By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
November 11, 2012
Han Suyin defiantly straddled two worlds decades before multiculturalism became fashionable.
"We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, 'Look at us, the Eurasians!' " the half-Chinese, half-Belgian physician and author whose career swept across continents and historic upheavals wrote in "A Many-Splendored Thing," the 1952 novel that made her an international celebrity.
Her strongly autobiographical bestseller about war, cultural identity and love between a half-Chinese physician and a British journalist in Hong Kong spawned the blockbuster 1955 Jennifer Jones-William Holden movie "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." Its Oscar-winning theme song became a sentimental standard, and a popular television soap opera based on Han's story followed.
Han, whose commercial success fueled a prolific career as a writer and unofficial spokeswoman for China during the Cold War years and beyond, died Nov. 2 of natural causes at her home in Lausanne, Switzerland, said her granddaughter, Karen L. Shepard. She was 95.
She wrote more than 30 books over 50 years, including the novel "Till Morning Comes" (1982), a love story set in revolutionary China; and the memoirs "The Crippled Tree" (1965) and "My House Has Two Doors" (1980).
Passionate and polemical, her views often drew sharp criticism. She wrote admiring biographies of Mao Tse-tung and Zhou En-lai that led some critics to brand her a China apologist. Other detractors called her an opportunist for her changing views. At one time she supported Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek against Mao. Later, she endorsed the Cultural Revolution but switched sides when the movement's cruelties could no longer be denied.
"I'm a person who changes," she told the New York Times in 1985. "If tomorrow you prove to me something new, I'll be quite willing to overturn my ideas because ideas are made to be overturned."
Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou was born in the Henan province city of Sinyang on Sept. 12, 1917. She later adopted the first name Elizabeth.
Her mother was a headstrong Belgian who, according to "The Crippled Tree," literally kicked her way out of her parents' house to be with Han's father. A railway engineering student in Brussels, he returned to China with his bride in 1913, but being a mixed-race couple brought hardships.
Her mother lost three children because European doctors could not be bothered with sick "half-caste" babies. "Eurasian," Han later recalled, was "a dirty word." Han later mused that her mother's disparagement of China led the rebellious daughter to favor her Chinese side.
Against her mother's wishes, she enrolled at Yenching University in Beijing, working as a typist to pay her fees. She later earned a scholarship to study medicine at Brussels University.
On her way back to China in 1938 she met Tang Pao-huang, who was an aide-de-camp to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and became her first husband.
In Chungking, the provisional capital for the Nationalist Chinese government during the Sino-Japanese War, Han learned to write with the encouragement of missionary doctor Marian Manly. The result was her first book, "Destination Chungking" (1942), a chronicle of wartime China and her perilous journeys with Tang. She took the pen name Han Suyin, which she said translated to "a very ordinary sound."
The book earned a review in the New Yorker, which called it a "warmhearted, rather naive account" of the young couple's experiences.
In 1947 Tang died fighting communists in Manchuria. Han completed her medical education in London and moved with their adopted daughter, Yungmei, to Hong Kong.
There she met Ian Morrison, a married British newspaper correspondent. Their unabashedly passionate romance formed the basis of "A Many-Splendored Thing." Time magazine said the book "makes uncomfortable reading because it so willfully, often tastelessly, exposes the deepest private feelings of its principals." It said the book was more successful describing the Hong Kong of 1949 and 1950, when the colony teemed with refugees fleeing from communists on the Chinese mainland.
When Morrison was killed in 1950 covering the Korean War, Han moved to Malaysia, where she practiced medicine and met Leon Comber, a British intelligence officer, whom she married in 1952. They were later divorced. In 1971 she married her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, an Indian engineer with whom she lived in India and Switzerland. He died in 2003.
In addition to her daughter and granddaughter, Han is survived by a sister and three great-grandchildren.
After earning worldwide acclaim with "A Many-Splendored Thing," Han regularly traveled to China to lecture. She maintained close ties with former classmates from Yenching who became early leaders of China's Communist Party, and met privately with Zhou, the Chinese premier.
Her books included "China in the Year 2001" (1967), "The Morning Deluge" (1972) and "Wind in the Tower" (1976), which tackled the history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. She also wrote "Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China" (1994), which Ian Buruma described in the New Yorker as "not a biography but an act of worship."
Her granddaughter said Han often felt misunderstood but never discouraged. "As a Eurasian, I believe my grandmother saw her life's work as all about bridging East and West," Shepard said.
"I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emotions of my people," Han once said. "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.…"
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times