Life for Author Han Suyin Has Been a Sometimes Hard but Always Many-Splendored Thing
11/08/1976 at 01:00 AM EST
In the China in which she was born, mile after mile of peasants sat in the branches of trees above the great floods. They were motionless, waiting for death as the train on its high embankment sped past. They did not wave or shout for help. No one would help them. Nothing would change.
In the China of her marriage to a fanatic young Nationalist officer, a husband could kill his wife—it was not unusual to beat her on their wedding night to teach her meekness and submission. China was a backward country, corrupt, poor, half-controlled by foreigners. Its problems were too immense to be solved.
Those Chinas have vanished.
And Rosalie Chou, the ugly-duckling daughter of a Chinese railway official and his Belgian wife, disappeared also to become, after incredible experiences, Han Suyin, doctor, writer and a woman of her time.
Animated, beautiful, well-dressed, she gestures frequently as she talks. It is difficult to believe that she was once so plain she was told by her mother that she would have to earn her own living, she was too ugly ever to marry. How do these dazzling metamorphoses occur? She was always intelligent, always pretty and defiant, but the awkward child who could never learn to dance somehow became a handsome young woman with a brilliant smile and white teeth—North China teeth—not a cavity in them to this day. They're very uneven, she insists; she is not beautiful, her features are uninteresting. "My eyebrows are too short, like Chou En-lai's." She moves her graying hair to reveal them.
Han Suyin, 59, is most famous perhaps for her best-selling novel A Many-Splendored Thing, published in 1952 and transformed into both a movie and a popular song. But she has also written a series of autobiographies, very moving in both their humanity and their vast detail. The Crippled Tree was the first, and A Mortal Flower and Birdless Summer followed.
She has just brought out Wind in the Tower, the second and concluding volume of her biography of Mao Tse-tung, whose death came almost on the eve of publication. An admittedly sympathetic work, it was eight years in the writing, and at what a moment it has appeared! Obscurity covers China: once again, fierce struggles, new paths. Mao seems certain to be the sacred figure whose legacy will be sought after for years to come. It is extraordinary how little of him is really known—the only intimate accounts are still those of Edgar Snow, the American reporter of the Far East who died in 1972.
Han Suyin did not know Mao personally. She had never read a word he'd written when one night on a Peking street she bought a pamphlet called On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People. It was 1957. She was practicing medicine in Malaya and Singapore and had gone back to China to see for herself if the new ruler was to be another Stalin, ruthless and bloody. "I would die in my soul if I did not return to see for myself."
It was one of the turning points of her life. She was fascinated by the man, his vision, his ideas. The story of Mao began to possess her, "a story that really shook me—the love of Mao for his people."
She saw Mao only once, in a room with 40 other writers, and he did not speak. She met Chou En-lai many times, and she knew first-hand the era. She has become a kind of apologist for China now—with friends in Peking in high places, although she has enemies too, she admits. The extreme left does not like her, probably because of her European life and privileges. She has never returned to China to live. But the left is in eclipse. As always, she has been fortunate.
There were eight children in her family. One-half of them survived. "The average," she comments, "in those days." She had a brother who died of convulsions when the French doctor refused to come. "I'm not going to bother myself for a dirty Eurasian," he said. There were only three mixed couples living on the Peking-Hankow railway line, and the Eurasian children were despised. "We were looked upon as prostitutes and freaks."
Her mother named her Mathilde Rosalie Claire Elizabeth Genevieve Chou, and her father gave her the Chinese name of Chou Yueh-ping, which means guest of the moon. (In China the family name always comes first—there are only 186 surnames for all Chinese.) Their mother made the little girls remove their earrings every night. If warlords or bandits came they would rip them out of their earlobes. Rosalie—she preferred that name—went to a convent school and was raised as a Catholic. She read only pious works, "and once, Jules Verne." In 1935 she won a scholarship to go to Belgium—there were four or five students chosen a year—and she began her medical studies. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor since the age of 12 when every Sunday on the way to church the Chous had to fight their way through hordes of beggars. "I wanted to cure them."
The high-bourgeois family of her mother refused to accept her at first, but she eventually conquered them. One of her uncles, a diamond merchant in Amsterdam, wrote in a letter, "This girl is intelligent," and before long she was an ornament at family dinners. She was sitting one day in a park in Brussels, far from the China which had been invaded in her absence by a powerful new Japan. Above her were the tall, summery trees of the Bois Fort. "How peaceful it all is," her boyfriend sighed. She suddenly smashed her teacup. "I'm going to China!" she announced.
"The true me is inner-motivated," she explains. "My craziest decisions—things that appear crazy—I've thought about for months."
