All of her life, Han Suyin has been poised between two worlds, East and West, revolution and romance, the shattering upheavals of human societies and the passionate struggles of human hearts. There is something unsettled about her, as if she were the needle on a compass, swinging tensely between the two poles of her fascination.
Her celebrity began with the publication of "A Many-Splendoured Thing," the semi-autobiographical tale of her love affair with an English journalist that became a Hollywood Technicolor romance; the notoriety increased with her writings on China during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution--it was not only what she wrote, but what she didn't, that fueled the controversy.
"You can't explain a certain feeling for a country, for a landscape, for the fierceness that inhabits you through the love of the land," she says, in her rapid, high-pitched upper-class English. "That's what makes people die and sacrifice themselves for a cause and a country." There is a pause. "On the other hand," says Han, "I also have a certain prudence and a certain objectivity."
Han is half Chinese, half Belgian. Her features appear to shift and change as she speaks, reflecting the different parts of her persona with the tilt of her head, a smile, a sideways glance. Even her voice reflects the contrapuntal cultures, the British pronunciations colored suddenly by the Chinese inflections. She wears a beige skirt and a rust-colored silk blouse with a mandarin collar, and her manner is confident, almost imperious.
She has led an extraordinary life that has crossed continents and cultures, clashed with history, watched old orders die and been amazed by life in all its brutal vulgar poetry: a Eurasian doctor, a writer of romantic novels, a chronicler of revolution, a wanderer among cultures. Now, she has written a new book, "Till Morning Comes," an epic love story set in revolutionary China.
"I've been successful," she says, "even though I've done all these silly things and everybody told me how silly I was, and I always went against the tide and I always took up the wrong causes, et cetera, and I've always been successful! But it wasn't me, it was just the situation. What would you do if you went back to China and you said to Chou En-Lai, 'I'm going to see what this revolution is like,' and he talked to you and he talked to you and every time you came, he saw you and you were favored with a great brain opening up to you, and really trusting and saying things to you? And how would you respond if, in every country of the world, you have met people who are really dedicated and devoted and who didn't sink? I think then that you feel that you really must go on. Don't you?"
She is like one of the birds that live near the ocean, running lightly on the wet sand to the water's edge, hunting with quick, nervous motions for food, only to run just as quickly away when the wave swells, threatens and finally storms the beach. Han has lived much of her life on the edge of the revolution that transformed China, fascinated, transfixed, and eloquent with sympathy for it, yet living on the outside, apart.
She was born in 1917. Her father, an upper-class Chinese engineer, studied in Belgium where he met and married her mother and brought her back to his village. "When my mother and father went back to China, my mother could travel first class, but my father was not allowed first class because he was yellow. In his own country. They were bitter years for my parents, much more than for me. Mother remained bitter for the rest of her life and can you blame her? I'm quite certain that in the beginning I had to overdo the Chinese side, because my mother felt that being Chinese was to go back to the dirt. You don't know the contradictions of a marriage like that. But I always felt that emotionally, I've been more Chinese. My Chinese writer friends--I have dozens of Chinese friends who are intellectuals, writers and painters; in fact, my house is full of paintings sent to me by my painter friends--they all laugh about it. They say, 'Your pulse is the same as ours.' "
The struggle to fashion a sense of herself, she says, was constant. "You see, having to fight so hard to be me, a Eurasian, all the rest is small beer. When I said to my English friends, 'I'm Eurasian,' they would say, 'Don't say that, it's a dirty word.' If you had to fight for being yourself, all the rest comes along. I had to create my identity because there wasn't one." The rest of her family chose different paths: When Chiang Kai-shek's government fell, her father stayed in China, her mother left with her sisters to come to America and leave behind the past. Her passionate sense of identification with China and its people is her gift to herself, the tether that keeps her grounded.
When she was young, Han decided to be a doctor and worked her way through two years of Yenching University before going to Belgium to study. Now many of the important figures in the Chinese Communist Party are her former classmates--"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."
In 1938 she left Brussels, where she had received her medical degree, and returned to China during the chaos of the Sino-Japanese War. There she met her husband, an official with Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang regime, and worked among the peasants as a midwife before going with her husband to England where he served as military attache'. When he returned to China to fight against the Communists, she refused to go with him; disillusioned by the corruption, she was convinced the Communists would win. Her husband died there at the hands of his men as they went over to the Communists.
She remained in Hong Kong after the Communist victory, suspect as a symbol of the old regime, the ruling class. "I realized having married a Kuomintang, being identified with the Chiang Kai-shek group, that in a revolution, in the first fine fanatic fervor, in the middle of all the purges going on, I would be a purgee. Certainly I couldn't say, 'But no, my heart is with you'; I'd never done anything for them. Some of my friends have told me now that I was right not to come back then, some of them even say to me now, 'Ha ha ha, if you'd stayed, you'd be dead.' We all laugh instead of crying."
