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Han Suyin: A Life Torn Into Pieces by Different Worlds Demands Its Own Wholeness

Han Suyin: A Life Torn Into Pieces by Different Worlds Demands Its Own Wholeness


(1) Introduction

We now lived a multiple-leveled and multiple-dimensioned world. During the two world wars and the subsequent Cold War Era (1945-1991), those dimensions were forced to form two worlds fighting each other with people at all levels drawn into the fighting. At the bottom, housewives were making military uniforms day and night while their children playing beside with toy guns. When I divided all human societies into the genetically coded primary and man-made secondary societies, I found the former has an aesthetic order based on our born nature, the emotional and psychological social bond felt at the bottom of our hearts while the latter has often a rational order shaped by war;[1, 2] the Chinese civilization started with primary societies while the Western, secondary societies. Furthermore, women and artists are closer to the primary society while men and scientists, closer to the secondary society. Born a Eurasian to a Chinese father and Belgian mother, the internationally famous but controversial novelist and historian Han Suyin (Born 12 September 1917; died 2 November 2012) lived her whole life on the peripheral rims among those multiple levels and multiple dimensions. During her visit to China, she said, “In my life, I am always back and forth at two opposites: back to China and leave, back to love and leave.” Being a female voice in the literal art while married to one police and two military officers during her life, she wrote novels with full emotions while wrote historical books with a scientist mind. In a way she lived a most interesting life with multiple grandeurs offered by those multiple levels and multiple dimensions while being torn into pieces by them.


                        (2) A Unique Dilemma

The first love among teenagers is regarded by many as sacred as part of God and the only human love left today while psychiatrists identify every aspect of psychosis in the human behavior during their first love. The first two men in Han Suyin’s life, a husband and a lover, were both killed in the battle field fighting against the Communists. What a devastating experience to a young woman in her twenties and early thirties. Under the depressive atmosphere of World Wars’ aftermath, many if in her position might have lost the last energy to survive another day. She wrote a best seller novel based on her experience, which was made into a film, Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing (1955). Now this film was called a classic weepie by some critics with a satirical tone, saying it was a love affair with a married man on the hillside overlooking the harbor. The Chinese translation took a much serious tone, titled The Love Affairs Between Life and Death. She might and might not have been transformed by this traumatizing experience, and nevertheless, she became one of the first foreign nationals to visit post-1949 revolution China, the Communists her first two men had fought against. After 1956, Han Suyin visited China almost annually. To put her extraordinary experience in words, she wrote:

Indeed it is suffering, to go on growing, to hold to what is, to try to understand, to knock down one's own preconceptions. To find one's memories ravaged by time and revolution, one's intimate illusions ripped up, laughter for one's private desolation the only answer: to realize how difficult, agonizing, is the process of understanding, and how long it takes. [3]


Some critics branded her as a China apologist, and others called her an opportunist for her changing views. At one time she supported the Chinese Nationalists against Mao’s Communists. She endorsed the Cultural Revolution but switched sides when the movement's cruelties could no longer be denied.


She literally struggled with every of her strength and nerve to become a fully one of humanity but ended fragmented pieces torn by the multiple levels and multiple dimensions of modern society. Helen Buss so wrote about Han Suyin:

Throughout her public life as doctor, journalist, novelist, historian, and memoir writer, men will accuse Hah of being too many things. Hospital officials will demote her because her practical experience gained as a midwife in China leads her to challenge the unthinking diagnoses of White, male doctors in Hong Kong's racist, sexist hospital system. Academics will question her credibility as historian because she wrote novels. American China experts will accuse her of being the dupe of communists because she criticizes America's McCarthyism. On occasion, Communist officials will forbid her entry to China because she quotes from Chinese sources of many political shades. As with the men she loves, she will never be pure enough to please any of them. [4]


With the post-modernists voicing the demand of different values and different cultures without any overarching force on a global village, we may not realized how different a world people lived a few decades ago when Han Suyin was an active public figure.

