Last night I finished reading Han Suyin’s 5-volume autobiography, which also serves as a history of China from the 19th Century (earlier, really, at least with respect to Szechuan province, since the first book covers the history of her family for quite a ways back) as well as an account of her life and the tumult of the China’s revolutions and upheavals through the 20th Century.
Han Suyin is probably best known to westerners as the author of …A Many-Splendoured Thing, an account of her intense but tragic love affair with the journalist Ian Morrison, which later became a film. Primarily, however, Han wrote about China, as well as working for many years as a medical doctor in China, Hong Kong, and then-Malaya.
Han’s mother was Belgian, and she grew up mixed-race in a China that frequently rejected her; it so happened, however, that her mother treated her far worse, and so China became the center of her world even after she left it. She studied in Europe, but returned when the war with Japan was officially declared; she returned to Europe with her first husband and remained there to finish her medical studies while he returned to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Kuomintang. (There were at least three versions of his death, but the most likely one is that he was shot by his own troops. He was a horrible, horrible man.) But she returned to Hong Kong, and after the Communist forces won she visited China nearly every year and stayed in contact with many prominent people, notably Chou Enlai, who was the subject of her last book.
The five volumes of this autobiography include her original three-volume work, along with her later memoir My House Has Two Doors, split up in this edition into two volumes, the second titled Phoenix Harvest. As one might expect–I generally find that, with memory and perspective, one diminishes as the other increases–the earliest volumes are the strongest. Han’s memories of childhood may be incidental and scattered, but they are vivid, and the unhappiness of her youth, her slow maturation and intellectual blossoming, and the constant reminders of her otherness are all painfully and beautifully observed. Her account of her first marriage is harrowing; the physical abuse, the gaslighting, and the deceit, all reinforced by the culture of Chiang Kai-Shek’s ruling Kuomintang, are a miniature horror story.
But Han escaped from that and found purpose and new love, more than once, as well as literary prominence and financial success. She used her influence to tell the story of China’s revolution to the rest of the world, and came under criticism as a result, especially for her initial support of the Cultural Revolution. She writes about this in the final two books, but her support comes across as measured and constantly re-evaluated. She clearly wanted the best for China, and up until the writing of My House Has Two Doors, at least, believed that Communism offered that, or had the potential to. But her optimism is not dewy-eyed; it is always wary and questioning. She frequently becomes exasperated with guides who try to toe the party line by lying about progress and achievement. As much as she was perceived as pro-Communist by the west, there were periods where she was perceived in much the opposite way within China itself.
It must be this tension, this inability to ever feel fully accepted anywhere, that helped her to develop such a sharp eye and such a gift for description and beauty. Her prose, particularly in the first three books, aches with nostalgia. The early books are also supplemented with written materials from her father and uncle, and the first volume starts out rather shockingly with a letter written by her bitter, hateful mother, the only one that survived, in which she rails against China and the Chinese in a way that reflects the attitudes of the colonial western powers that dominated China while Han was young. These are gorgeous and illuminating books, sadly out of print, but well worth seeking out.