It was in Hong Kong that Han had the love affair that resulted in 1952 in "A Many-Splendoured Thing," a book that wrapped romance around revolution and managed to scandalize many of those who read it with its glorification of an extramarital love affair and the wonders of the new Communist government. "I wasn't behaving as I should behave. The British were raving and frothing at the mouth," she says proudly. "There are still people frothing at the mouth when you mention Han Suyin to them, but they couldn't stop me."
She worked in Malaysia, practicing medicine in the villages while all around her raged a war fought between the guerrillas and the British. She married a member of the British police force there, a member of the special branch. She traveled throughout southeast Asia and hurled herself against the new government of China, trying to get the visa that would win her admittance.
In 1956, she made her first visit. And returned dozens of times after that, spending months at a time roaming through the countryside, writing about the changes there at a time when very few were permitted to visit the country and it remained shrouded in silence.
But she never decided to return to China for good, although at times she considered it. For instance, "When the Great Leap Forward failed. When China is in a mess, that is when I feel the pull the strongest. As if I could do something about it, what nonsense! But that's how it is. And then I offered to stay. And Premier Chou's secretary, who was my dear classmate, said, 'Look, what would you do?' And she gave me gently to understand that what China needed was also people abroad who could, from time to time, tell them what the West was really like and tell the West sometime what China was trying to do."
Revolutions have always been hard on romantics; not, of course, the idea of them, but the things that are done in their name. There are those now who say that Han told only part of that story, that she has been discredited by the things she chose not to tell, that she buried the excesses and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, betraying a responsibility that rested with her as one of the few who could bring any news at all to the outside world. She bridles. "I've never made any bones about it that I serve my country," she says. "Have I ever gone around trying to be anything else than what I am?"
It is not, she says, a subject she wants to talk about. And yet she continues: "What did they expect? It's not perfect, is it? It's always had its good and bad sides; a revolution is a bloody thing. It has done a lot of good, but it has also committed tremendous errors and made a mess. But they saved themselves, and there's absolutely nothing to be indignant about. The situation was always like that. It's like being indignant at an elephant for being an elephant and making an elephant mess.
"Well, there were atrocities and there was anarchy and that was true . . . But I was for the Cultural Revolution, as were millions and millions of others and I still feel that although it went wrong, it really did try to give the people freedom. But it made the young crazy to have all the freedom and then it went wrong, because freedom can very quickly go into anarchy and anarchy leads to tyranny and that is what happened to the Cultural Revolution."
There were so many intellectuals who died in that furious rage, writers, like herself, writers who unlike herself had stayed, like the great comic writer, Lao She, driven to suicide--"I do not deny in any way that a lot of people and especially intellectuals, got it in the neck, in a very bad manner," Han says. "And this is the point: When you start a movement like that and you can't control it, then you must be responsible for the bad things that happen. And very many bad things did happen."
She hovers over the subject, unable to come to rest, ambivalent. "That's why I couldn't write a novel for years. Because I felt, I felt, I can't tell you how I felt. On the one hand, I could see the enthusiasms and on the other hand, I could see the horror. And I didn't know what to do, except to help as much as possible in China itself, which I could never have done by doing the usual Western trick of denouncing in a paper, which would never have done anything. And I could never have done what I was doing at the time, which was the overriding thing, which was helping to open the doors to the West . . . To fight all that, to try and guide the country into the modern age is a tremendous task, because it's not 100,000 people, it's one billion. I'm afraid that some people don't understand my conduct. But it doesn't matter. If one billion Chinese like me and think that I have done good, I don't care about a couple of foreigners who don't understand me."
She could never be a revolutionary, she says. "Because I could never really not sit back sometimes and look at this thing. I think revolution is an idea that sometimes is so overpowering that it does take everything of you." The same could be said of love; and while it is to romance that she has made her commitment, in some way she has made herself an alloy of the two metals, revolution and romance. They share, after all, the fanatic's belief in the ideal and the ruthlessness that forgives itself in the pursuit of perfection.
Han lives in Lausanne with her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, a retired engineer from Madras. "When Vincent and I first met, everyone said, 'But an Indian and a Chinese, they can't get on, their countries are fighting.' But we survived it." They met at the coronation of the king of Nepal 26 years ago. She is always the romantic. "I don't think you can change such a fundamental thing. I still feel that everything is romantic. I feel business is romantic, banking is romantic. I can sit for hours and hours and listen to a banker weave his plots. He's like a tradesman sending out his caravans, his ships on the ocean, he's putting his money on this horse or that one. It's quite romantic, in that romance is a sense of adventure and daring. It's romance that carried Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus . . . it was quite silly of Christopher Columbus to go away on a little ship all by himself to try and find something, wasn't it, and yet he found it.
"If you start thinking of all the silly things that have been really wonderful discoveries," says Han, "well then you realize that it's much better to be romantic and foolish and foolhardy."