A Canadian surgeon's red legacy in China

Source: Xinhua| 2019-12-20 21:53:37|Editor: huaxia
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by Xinhua writers Wang Jiaquan, Xu Zeyu

BEIJING, Dec. 20 (Xinhua) -- When Norman Bethune died 80 years ago in north China's Taihang Mountain, the Canadian surgeon left his footprints there -- an intangible legacy in the eyes of Liu Fenzhi.

The trails witnessed Bethune's hard work as he trekked on the rugged paths from February to June, 1939 visiting wounded Chinese soldiers transferred to villages hidden in the mountains. He was sent to China by the Communist Parties of Canada and the United States to help Chinese with their battle against Japanese aggression, part of the international efforts fighting fascism during World War II.

Liu, a manager of a scenic area in the Taihang, is enthusiastic in selling the red legacy left by Bethune to her tourists though Baiyintuo boasts rich natural tourism resources, including 2-billion-year-old glacier remnants and a large cluster of potholes, or deep rock cavities which formed more than one million years ago.

After Liu arrived at Baiyintuo in Shunping County, Hebei Province to develop local tourism in 2006, she found Dr. Bethune an indelible part of local people's oral history-- at that time, in each village in the scenic area Liu could find a few old people who could tell a story about how Bethune treated local villagers' illnesses on his tour to cure wounded soldiers.

"It's a pity if the stories are neglected by the younger generations," says Liu. She hopes her tourists, while enjoying the beautiful natural scenery, can spare some time to pay tribute to Norman Bethune.

Bethune spent roughly 18 months in the Taihang Mountain before his death on November 12, 1939 as a result of infection of a cut finger during an operation on the front.

Liu's company has established in the scenic area a sculpture featuring Bethune on a horse on his way visiting wounded soldiers, rebuilt the village where Bethune lived after his fatal infection, and erected a monument for the ambushed students of the military medical school Bethune helped set up.

Norman Bethune is so far the most well-known Canadian name in China thanks to Chairman Mao Zedong's memorial essay written on December 21, 1939, 40 days after the surgeon's death.

In the essay, a high-school-required-reading, Mao paid tribute to Bethune's spirit -- "utter devotion to others without any thought of self," which was "shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people."

Mao urged all Chinese communists to learn from him in the essay titled "In Memory of Norman Bethune". In China, the name of Norman Bethune has ever since been a synonym of the spirit of devotion to work, especially for medical workers.


Bethune's most famous image in China is a working photo taken during a surgery in a desolate temple in October 1939 when Japanese troops assaulted the Eighth Route Army at Motianling in the Taihang Mountain. It was during that surgery that Bethune's finger was cut and consequently infected.

Lin Li, whose father was a colleague of Bethune, still remembers the photo that hung in his father's living room. Lin's father Lin Jinliang was one of the assistants during that operation.

"It's a most cherished photo of my father... He and his colleagues were proud to have worked with Bethune and learned surgical skill from him," says Lin Li. Before coming to China, Norman Bethune was already a prominent name in the international medical community for his inventions of surgical instruments and surgical techniques.

Lin Li, 75, and his siblings were always taught by their father to "make perfection even more perfect" in their work, like Bethune who could finish an operation in calm amid gunfire.

The retired mathematics teacher says he admires the Canadian doctor's medical professionalism most. "While we're moved by his devotion, we should be well aware that his devotion was based on his excellent surgical skill."

A great contribution of Bethune was that he brought the blood transfusion technology to the communist army's battlefield, which helped save countless wounded soldiers, according to Lin Li. Norman Bethune set up the world's first mobile blood transfusion service in Spain where he was a surgeon during the country's civil war in 1937.

Lin Li says his father was the first one to learn blood transfusion from Bethune and the donor was exactly Bethune himself. But unlike in Europe where electricity, automobiles and refrigerators were already widely used in the 1930s, Bethune could find nothing of these in China's deep mountains.

It was the communist army's strategy of relying on the masses that helped Bethune turn his techniques into a miracle in China. They set up a mobile blood bank by noting the blood types of all volunteers who served in the rescue team of the Eighth Route, and whenever a wounded soldier needed a transfusion, the operation could be done once a matching blood type was found.

"My father told me that the blood type was written on the clothes of each member of the stretcher team, and leaders at various levels were also on the donors' list when needed," says Lin Li.

This mobile blood bank greatly reduced mortality of wounded soldiers, combined with his approach of early medical treatment, another contribution of Bethune, according to Lin.

When Bethune arrived in China in 1938, an objective of his was to set up a battlefield hospital for the Communist army but his Model Hospital was razed to the ground by Japanese bombs only one month after it went operational.

Soon after, Bethune changed his mind -- to turn a settled hospital into a mobile service where wounded soldiers could receive timely and the most necessary treatment based on their different condition and were then transferred to units behind enemy lines for further treatment.


Like Lin Li, You Liqing also grew up hearing the stories about the legendary surgeon from her parents -- a doctor and a nurse at the time assisting Bethune.

You says Bethune was "no extraordinary person but a very ordinary one who was sometimes bad-tempered at work as an extraordinarily strict doctor."

"He won over everyone who knew him with his surgical skills, scrupulousness and sense of responsibility."

You, a retired doctor, says that her father You Shenghua, then a senior medical official of the communist army, was deeply influenced by Bethune and then passed on his spirit to her.

You agrees with Lin Li that Chinese people today should learn more about Bethune's professionalism in addition to his spirit of devotion, but she would absolutely say no to any unfounded free interpretation about the Canadian communist in the name of portraying him as an ordinary man.

You began to do research on Bethune in 2006, when she found a Chinese TV soap opera about Bethune full of plots that disaccorded with history. The most unbearable thing for her was that Norman Bethune was framed as God's envoy to save the Chinese.

"(In the soap opera) all the words related to communism in Bethune's last will were deleted. It avoided portraying the man as an internationalist and communist fighter," You says. "It is a total disrespect to Norman Bethune and to history, and it misleads the younger generations." She published an article pointing out the problems with the soap opera, which she says has never been aired again.

In addition to the real accounts about Bethune, also passed on to You Liqing from her parents were a set of surgical instruments, a legacy of the Canadian. Some of the instruments have been donated to museums.

For Liu Fenzhi, the Bethune enthusiast believes the doctor left behind some incredible trails in the Taihang Mountain. She has been advocating to build the route that the Canadian man walked on eighty years ago into a road and name it after him.

If built, the road will connect the mountain-locked villages to a nearby expressway, which will largely shorten the distance from Baiyintuo to Baoding, the nearest city, and Beijing.

"I believe that's also what Dr. Bethune would like to see as it means better living conditions for the Chinese villagers. It's why he came to China eight decades ago," Liu says.