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Norman Bethune


Comrade Norman Bethune, 1973

Comrade Norman Bethune, 1973

Norman Bethune (1890-1939, Chinese name: Bai Qiu'en, 白求恩) was a Canadian thoracic surgeon. During the 1930s he became a convinced communist, and this led him to Spain, where he joined the anti-Fascist struggle. On the Spanish battle fields he became aware that 75% of serious battle casualties would survive if operated on immediately. In early 1938, he arrived in China, and proceeded to Yan'an, the revolutionary base area of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Zedong commissioned him to organize a mobile operating unit in the interior of North China. Although he was forced to work under extreme circumstances, sometimes operating for forty hours straight without sleep, and within minutes of the front lines, he saved the lives of many Chinese partymembers and soldiers. He died of septicemia, contracted when he cut himself while operating under great pressure from advancing Japanese forces.

Chairman Mao meets with Comrade Bethune, 1976

Chairman Mao meets with Comrade Bethune, 1976

Perfect one's skill for the revolution, 1973

Perfect one's skill for the revolution, 1973

Many apocryphal stories exist about Bethune. He was said to be a heavy drinker and to be a womanizer to boot. Despite this, he was - and still is - widely admired in China. In the opening days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), an early essay written by Mao Zedong entitled "In Memory of Norman Bethune" external link was incorporated in the so-called "Three Constantly Read Articles", together with "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains" external link and "Serve the People" external link. These essays were part of the narrow selection of reading materials considered ideologically correct: they became elementary reading in the schools, from universities down to the elementary levels.

Chairman Mao and Norman Bethune, early 1970s

Chairman Mao and Norman Bethune, early 1970s

In 1990, Donald Sutherland (as the good doctor) and Hellen Mirren (as his wife) starred in Bethune: The Making of A Hero. The movie, co-produced by China and Canada, was filmed on location.

Our Doctor Bethune, 1977

Our Doctor Bethune, 1977

In recent years, Bethune seemed to have slipped from the public view. After the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in China was belatedly acknowledged by the government in April 2003, Bethune's reputation suddenly was invoked again. Volunteers who go to Beijing to take part in the 'people's war' that is being waged against the disease are referred to in the media as Bethunes, and medical workers are praised for 'carrying forward the spirit of Bethune'.

Time is life, 1975

Time is life, 1975

Sources:

Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune (New York, etc.: The Monthly Review Press 1973)

Xu Yan, 80 wei gongchandang rende gushi [The stories of 80 Communist Party personages] (Beijing: Jiefangjun wenyi chubanshe, 2001) [in Chinese]

Geoffrey York, "China revives Bethune's spirit in SARS fight", The Globe & Mail, 13 May 2003 www.evalu8.org external link (13 May 2003)


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