By Ramona McKean Part II
If ever a Western foreigner could provide a “bridge” of appreciation and understanding between China and Canada, it is Dr. Norman Bethune. Though he’s been gone for 75 years now, the mention of his name in China can still cause many to stop what they’re doing and acknowledge him with respect. To this day, due to the eulogy Mao Zedong wrote about the “selfless” Canadian doctor, hundreds of millions of Chinese can tell you who Norman Bethune was and how he helped their country. Mao’s tribute was mandatory reading in all schools for decades and maybe still is. Some Chinese I’ve met in Canada can still recite it by heart. Bethune was not popular in the West, nor was he particularly acknowledged for his contributions to medicine. Few Canadians have heard his name.
When I consider the gratitude the Chinese feel towards Dr. Bethune, I ask: Was it Bethune’s fate to offer his medical services to a war-torn China, die there prematurely and be immortalized a humanitarian hero? Or was it his destiny? Please see Part I of this blog post, wherein I define the terms fate and destiny and distinguish their differences. Here, in Part II, I continue my exploration of the question: Was it a matter of fate or of destiny that Norman Bethune became a hero in China?
Henry Norman Bethune, 1890 – 1939
Norman Bethune, a controversial Canadian physician who turned to communism toward the end of his life, felt compelled to follow a path he vaguely understood, a path marked by passion, tenacity, defiance and danger. Though the path was marked also by courage, great deeds and high ideals, Bethune instinctively knew it would lead to his doom. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: You must remember my father was an evangelist and I come of a race of men, violent, unstable, of passionate convictions and wrong-headedness, intolerant yet with it all a vision of truth and a drive to carry them on to it even though it leads, as it has done in my family, to their own destruction — as it did my father. (to Marion Dale Scott, Oct. 8, 1935).
Two Powerful Forces: Ego and Spirit
Two powerful forces, both operative in Bethune, led to his self-destruction and his greatness. One force was ego, and the other was Spirit. Ego I connect with fate, and Spirit I connect with destiny. Bethune’s awareness of ego and Spirit was minimal. Before his death, he started to understand.
1. Ego force: Bethune’s ego was dominated by unresolved emotional wounds, which drove him to self-sabotage. His unhealed wounds manifested in compulsive behaviour, impatience and volatility. (To clarify: in using the term “ego,” I’m referring to the unhealthy aspects of ego.) Many who knew him would say he was not a “nice man.” He didn’t understand the uncontrollable urges that drove him but did know they were inter-generational, inherited through his father’s line. And, like father, like son, rejection was the all-too-predictable outcome.
Consequences of Bethune’s behaviour had an inevitable quality like fate. Self-sabotage followed by rejection was his fate—an unconscious “human-made fate.” (Please see Part I.)
Proudly identifying himself a “man of action,” he rarely took time to self-reflect and learn from his mistakes. In this regard, he was irresponsible. His ego and fate were so enmeshed that he was like a bewildered bird caught in a cage of its own construction. Bethune’s shadow side was apparent and often dominant, it is true; however, his light was apparent too. In fact, his light was so triumphant, it still lives, three quarters of a century after his death.
2. Spirit Force: Spirit’s force uplifts humans to let their lights shine and be used for “holy” work. Bethune’s light was a tender compassion for those in need of care; it was also an earnest desire to empower disadvantaged people to believe in themselves. Spirit inspired Bethune’s Higher Self, his true self, the part of him akin to an angel. When Bethune was a little boy, Spirit spoke to his heart: “You are meant for great things. Will you be mine?” He answered “yes.” He longed to help humankind in the biggest way possible when he grew up. His devout Presbyterian parents had undoubtedly instilled in him a sense of duty in this regard as well. Spirit is the force that works with humans called to create (co-create) a destiny.
While ego pushed and shoved, Spirit magnetically drew Bethune forward so God/Universe could use him to the max, weaknesses included. He welcomed Spirit as it helped him identify his unique purpose as preserver of life in the midst of widespread killing. Spirit used the bottled up power of Bethune’s ego and saw him successfully landed in areas of extreme risk—the trenches of WWI as a stretcher-bearer, the battlefront of the Spanish Civil War as head of a mobile blood transfusion unit, and the front lines of China’s War of Resistance against the Japanese as a battlefront surgeon.
In a letter to his ex-wife before leaving for China, Bethune expressed his commitment to following the path his light illumined. My path is set on a strange road, but as long as I feel it is a good road I will go down it. (to Frances Penney Bethune, Sept. 14, 1937). By surrendering to his impulse to take on bigger and riskier medical challenges, Bethune grew in awareness that his destiny would be realized in China.
