Han Suyin, a Chinese-Belgian British writer who emerged as among the most powerful voices that served as a bridge between China and the West in the 20th century and later became an ambassador for China-India relations after her marriage to an Indian colonel, died in Switzerland on Friday.
She was 95 when she passed away at her home in Lausanne, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Han, who was born in the central Chinese province of Henan to a Chinese railway engineer and a Belgian woman, was best known for her 1952 novel “A Many-Splendored Thing”, which was based on the events of her own dramatic life. The book, which told the story of a married British journalist who falls in love with a doctor, was later made into a widely popular Academy Award-winning film in the United States in 1955, called “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”.
Han’s Eurasian heritage, which led to her suffering discrimination throughout her life and particularly when she grew up in China, was a theme that ran through her work, enabling her to emerge as an influential bridge between China and the West.
A trip to India and Nepal in 1956 also made her a somewhat accidental ambassador for China-India relations during the strained years following the 1962 war. During her visit to India, Han fell in love with Vincent Ruthnaswamy, an Indian Army Colonel whom she married in 1960. They both lived in Bangalore and made regular trips to China promoting ties, before they subsequently moved to Hong Kong. Han recalled in her autobiography Ruthnaswamy's reluctance to be deployed in the border in 1960 when tensions with China on the rise.
Han and Ruthnaswamy, who died in 2003, were both later honoured by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries as "friendship envoys".
Han, born Elisabeth Chow, was trained as a physician. But she wrote extensively, authoring more than three dozen books on modern China and Asia. Her most famous work was “A Many-Splendored Thing”, written in 1952, which told the story of a married British journalist who falls in love with a doctor of Eurasian heritage and the discrimination they encounter in Hong Kong. Han herself married an Australian journalist in Singapore, who was later killed during the war in Korea in 1950. The novel was made into a hugely successful Academy Award-winning film in the United States after Han sold the rights three years later, although she later recounted in her 1980 autobiography that she had had little interest in the movie.
In an essay honouring Han as an "Asian Hero" published in TIME magazine in 2006, Liam Fitzpatrick described her writing in the novel as “epoch-shifting”. “Far from hindering her, the prejudice she experienced as a child inspired a blend of defiance and pride”, he wrote. Han had written powerfully in the novel, “We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, ‘Look at us, the Eurasians!’...The meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization."
The essay pointed out that Han’s life was full of contradictions – she married a British army officer despite her opposition to imperialism, and later became a supporter of Mao in spite of the prejudice she faced in China. “But, in the end, Eurasians forgive her idiosyncrasies,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “because in giving us our identity she gave us everything.”