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Useful Foreigner

In response to:

Still Mysterious from the June 5, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

While few would deny the general validity of J. K. Fairbank’s assessment of “impenetrable China” [NYR, June 5], his reference to the Canadian Norman Bethune appears somewhat misleading. Far from enjoying a “transitory success,” which Fairbank links with that of other Westerners who find themselves “out of date and discarded,” Bethune’s epic role during the Sino-Japanese conflict was terminated only by his untimely death in 1939 (see The Scalpel, the Sword, by Allan and Gordon, published by Little, Brown).

Furthermore, the Western press within the last two years has carried reports of the continued national observance in China of the anniversary of Bethune’s death, and has stated that Mao Tse-tung’s eulogy to Bethune (In memory of Norman Bethune) has been designated as one of three pieces of “required reading” for the Chinese public. It appears likely that, unlike most Westerners, this unusual surgeon, scientist and revolutionary achieved genuine recognition in China.

Lionel Standing

Rochester, N. Y.

John K Fairbank replies:

I would agree with Mr. Standing that Norman Bethune has achieved “genuine recognition” in China providing we add sotto voce that, through the dissemination of Chairman Mao’s eulogy, he is also being “genuinely used.” Here is Jonathan Spence’s conclusion about Bethune:

He went to China to expiate the sins of his generation, to purge himself of the apathy and callousness and pursuit of profit which he believed had rotted his civilization. His technical brilliance was the entry card into a society that would otherwise have rejected him. No less than other Western advisers he used the Chinese for his own ends and was in turn used by them. He differed from all others, however, in that he used the Chinese to attain a meaningful death.

Norman Bethune’s posthumous fame among China’s 750 millions indeed makes him the great exception, a foreigner whose usefulness outlived him.

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