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Han Suyin loved China but turned a blind eye to its excesses

Han Suyin's glowing accounts of communist China raised the hackles of those who suffered during its turmoil, but she saw no need to apologise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 5:36am

There are few women whose life and views on modern China have aroused as much controversy as Han Suyin, who died aged 95 in Switzerland on November 2.

A Eurasian doctor and writer, Han's prolific writings and lectures on China and Asia from the 1940s to the 90s fascinated more than a generation of Western audiences. In the days when few foreigners had access to Communist China, Chinese-born Han carved out a unique role for herself as a bridge between East and West.

Han, who openly lauded Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution, was castigated as an apologist, but her talent, beauty and glamorous life enthralled even her harshest critics.

She published more than 40 books, some of which portrayed her dramatic life that spanned China (including Hong Kong), Belgium, Britain, Nepal, India, Malaya and Singapore against the backdrop of civil wars, the second world war and the Korean war. Her 1952 autobiographical novel A Many-Splendoured Thing detailed her doomed romance with Ian Morrison, a married Australian correspondent for The Times who was one of the first journalists killed in the Korean war in 1950. The book was later made into an Oscar-winning Hollywood film.

Han married three times - her second husband, Dr Leon Comber, whom she married in 1952 but later divorced, described her as "an attractive and unusual person" in an e-mail last week but declined to comment further.

Han - whose real name was Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou - was born to a Belgian mother and Chinese engineer father in China, probably in 1916, although the exact year was unclear, said her granddaughter, Karen Shepard.

A bold and charismatic woman, her life was full of contradictions. A half European who yearned to be accepted as Chinese throughout her life, she declared her roots to be in China but spent most of her life abroad. Brought up in Beijing, she took on the role of a spokeswoman for China to the West but, unlike the compatriots she claimed to identify with, did not return to live through the political turmoil. A larger-than-life personality who enjoyed the limelight, she chose the pen name, Suyin, that meant "plain voice".

From 1956, she was invited regularly to China, where she was received by Premier Zhou Enlai a dozen times, and continued her visits throughout the years of the Cultural Revolution. She was received by Mao in 1966 among a delegation of Asian and African writers and was a guest of honour of Mao's wife Jiang Qing , Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan - three of the infamous members of the "Gang of Four" - at a revolutionary dance performance in 1971, according to Xinhua reports at the time.

Her visits were chronicled in People's Daily nearly 50 times between 1966 and 1977.

Her failure to condemn the Cultural Revolution, which she called a "creative historical undertaking", and her laudatory biographies of Mao and Zhou upset many ordinary Chinese - with some accusing her of presenting a distorted picture of China in the West, where she continued to live in comfort while her compatriots suffered.

Lin Baohua, the commentator also known as Ling Feng, said he was angered by Han's adulation of the regime at that time of upheaval, when red guards ransacked his family home.

"It was a complete mess in China… and people like her were praising Mao and misleading foreigners," he said this week.

Wang Youqin, an expert on the Cultural Revolution at the University of Chicago, said Han admonished Peking University students for their complaints about official bureaucracy and corruption during a visit.

"After the Cultural Revolution, she didn't seem to have any regrets, nor did she apologise, and she was lecturing Chinese youngsters not to blindly believe Western democracy and freedom," said Wang, who attended her talk as a student at the time.

In a public interview with veteran journalist John Gittings in London in 1990, Han said she still believed in the principles of the Cultural Revolution. She said the disasters were never intended and insisted that Mao launched the movement to strike down the privileged political elite and to lift up the peasants.

"[The officials] are becoming the new elites, so down with them, and he wanted to bring the people back. And of course, everything went wrong - so did the French revolution," she said in an interview recording now archived at the British Library.

She insisted she wouldn't recant her views.

"I never correct a word," she said. "Sometimes I find that after many years have gone by, what you said at that time - even though it might have been castigated and damned as wrong - became right again."

Some academics see her eagerness to praise the Communist regime out of a patriotic fervour to seek acceptance as Chinese - something that had been denied to her throughout her life due to her half-European heritage.

In her book Phoenix Harvest, Han says her "inescapable passion and obsession with China" came from her Chinese father and her upbringing in China. In Birdless Summer, she said she wanted to "prove my usefulness and especially prove myself a Chinese, ready to die for China".

Jean-Philippe Béja, a senior researcher at the Hong Kong-based French Centre on Contemporary China, said Han's stance "was a kind of misplaced patriotism… she decided that to speak for China, you have to defend the regime".

Béja, who became fascinated with Asia as a teenager thanks to Han's books, said she sadly had "a completely uncritical and unprincipled view of the Communist Party" and became "a spokesperson of the regime".

"She was People's Daily with a human face," he said.

Michel Bonnin, a China expert at the Paris-based School for Advanced Social Studies, said Han had "a disgraceful and unprincipled attitude to political matters", citing her contradictory public statements on Jiang Qing, one of the key figures of the Cultural Revolution, before and after the arrest of the Gang of Four.

"She was someone irresponsible, who liked to be courted by important people and said things that gave a good image of her, but was not true to the faith which she professed," he said.

Others see her as one of many intellectuals seduced by the promises of Communist idealism, who looked at China through rose-tinted glasses and eagerly ignored its faults.

"Her real motivator was certainly not Communism, or Mao or anyone. Her real motivator was China," said Daniel Sanderson, who is researching Han for a PhD at the Australian National University. "In the end, she was an apologist …. [but] she sincerely wanted what she was saying to be true."

Gittings, an acquaintance of Han for many years, said many China watchers were likewise prone to a degree of confusion in the early days of Communist rule.

"I would say that all of us trying to understand China in those years were fallible, and it was very hard to avoid the extremes, either of total condemnation or approval," he said.

Han, however, told Gittings that although she had been a public defender of the Cultural Revolution, she acknowledged that Mao did not practice what he preached and insisted that she had tried to help her friends during the turmoil.

She was more critical of China in the reform and opening-up era, saying economic liberalisation brought back some ills of pre-Communist days such as the regression of women's rights. She condemned the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, but also said the students were too provocative.

"The killing and wounding of innocent people…. cannot be condoned. I was against it and I think I was a mistake. History forgives many things, but mistakes are very difficult to forgive," she said in the 1990 interview.

Han had jokingly described herself to Gittings as a "very enterprising female" who liked "a great battle". He said her eventful life and colourful background made her "a complex person".

"In the end, she regarded herself as Chinese before all else, and she felt that she shared in the long experience of Chinese history," Gittings said.

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