Fascist Japanese forces aimed to take over China. Following is a sampling of information from which you may get a flavor of:
- the misery and horror faced by the Chinese
- the battle Bethune waged within himself and upon others
- the squalid conditions in which he operated, taught and wrote
- the transforming effect of the Chinese on Bethune
- his own personal voice as revealed in passages from his writing
1. On January 8, 1938, Bethune set sail from Vancouver on a medical mission. Jean Ewen, a Canadian nurse familiar with China and fluent in Mandarin, stayed with him a short time.
Heading from Hong Kong to Yan’an, they endured a nightmare journey of heavily bombed rail lines, junk travel, mule caravans, truck travel and trekking by foot, sometimes through the night. (A journey of normally a few days took them two months.)
En route they treated war casualties. The journey was an extra horrible experience for Jean Ewen. As a target for Bethune’s misdirected rage, she despised the man and could hardly wait to part company. Still she acknowledged his commitment to wounded civilians and soldiers: She referred to Bethune as treating the injured with a great tenderness, almost like a nun. And: No man ever removed so much lead from peoples’ bones, flesh and guts as he did, or set more broken bones or amputated so many extremities. Ego and Spirit co-existed fitfully. Which would ultimately prevail?
2. After a stay in Yan’an where he met Mao, Bethune headed north and was joined for a short period by a Canadian medical missionary named Dr. Richard Brown. (Jean Ewen went elsewhere.) About this time, Bethune was also named Chief Medical Adviser for the 8th Route Army.
3. Conditions in remote villages were appalling, revealing the critical need of medical care as close to the front as possible. One so-called “hospital” Bethune wrote about had no trained staff. Patients lay lice-ridden and virtually unattended in peasant huts. Of the most serious cases, he wrote: All have old neglected wounds of the thigh and leg—most of them incurable except by amputation. Three…are lying naked …with only a single cotton quilt….all anemic, underfed and dehydrated…They are dying of sepsis. These are the cases we are asked to operate on. Such conditions made Bethune that much more impatient to get to the front.
4. Later, in one obviously much better medical setting, Bethune wrote: Things are going well. A combination of shouts, tears, smiles has worked wonders here. Things are organized–daily lectures to the doctors and nurses, ‘clean up’ squads, fly control, metal identification discs for all patients, patients files… Through his efforts (and a more constructive use of his temper?), Bethune was helping to bring China’s medical care into the 20th Century.
5. The Chinese peasants, unfamiliar with blood transfusions, were reluctant to donate. Dr. Brown, before having to leave, participated in a demonstration. Bethune lay beside the operating table with Brown conducting a direct transfusion from Bethune to the patient. This was not the only time he gave his own blood. Such generosity, and from a foreigner, deeply touched those who witnessed it.
6. When Brown was recalled to other duties, Bethune remained the lone Westerner in a vast frontier area. The magnitude of his situation initially exhilarated him. He wrote: This is the centre of the Partisans…We are completely surrounded by the Japs, north, east, west and south. They hold all the towns on the railways but we still retain the enclosed country. In this great area of 13,000,000 people and with 150,000 armed troops I am the only qualified doctor!…I am cleaning up the base hospital of 350 wounded and
As enthused as he may have felt, he also knew he desperately needed more trained medical personnel and additional supplies. He later wrote, I am alone and need help. The China Aid Counsel and other organizations outside of China had pledged aid. Bethune received no response to his many letters of appeal, a grievous source of frustration. But then, with his unit’s being surrounded by the enemy, who knows what correspondence or supplies could actually get through? Bethune found support from a Christian missionary, Kathleen Hall, from New Zealand. She helped smuggle supplies to him until the risk became too great. (Bethune would eventually have to perform surgeries with no anaesthetics.)
7. Despite the exhaustion and overall intense hardship, Bethune wrote: I don’t mind the conventional hardships–heat, bitter cold, dirt, lice, unvaried familiar food…I can get along well and operate as well in a dirty Buddhist temple, with a 20-foot statue of the impassive faced god staring over my shoulder as in a modern operating room with running water, nice green glazed walls, electric lamps and a thousand other accessories.
Did Bethune provide evidence that “A man can bear any ‘how’ if he has a big enough ‘why’ “ (Friedrich Nietszche)? About travel : Last month alone, we travelled 1198 li (400 miles) in the mountains of west Hopei [now Hubei] and onto the plains of Mid-Hopei….The mountains are very fine but the travelling is arduous…along the beds of the swift mountain rivers, then up and over a mountain pass of several thousand feet into another valley and so on. We walk most of the way, although we have horses. Walking is faster. It is very hard on our feet as we wear nothing but cotton slippers. They only last a few days…We average 75 li (25 miles) a day.