                        (3) From Alien Species to a Mere Sparkle

Han Suyin was born to a Chinese and Belgian parentage, brought up in China, but had European and British education in medicine, holding a Hong Kong passport and resided in Switzerland with her Indian husband. Furthermore, her ex-husbands were Chinese and English. To be exact, she did live in different worlds with different cultures. When she was young, she was often being watched and ridiculed like an alien from another planet. She became an object of laughter and scorn as crowds followed her to point at her big nose, or gathered outside her house to watch and laugh at her strange ways. In Chinese, Han Suyin means: A Chinese who belongs to England, which indicates her Hong Kong passport.


George Bernard Shaw (1856—1950) visited China in 1933. Foreign visitors were so rare then that many came a long way to have a good look at him. Being asked to give a speech, Shaw said, “So many of you have come as if looking at an animal of rare species in the zoo, now you have seen what you wanted to see, why do I have to say something?” (translation from Chinese source)


In fact, people who watch animals in the zoo also want to hear what sound they make and how they make it. So some of the people who asked Shaw to speak only wanted to hear his sound and care nothing about the meaning of his words. Even with those who did care what Shaw was going to say, they were looking forward to different meanings from the same words. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, China was so isolated that people had no more opportunity of observing foreigners but only occasionally saw their photos in newspapers. To the Chinese people, Han Suyin was then further reduced from an alien species to a mere sparkle.


Since 1970 when the Great Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1876) was about at its half way, I had worked for several years in the remote mountainous area of Southeastern China. It was said that the local peasants did not know the difference between the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty, let alone Communism and Cultural Revolution. I worked in a hospital which had some three hundred people including staff and their families. All of us lived and worked inside a large walled yard with the hospital and dormitory buildings side by side. We lived inside the big yard knowing nothing going on in the outside world except paying lip service to admire the Cultural Revolution and the government during the regular meeting hours. To my judge, it was almost like a primary society of the isolated tribal people in the Amazon jungle. If any family had a quarrel or beaten their children in the evening, it would be on everybody’s lips the next day at work. It was so informal that many went for grocery shopping and attended their kitchens during working hours.


During those years, Chinese newspapers repeated the same slogans and dogma day after day, year after year. Foreign visitors to China were so rare that they became a sparkler in dark and delightful ripples in a dead sea. Han Suyin was not only such a sparkle or a ripple but the only one, in my memory of those so-called revolutionary years, who visited China again and again, annually. Her name was always was on our lips. There were only black and white photos of poor quality in newspapers. I remember clearly in my mind what Han Suyin looked like as we had seen many of her images. Of course, we had no way to hear her sound and watched her moving pictures as we had neither Radio nor TV. But we could read her words in newspapers.


What had she said when she visited China during the Cultural Revolution? I cannot remember a single word. I was apparently one of those who came to look at Shaw and hear his sound as a rare animal paying no attention to the meaning of his words. During those years, China was a big church chanting the same words and repeated the same ideology. The whole China of millions of books, newspapers, meetings, public gatherings and so on must have carried only aesthetic meaning without clearly linguistic semantic meaning for someone to remember after he or she entered a truly modern world with multiple dimensions and multiple levels of life and culture. The only word I remembered today was what Han Suyin said when she visited China after the Cultural Revolution. She made a complaint to the Chinese national leaders that she was now in trouble because she had said too many nice words of the Cultural Revolution. Strange enough, those nice words have become targets forever for Western critics to write about and attack on while they remain only part of a mere sparkle to my memory.


                        (4) The Chinese Cultural Revolution and Han Suyin

Han Suyin compared the Chinese Cultural Revolution with the Renaissance and the French Revolution in 1789. She said,

The transformation and reshaping of Chinese society is a twofold process of change, both material and spiritual, the one interacting with and influencing the other; both are cumulative, and become self-propelled by the process of an extended education which never dissociates the abstract from the concrete, the moral and spiritual from the material. Liberation of the mind is to be the essential concomitant of physical liberation, for one cannot exist without the other. The revolution to make China a modern, scientific, socialist state goes hand in hand with a cultural revolution which will transform the attitudes and motivations of 700 million for the better. [4]


