 

Dr. Bethune meeting with Mao Zedong (oil painting)

Dr. Bethune meeting with Mao Zedong (oil painting)


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