8. Bethune abhorred incompetency. Especially during his first several months in China, he treated his patients with tenderness and his “incompetent” Chinese assistants with hot temper. Which was he, one could ask, compassionate or rageful? A hero or a villain? It seems he flipped back and forth depending not only on who he was dealing with, but also on how much alcohol he’d consumed and how little sleep he’d had. How close the shrapnel was flying didn’t seem to bother him so much, though it must have had its effect.
Always the practical idealist, Bethune wanted to address the “incompetence” issue. He knew it to be based on ignorance–a lack of education and role modelling. With this in mind, he set about to empower the Chinese to be medically self-sufficient. This meant teaching them. The work I am trying to do is to take peasant boys and young workers and…make doctors and nurses out of them. He offered hands-on training and wrote and illustrated medical texts. (His one interpreter did the translation.) Bethune designed and then worked with villagers and soldiers on the construction of a training hospital. The Japanese’ destroying the hospital two weeks after its completion did not deter Bethune in his intention.
He continued to teach, go on hospital inspection tours, write and operate, sometimes around the clock. In a report on July 1, 1939, he wrote: The month of April was our busiest month at the battle of Chi Huei…Our casualties were 280. Our unit was situated 7 li from the firing line and operated on 115 cases in 69 hours’ continuous work. In the same report he noted a different occasion wherein he operated at night in a dirty Buddhist temple by the light of candles and flashlights. The stress of his workload could either make or break a man. In Bethune’s case, it did both.
For some rare footage of Dr. Bethune that gives a real sense of the traumatic conditions under which he laboured in China, this little video is excellent. (For those of you who do not know, Adrienne Clarkson was the 26th Governor General of Canada, the first Asian Canadian and only the second woman to hold this highly prestigious position.)
Adrienne Clarkson on Norman Bethune, clip from Extraordinary Canadians
How China Changed Bethune
I believe China changed Norman Bethune. In January 1938, he arrived a fiercely independent, self-absorbed and angry physician. He felt driven to do as much good as possible as fast as possible. His contentious nature dictated that he was to resist others and perceived limits were to be defied. Bethune remained driven to do good, but his manner softened when he realized others were not against him. Conversely, they were open to his leadership and truly valued what he had to offer.
On his birthday, March 4, 1939, he wrote: They are very eager to learn and to improve themselves and are constantly asking for criticisms of their work. So that although I am often irritable at their ineptitude and ignorance, their lack of order, their carelessness, yet their simplicity and eagerness to learn combined with their true spirit of comradeship and unselfishness, disarms me in the end.
In one letter home he wrote, All is well. I did 8 operations today and two blood transfusions. I am tired but enormously content. In another he wrote, It is true I am tired but I don’t think I have been so happy for a long time. I am content. I am doing what I want to do…I am needed.
Towards the end of his life in November 1939, the fateful (as in inevitable) circumstances of war had worn down Bethune’s ego. Relentless stress, physical privation, having no one to talk to (he spoke no Chinese), homesickness and little contact from the outside world all played their part.
The Chinese people, however, and without even trying, did the most to crack Bethune’s defenses and soften his heart. They did this by enduring his temper without complaint and respecting him without reservation. Bethune, 白求恩 Báiqiú’ēn, had become their teacher, their mentor, their friend. They taught him to accept himself. In response to their love, he found himself loving them in return. How could he not? Love was the saving grace. Spirit’s greatest force of all, love, helped transform Norman Bethune in China.
How Dr. Norman Bethune found time to write as copiously as he did astonishes me: lengthy reports, essays, short stories, letters, articles. All were infused with his unique vitality, and all were descriptive and engaging. Perhaps writing for the outside world helped him feel a much-needed connection with home.
I cannot near completion of this blog post without sharing what I consider Bethune’s most powerful piece. “Wounds” stands out for its stark eloquence and compassion. In it Bethune expresses his outrage against the insidious motivation behind war – money, what he calls ”blood money.” Below the photo are some passages from the first half, which reveal the heart of this humanitarian physician.
The kerosene lamp overhead makes a steady buzzing sound like an incandescent hive of bees. Mud walls. Mud floor. Mud bed. White paper windows. Smell of blood and chloroform. Cold. Three o’clock in the morning, Dec. 1, North China…with the 8th Route Army.
Men with wounds.
