The splendour of Han Suyin’s works
HAN Suyin ( pic), the charismatic Eurasian physician-author who recently passed away aged 95, was a prolific writer whose career spanned World War II, China’s revolution, the Korean War, Communism’s rise and the decline of colonialism in East Asia.
Her biographies of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution and focusing on, and to an extent lending credence to, why they did what they did at the time they did it, were criticised by the West for not denouncing the Chinese communist regime.
At other times, the Chinese branded her “bourgeoisie” for recalling her part-Western roots and their influences on her.
Typical of her unique style of writing, expressing her independent thinking candidly and passionately, she once commented: “I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emotions of my people. 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.”
I first came to know of Han Suyin and her writings in the late 1950s, when our English Literature teacher wanted students to read works by authors from the East as much as those of the West. So we read the poems of Rabindranath Tagore and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (translated).
And then there was Han Suyin’s A Many-Splendoured Thing, a tale of forbidden love, revolution and romance, a blend of East and West, and how different social and political beliefs, ideas and values can complement one another side by side.
Her autobiographical novel captured our emotions and our imagination, more so when we learned that she had married a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch, came with him to then Johore, worked as a doctor at the JB General Hospital and later set up her own clinic there.
In 1955 Han Suyin helped establish Singapore’s Nanyang University and served as its physician. She was offered a post there teaching literature but she declined, indicating her desire “to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens”.
Between her first novel, Destination Chungking (1942) and one of her last historical studies, Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994), Han Suyin published almost two dozen novels, non-fiction books and memoirs and contributed countless essays for mainstream newspapers and magazines worldwide, often in the context of historical and generational upheaval in Asia.
Many years after leaving school, some of us heard that A ManySplendoured Thing had been made into a film, the Academy Awardwinning Love Is A Many-Splendoured Thing, and to our great delight it was being screened at the old Rex Theatre in Kuala Lumpur.
What better way to show our appreciation to our former English Literature teacher than to invite him to watch the film — with two erstwhile classmates, Othman, a teacher, and Lee, a hospital assistant. We absolutely enjoyed the show, recalling old times, especially the fun and good fortune we had learning such splendid works by great writers and poets. RUEBEN DUDLEY Petaling Jaya