Han Suyin, Chinese-born author of ‘A Many-Splendoured Thing,’ dies at 95
By Alison Lake,
Han Suyin, a prolific Eurasian author who generated controversy with her hagiographic view of China’s Cultural Revolution and who may be most remembered for her best-selling semi-autobiographical novel that inspired the Hollywood melodrama “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” died Nov. 2 at her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Yung Mei Tang.
The China-born Han worked many years as a physician, but her writing provided her most enduring, complicated and provocative legacy. She published almost two dozen novels, nonfiction books and memoirs — and countless essays for mainstream newspapers and magazines — that were often set against the backdrop of historical and generational upheaval in Asia.
Her career as a writer spanned World War II, China’s revolution, the Korean War, the rise of communism and the decline of colonialism in East Asia, and included panegyric biographies of Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai.
In her writing and frequent lecturing, most of which took place during the Cold War, Dr. Han cultivated an image of someone capable of unraveling and demystifying for Western audiences the political and social developments of the East.
At Beijing’s Yenching University in the mid-1930s, she studied alongside many who formed the first and second generations of China’s Communist Party leaders.
“Every year the school used to put on the ‘Messiah,’ and it’s very funny when I look at some of the people I know in China today, important Communist Party members, and to remember them sitting there in the choir with me singing the ‘Messiah’ is quite wonderful,” she told The Washington Post in 1982.
Many of her books drew heavily from her own dramatic biography. Several of her works, including “My House Has Two Doors” (1980), explored her upbringing and the pressures and conflicts of her half-Chinese and half-Belgian heritage. Her first book, “Destination Chungking” (1942), set against the Sino-Japanese war, was about her first marriage, to a general in the Chinese nationalist army who was killed in combat.
She became an international literary sensation with “A Many-Splendoured Thing,” published in 1952 when she was a widow raising a daughter and working at a Hong Kong clinic.
The book was based on her romance with Ian Morrison, a married war correspondent who in 1950 became one of the first journalists killed in the Korean War. The tale of forbidden love, likened by reviewers to “Romeo and Juliet,” was also politically topical, mixing revolution and romance with news making headlines in Hong Kong, China and Korea.
The 1955 film version, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” featured two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, William Holden and Jennifer Jones. It also spawned an Oscar-winning, if maudlin, theme song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. A daytime TV soap opera, based on the film, ran on CBS in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Han Suyin encompasses three generations of audiences in China,” Hailin Zhou, a professor at Villanova University’s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies, wrote in an e-mail. “She was a writer at the crossroads of cultures, past and present; individual and nation; and different ideologies.”
Today, Zhou wrote, “her novels are often listed as emblems of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and post-colonialism.”
Dr. Han’s professional life as a doctor took her to Malaya during the Emergency, the name given to the conflict throughout the 1950s between military forces in the British protectorate and a communist guerrilla insurgency. A committed anti-imperialist whose books conveyed a far-left partisanship, she was nonetheless married at the time to a police officer in the British special forces.
As a prominent writer who traveled to China while it was largely walled off from the world during the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Han was widely seen as having failed to describe the horrors of Mao’s disastrous economic and political schemes.
In the 1970s, Dr. Han called the Cultural Revolution, in which millions perished or were purged, a “creative historical undertaking,” a phrase for which she was pilloried as the extent of the suffering became more widely known.
She was slow to acknowledge publicly the atrocities committed in the name of revolution and stopped short of criticizing Mao. She devoted two laudatory volumes to his life and place in China’s history, “The Morning Deluge” (1972) and “Wind in the Tower” (1976).
“I'm not going to change one sentence, one word,” she told the New York Times in 1988 when asked whether she wished to change language in the books. “Who knows that in 50 years time much of what I said will not be proved right? I don’t understand why people have to justify themselves. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m not saying I’m wrong either. I just stand behind my work.”
Dr. Han was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou on Sept. 12, 1917, in Sinyang, a city in China’s eastern Henan province. She later changed her middle name to Elizabeth, the name she preferred.
Her parents met in Brussels, where her Chinese father studied engineering. Her mother, a Belgian, returned with him to China, where he built railways.
Starting in the late 1930s, Dr. Han studied medicine in Belgium and in London, when she married Tang Pao-huang, a military attache to Chiang Kai-Shek. They adopted a daughter, Yung Mei.
In 1947, Tang was killed in Manchuria while fighting communists. Dr. Han completed her medical studies at the University of London, migrated to Hong Kong with her daughter in 1949, and completed her residency in obstetrics.
In 1952, Dr. Han married Leon Comber, a British police officer. The couple moved to Malaya, where she worked in a hospital and opened a tuberculosis clinic. Her years in Malaya were covered in her book “And the Rain My Drink” (1956), which a Time magazine reviewer drubbed for its stock portraits of whites and a tendency to gloss over the unsavory traits of the communists.
“Despite this tendency to load her political dice,” the review said, “Han Suyin can convey the heat, the squalor, and flux of Asiatic life with expert touches.”
The marriage to Comber ended in divorce, and in the late 1950s, Dr. Han married Vincent Ratnaswamy, an Indian military engineer. They lived together in Bangalore, Hong Kong and Lausanne before his death in 2003.
Besides Yung Mei Tang of New York, survivors include a sister, a granddaughter and three great-grandchildren.
Dr. Han quit medicine in 1963, preferring to lecture, travel and write full time. If some reviewers and interviewers found Dr. Han and her books confounding and perhaps troubling, she seemed perfectly happy to live with that exasperation.
“I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emotions of my people,” she said in the early 1950s. “What I say will annoy many people who prefer the more conventional myths brought back by writers on the Orient. All I can say is that I try to tell the truth. Truth, like surgery, may hurt, but it cures.”