Wounds like little dried pools, caked with brown earth; wounds with torn edges frilled with black gangrene; neat wounds, concealing beneath the abscess in their depths, burrowing into and around the great firm muscles like a dammed-back river, running around and between the muscles like a hot stream…
Old filthy bandages stuck to the skin with blood glue. Careful. Better moisten first. Through the thigh. Pick the leg up. Why it’s like a bag, a long loose, red stocking…Where’s that fine strong rod of bone now? In a dozen pieces. Pick them out with your fingers; white as dog’s teeth, sharp and jagged…
Next. What an infant! Seventeen. Shot through the belly…
And this one. Will he run along the road beside his mule at another harvest, with cries of pleasure and happiness? No, that one will never run again. How can you run with one leg? What will he do?…Don’t pity him! Pity would diminish his sacrifice. He did this for the defence of China. Help him. Lift him off the table. Carry him in your arms. Why, he’s as light as a child! Yes, your child, my child…
Any more? Four Japanese prisoners. Bring them in. In this community of pain, there are no enemies…Lay them beside the others. Why, they’re alike as brothers! Are these soldiers professional man-killers? No, these are amateurs-in-arms…
What is the cause of this cruelty, this stupidity?…Who is responsible…?
Death and Legacy
Bethune gave of himself completely in China. He suffered the harsh consequences of war, and lost his life while trying to save others’. During an operation, his scalpel slipped and accidentally cut his finger. In a
subsequent operation, pus from a weeping wound entered the cut. Without protective gloves (he had none) and with marathon hours of performing surgery, this type of occurrence was almost inevitable. He’d healed from cuts before but with a compromised immune system, his body could not fight the infection. He refused amputation of his finger and then his arm, which might have saved his life. He died at 5:20 a.m., Sunday, November 12, 1939, with Chinese friends around him. The cause of death was septicaemia, blood poisoning. If he could, I’m sure he’d have wanted to hear people say, Don’t pity him! Pity would diminish his sacrifice.
After Bethune’s death, friends found his almost indecipherable last message, which included the lines: The last two years have been the most significant, the most meaningful years of my life. Sometimes it has been lonely but I have found my highest fulfillment here among my beloved comrades.
China had changed Bethune, and he changed China. By believing in the Chinese people, he helped them to believe in themselves, perhaps the greatest gift he gave. He will never be forgotten. From Mao’s In Memory of Norman Bethune, December 21, 1939:
“Norman Bethune… made light of travelling thousands of miles to help us in our War of Resistance Against Japan. He arrived in … the spring of last year, went to work in the Wutai Mountains, and to our great sorrow died a martyr at his post. What kind of spirit is this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own?…
Comrade 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.”
Today there are dozens of medical facilities throughout China that bear his name. Dr. Bethune is #1 on the list of the “Top Ten International Friends of China, for the progress of a new China,” and the most prestigious medical award in the country is named for him. The Norman Bethune Medal, established in 1991, is “the highest medical honor in China, recognizing an individual’s outstanding contribution, heroic spirit and great humanitarianism in the medical field.”
In Canada a group of humanitarian doctors and other health care workers, who wish to keep Bethune’s legacy alive, have formed the Bethune Baiqiuen Canadian Alliance. In October I will be joining this group to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Bethune’s death. We start with a conference at the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, where I will be one of the speakers. (This hospital is famous for stem cell medicine.) We will then embark on a 2 week tour “Retracing the Footsteps of Bethune.”
Dr. Norman Henry Bethune spent much of his life in the grip of ego. Spirit would lead and his ego would manage to screw things up. In China, Bethune aligned with Spirit and found a purpose satisfying to his soul, one which utilized his unique talents to the max. He needed to be needed and he was. People in dire circumstance were eager to receive his gifts, and Bethune received from them the very gifts he needed: appreciation, respect and love. His clamouring ego was able to relax, allowing him an experience of happiness and peace.
Dr. Norman Bethune was, and still is, China’s Canadian hero. It is my hope that Canadians will learn about this man, forgive his faults and accept him for the humanitarian that he was, a man who embraced his fate and lived his Destiny.
I wish to sincerely express my thanks to four of Bethune’s biographers, Roderick and Sharon Stewart, Larry Hannant and Adrienne Clarkson. They will undoubtedly see their influence in my writing on Bethune. For those wishing to learn more about Dr. Bethune, I recommend their books, the Stewarts’ Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune, Hannant’s The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art and Clarkson’s Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune.
Thank you for reading this, my deeply processed personal views on Norman Bethune. In the comments section below, if you will, please let me know what you will take away from reading this blog. Had you heard of Bethune before? What surprised/shocked/interested you? What are your views on fate and destiny? Do you agree with me that fate and the kindness of the Chinese helped Bethune to realize his Destiny? What’s the value of knowing who this man was? Plus anything else! In advance, thank you.