The voyage home was by boat from Marseilles. On board, in first class, was a young Chinese man who had been attending Sandhurst. He was returning to serve China, he told her. "So am I," she said. His name was Tang Paohuang, and he came from a landowning family, part of the ruling elite. He was sincere, handsome, intensely patriotic. He proposed when they reached Hong Kong, and in a rapture of idealism they were wed. His true nature was soon revealed. He was, in fact, a demon, a cold fanatic filled with absolute loyalty and devotion to the leader, Chiang Kai-shek. In time he was to become one of the generalissimo's aides and eventually to find death in battle against the Communists in 1947. For the seven years they were together, he beat her.
Chiang Kai-shek had a ferocious temper. Everyone was terrified of him, Han recalls. This was the China in which six young writers, members of a leftist organization, were made to dig their own graves by Chiang's men and then were bound, thrown into the holes and buried alive. Suyin and her husband lived in the wartime capital, Chungking. "A woman of talent is not a virtuous woman," he told her. He was ashamed of her, mortified that she had not immediately become pregnant, but despite everything she could not leave him. He would have killed her. She worked as a midwife, and Tang, to explain her frequent absences, invented a daughter for her. One day in Chengtu she bought one—children were for sale everywhere then—a year-old baby, beautiful but covered with sores and so pathetically hungry she cried when she saw a bowl of rice. Even today, 35 years later, Han Suyin's voice falters and her eyes fill with tears as she remembers. She paid a thousand Chinese dollars for her daughter. "Everybody said, 'Oh, you've paid too much. You could have got her for 200.' "
She wrote her first novel, Destination Chungking, during this period. It was widely praised and her talent was immediately evident. But only in London, where her husband had been sent as military attaché was she finally able to break free. She refused to return to China with him in 1945. Did she not fear for her life then? "Ah, but this was in England," she says with a lovely smile. She went back to school to complete her medical education, graduating with honors in 1948, by then a widow. She was 31.
Because it was the doorstep to China, by now Communist, she settled in Hong Kong and began her practice. She fell in love with a married British correspondent, and the story of their affair, written at night on the kitchen table, became A Many-Splendored Thing. Her lover was killed in Korea. Han Suyin married Leonard Comber, another Englishman, on the rebound—and because she thought her daughter, then 12, needed a father. She was living in Malaya, running two clinics and working from early morning until night, charging one dollar a visit while other doctors charged $15. After work, she wrote. "It amused me," she explains. The reason is plainly deeper. "I do what I want. That's the leitmotiv of my life."
There is a long tradition in literature of doctors who have been writers, some good and some great. Rabelais and Chekhov, for example, Céline and Conan Doyle, A.J. Cronin and Somerset Maugham. "I don't think of myself as a writer," she protests, and the name she chose, Suyin, means simple sound. Nevertheless, she wrote four more novels between 1956 and 1963, none of them quite as successful as her best-seller, and then she turned to the autobiographies. Her marriage to Comber ended in amicable divorce. "He was a nice man," she says. "He spoke five languages, but our relationship bored me to tears."
She lives now in an apartment in Lausanne with her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, an ex-colonel in the Indian army, broad, deeply burnished, and a man of considerable tact. They met in Nepal where he was building roads. Medicine is behind her; she has not practiced since 1964. She and her husband travel, spending about four months a year in Lausanne. They have a house in India and a small apartment in Flims in the Swiss mountains. The apartments are rented. "I don't believe in accumulating property after 60," she explains. She is rushing things a bit. Most women would be happy to look like her at 40.
Szechwan is her province; her father's family is from there. An isolated region deep in the mountains, it has often during its history been independent, with close ties to Tibet. The Yangtze flows from there and many great legends of China come from there as well. The people are different. "We are the Italians of China," she says. "We eat more red pepper than anyone else. Also, we are not afraid to die." She turns to her husband. "Don't you think it's better than other places in China?" "Yes," he says shrewdly. "It's very Indian."
Her day begins at 7. She wakes and has coffee. For an hour she does housework and then settles down to her correspondence, using the dining room table. "My husband has his typewriter on the desk," she explains, "and since he is a man, he should have the place of honor." Vincent doesn't smile as she says this but on his face is a certain mixture of forbearance and disbelief. "Every 20 minutes or so I get up," she says, "and do something else. I think it's good for the figure."
Vincent cooks the lunch, and from 2 o'clock on she works. There are no Saturdays or Sundays. It is always work, no matter where they are living. They see few movies or plays, go out rarely, seldom entertain. She has too much to do: the next volume of her autobiography and a novel about India. Who knows what the future will bring? As another famous doctor, this one fictional, wrote: "To live life to the end is not a childish task." That was Zhivago.