Fol­low­ing foot­steps of fa­mous for­eigner

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By MEI JIA in Beijing mei­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn

De­cem­ber marked 75 years since chair­man Mao Ze­dong wrote the fa­mous eu­logy that fa­mil­iar­ized mil­lions of Chi­nese with the name of Nor­man Bethune (1890-1939), after his death in China.

The best-known for­eigner in China, as Span­ish diplo­mat to Beijing Ig­na­cio Morro put it, the Cana­dian doc­tor is con­sid­ered a self­less saint-like fig­ure who helped the Chi­nese peo­ple through hard times, and the Span­ish peo­ple in 1930s, too.

But for Cana­dian Roderick Ste­wart, an 80-year-old re­tired his­tory teacher, Bethune is a nei­ther a pro­pa­ganda tool nor a god­like fig­ure as some have de­picted him.

“Bethune was a hu­man be­ing, who I can say has be­come my life,” Ste­wart said.

Ste­wart has de­voted more than 45 years of his life to study­ing Bethune, which has yielded five books that were pub­lished glob­ally, in­clud­ing in China. The biog­ra­phy Phoenix: The Life of Nor­man Bethune by Ste­wart and wife Sharon is be­ing adapted into a 3D movie by 3DIMP, and is set to be launched for an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence in the com­ing months. One of his Chi­nese friends Qi Ming, a pro­fes­sor at Bethune Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Col­lege in Shi­ji­azhuang, He­bei prov­ince, said the mo­ment he stepped into Ste­wart’s house he was stunned by the study jammed with books about Bethune and let­ters Ste­wart re­ceived for re­search.

“Once I asked, you’re not a com­mu­nist nor a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional, so why are you so ob­sessed with him?” Qi said. He sim­ply replied, “how many Bethunes do we have in Canada? How many in the world? There is only one”.

Ste­wart said that the prime char­ac­ter­is­tic of Bethune that at­tracted him was his tenac­ity, and his “un­will­ing­ness to give up, which came from a belief in him­self”.

“Like a ter­rier, a dog which grabs some­thing and strug­gles might­ily to re­sist any at­tempt to yank the ob­ject from its teeth,” Ste­wart said.

Ste­wart is just like Bethune. He im­pressed Qi with his de­ter­mi­na­tion to find out ev­ery de­tail and fact. “We’ve been writ­ing like one e-mail a day, as he checked through ev­ery de­tail he asked me about,” Qi said.

The Man­darin-speak­ing writer also wrote some 5,000 words re­ply­ing to China Daily’s in­ter­view ques­tions. For his book Phoenix, he lo­cated 77 rare pho­tos and many pre­cious doc­u­ments, after talk­ing to 300 peo­ple who were knew Bethune from all around the world.

The Ste­warts have trav­eled to China five times to follow the foot­prints of the doc­tor, and to meet Bethune’s for­mer col­leagues, pa­tients and stu­dents, and even Bethune’s “boss” when in China, Mar­shal Nie Rongzhen.

The first trip, in 1972, saw Ste­wart ar­rive in China sev­eral weeks after US pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s visit.

He got an invitation from the first Chi­nese am­bas­sador to Canada Huang Hua in 1969. At the time Ste­wart was start­ing to get in­ter­ested in Bethune, after show­ing his stu­dents (who knew Bethune as much as he did) a video in his­tory class.

“When I vis­ited Shi­ji­azhuang in April 1972, beasts of bur­den (camels, don­keys and horses) were much more com­monly seen on the city streets than trucks,” he said. Fact-based pre­sen­ta­tion Ste­wart’s quest started at a time, in the depths of the Cold War, when many Cana­di­ans knew lit­tle about Bethune.

While in China, there were pre­vail­ing “ide­o­log­i­cally-shaped Chi­nese de­scrip­tions of Bethune”, he said.

With the goal of pre­sent­ing a “fact-based biog­ra­phy to de­scribe Bethune the man as a whole per­son’’, he re­turned in 1975 for more in­for­ma­tion, and later for longer stays as an English teacher in Chongqing in 1979 and Harbin, Hei­longjiang prov­ince in 1983.

Ste­wart said his re­search had “a moun­tain of prob­lems”. But he had the for­tune of the com­pan­ion­ship of his wife Sharon, a skilled re­searcher and veteran ed­i­tor.

“In our house our stud­ies are side by side,” Ste­wart said.

The cou­ple was about to quit Bethune when they found a great deal of new ma­te­rial in dif­fer­ent coun­tries around 2000.

They ob­tained an un­pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Hen­ning Sorensen, Bethune’s in­ter­preter in Spain, and were of­fered by the daugh­ter of Jean Ewen, the Cana­dian nurse who went to China with Bethune, the chance to read their mother’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. De­gree of change In 2005, ac­com­pa­nied by Bethune’s for­mer Chi­nese stu­dent Zhang Yesh­eng, the Ste­warts ar­rived in China again to follow the doc­tor’s foot­steps through­out the for­mer Jin-Cha-Ji bor­der re­gion in the 1930s.

“After an ab­sence of 30 years. I was stag­gered by the de­gree of change,’’ he said. “I never dreamed that such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change could take place in my lifetime in China. Hao ji le (Man­darin for fab­u­lous )!” he said.

Also chang­ing is the Chi­nese per­spec­tive of Bethune. “Truth has be­gun to nudge aside ide­o­log­i­cal fairy tales,’’ he said.

Cheng Xiaom­ing, Chi­nese pub­lisher of Ste­wart’s book, be­lieves it’s their life­long work on Bethune that help form the shifts.

“The Ste­warts are the first to pic­ture Bethune as a man who has a tem­per and pref­er­ences,’ Cheng said. “They of­fer new hu­mane touches into the doc­tor’s ad­ven­tur­ous life.’’

Qi and Cheng re­gard Ste­wart’s books highly be­cause “they of­fer in­sight to Chi­nese so­ci­ety about why faith and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, which Ste­wart’s Bethune car­ried up to his death, can be de­ci­sive’’.

The Ste­warts ini­ti­ated a Sino-His­panic-Cana­dian cul­tural co­op­er­a­tion project called “Bethune 2014’’, try­ing to make more peo­ple aware of Bethune’s role.

“I have un­til now had a long and cor­dial re­la­tion­ship with the Chi­nese that goes back to my early youth,’’ Ste­wart said.

He added that, as a child, he liked the Can­tonese dishes a Chi­nese em­ployee in his fa­ther’s fac­tory in Ni­a­gara Falls used to cook for him.

“I learned to use chop­sticks be­fore my teens; Sharon and I still buy food in Chi­nese su­per­mar­kets once a week.”

“So my mem­o­ries of China are deep, warm, and last­ing,” he said.

Cover of Roderick Ste­wart’s book, Phoenix: TheLife­ofNor­man Bethune

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