To those who have no knowledge of the Chinese history and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, those great words are from a great mind of humanity. To those who have known both modern Chinese and Western history, those words are nothing but a joke or laughingstock. To those who like me have gone through the Cultural Revolution with pains and sorrows, love and hatred, dedication and disappointment, and so on, and who have read enough about its reflections and criticism, those Han Suyin’s words trigger their memory and emotions that denounce description in any current language. They would tell you, “In spite of what the world has criticized and admired, there is more in the Cultural Revolution that I have gone through and that the whole world has somewhat misunderstood. Unfortunately I cannot tell you but you would have understood what I mean if you had gone through the Cultural Revolution as I did.” In pretty much the same way, Han Suyin’s life denounces description. The secondary society has limitless possible types, and so there is no universal language or moral standard understandable and acceptable to all. For the same reason, modern language has its own limitations for its power of description.


From the primary to the secondary society is like lobefin fish moving onto land and becoming reptiles, mammals, and birds. Our language is not enough to describe an animal’s life if it belongs to reptiles, mammals, and birds at the same time unless you have seen such an animal. Similarly we have no knowledge and no sense to understand and feel what different worlds Han Suyin had experienced and lived, though we can criticize or admire it from a particular perspective.


John Gittings so wrote about her, “Half Chinese, she was as full of contradictions as her motherland”; “Her writings offer more than one version of her life”. She told a journalist in 1958, “I could be a top-grade, highly paid [medical] specialist.” She was "possessed of a demon" that forced her to write instead of practicing medicine fulltime." Gittings quoted her saying, “To go on living, one must be occasionally unwise." [6]


"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."


After those quotations, we can read more what Han Suyin said about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966:

The importance attached to spiritual transformation is not alien to Chinese culture: the whole of Chinese civilization is founded precisely on the idea of the perfectibility of man, of his becoming “civilized” through an educational process, of an ultimate “better” man who will come into mankind’s full heritage through wisdom, understanding, and the practice of brotherhood.


The word “education,” therefore, in the Chinese language, is not restricted, as it has become in other cultures, to the acquisition of technical skills designed to make a living, but comprises the Renaissance idea of the “whole man.” This process, it is stressed, is inseparable from the more obvious process of the banishment of illiteracy. It is spoken of as “the liberation of the mind.” After 15 years it is possible to survey what has been done in this dual aspect of enlightenment. [5]


According to the death toll, the European religious war was only second to the two world wars but nobody can afford to ignore the existence of Christianity afterwards. As Han Suyin pointed out, both the Chinese Communists and Christians educated people and tried to reform their minds. The French Revolution in 1789 became ugly in the end but nobody can afford to ignore its positive influence on the subsequent history. The Chinese Cultural Revolution has now been criticised and denounced inside and outside China for its notoriety. In the middle 1980s, China carried out a national political campaign titled The Complete Negation of the Cultural Revolution, saying all participants were wrong and nobody was right.


I still remember today that in the winter season of 1966/1967, my classmates and I participated in a collective volunteer fire fighting to save a house, though there was only a skeleton house left with floors, stairs, roofs, window frames all burning with flame here and there when we joined in. There were a few dozen such fire fighters. They were all passers-by, and most were young with a few, middle aged. We were all chanting the same Mao’s quotation in unison repeatedly while working together: Unafraid of losing our lives, pushing all difficulties aside, and we are going to reach the final victory. Fortunately nobody was killed during the operation. I had several small cuts and bruises. Two or three were sent to hospital, and one was intoxicated by carbon monoxide because he worked inside the smoke for too long. Without their efforts and sacrifice, the fire would have certainly been much worse, since it was a crowded neighbourhood with a lot of wooden houses.


Inside and outside China, nobody will volunteer their efforts like that today. But I will not call it crazy or anything in negative terms. As Han Suyin pointed out above, the Cultural Revolution was a process of reshaping the society and transforming human minds for the better. It also comprises the Renaissance idea of the “whole man.” and the liberation of the mind. According to their understanding of the Cultural Revolution, those volunteer fire fighters came to the rescue fearlessly with high spirits when they were passing the street seeing a house on fire. There was a cruel side of the Cultural Revolution which resulted in unnecessary deaths in the thousands. To a country of over a billion, those who were involved in cruelty were always the minority, and most people stayed away from such cruelty. It is certain that most, if not all, of those volunteer fire fighters were not involved in any cruelty throughout of the ten year Cultural Revolution.


