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.”