To ordinary normal people, those volunteer fire fighters were spiritually intoxicated with a high mentality. We do not expect that they have a mind as clear as the above mentioned Western critics who criticise Han Suyin. On contrary, they may well only have seen a delightful sparkle if they had been asked to read Kant and Einstein, and they may well only have heard a single melody note if they had been asked to listen to Kant and Einstein. They were at different levels of human consciousness as we are. Therefore, I did join the volunteer fire fighting of a high spiritual intoxication once in my life and will certainly not do it again, though I feel no shame of myself for it.



                        (5) The True Story of Ah Q and the Concluding Remarks

Here I use Lu Sun’s novel, The True Story of Ah Q, to illustrate the impassable gap between the secondary society and the Chinese peasants, who lived essentially in the quasi-primary society until the 1950s. As discussed elsewhere [1,2], our human world is a multiple level operation: DNA, cells, tissues, organs, individuals,  primary society, and secondary society. There is an impassable gap between each of those levels. Frogs swallowed insects as a delicacy knowing nothing of its benefit on our agriculture while our cells function in the same way without knowing their beneficial effects on the tissue, on the organ, and on the individual level. To ordinary people like you and me, dinner only fulfills our stomachs and is only for us to enjoy. Only individuals of sophistication keep thinking their dinner is to feed their own cells, tissues, and organs. The True Story of Ah Q describes a similar situation: Ah Q and the government are in different worlds with impassable gap between them. One thing carries totally different meanings: The government executed Ah Q as a scapegoat to improve its image of incompetence in solving a robbery case while Ah Q used the occasion to show off that he was a real revolutionary who devoted his life to his lofty cause. In fact, Ah Q never joined any revolution but he was executed as a revolutionary only in his own imagined world,the quasi-primary society.


Summarizing the lives my mother and grandmother lived, I noticed that the Chinese peasants in the early 1950s still lived in a quasi-primary society without knowing what was going on in the government or the secondary society. They adapted to political changes in the same way as they adapted to climate change. They watched opera and listened to similar stories which had nothing reflecting their own life but were only aesthetic fantasies to them. They had no knowledge to understand what happened in the secondary society as we do because of the impassable gap between the two levels of society. [7] Ah Q also understood opera stories as fantasies only and as a result, he mistook his own created fantasy as a truly revolution to cost his life.


Here I further quote from Helen Buss as the end of my essay:

However, Han characterizes this recent and prevalent theory of European postmodernism, this "relentless logic" of subject formation, as one that all Asians already always know. As well, Han does not frame this subjectivity situation in the typically negative terms of European and North American postmodernism, that is, that the discovery of our lack of an essential self is a loss, a fall, a hard lesson that we must learn, through the devices of irony, satire, and other deconstructive strategies. Rather, Han writes lyrically and, I think, positively (despite her recognition of the suffering involved) of the "courage" which is necessary in the construction of such a subjectivity. Courage would imply the possibility of agency in one's self construction, in fact a desire to have it both ways, so to speak, in the subjectivity debate: to recognize the interpellated nature of the subject, while reserving a belief in personal agency in that interpellation. [5]





[1] You-Sheng Li (2005): A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy. London, Canada: Taoist Recovery Centre, 2005.


[2] You-Sheng Li (2006): The Definition of the Primary and the Secondary Society. The Author’s Website: (

[3] Han Suyin (1982): The Crippled Tree. 1965. Triad Grafton Books, 1982.

[4] Buss, Helen M (1992): The autobiographies of Han Suyin: A female postcolonial subjectivity. Canadian Review of American Studies, 00077720, Fall1992, Vol. 23, Issue 1

[5] Han Suyin (1966): Reflections on social change. .June 1966 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 83

 [6] John Gittings (2012): Chinese-Born Author Best Known for A Many-Splendoured Thing. The Guardian, Sunday 4 November 2012.


[7] You-Sheng Li (2010): The Ancient Chinese Super State of Primary Societies. Bloomington, USA: Author House. P164-79.

[8] Han Suyin (1976): Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1949-1976. London: Jonathan Cape.