Special Interview: Roderick Stewart, a Biography Writer of Bethune
    2009-11-25 18:33:25     CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Zheng Zhi

Roderick Stewart with Ye Qingshan in 1972. A former medical officer of the Chinese military force, Ye worked with Bethune in the 1930s in Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Border Region of China.

Ever since Norman Bethune's recognition in 1972 as "A Canadian Hero with International Influence" in Canada, the number of people who have studied him has been on the increase. Roderick Stewart, a Canadian writer, is among them.

During the last 40 years, Stewart and his wife, Sharon, have published several biographies of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician and medical innovator who served in wartime medical units with the Chinese Communists during China's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. As a professional Bethune scholar, Stewart made several trips to China, the experiences of which enriched his knowledge of Bethune.

In 1974, Stewart and his wife co-wrote their first book on Bethune entitled "Norman Bethune." In 1975 and 1977, they published "Bethune" and the "Mind of Norman Bethune," respectively. Their latest biography on Norman Bethune, "Phoenix: the Life of Norman Bethune," is scheduled to be published in the coming year.

For three decades, Stewart has been dedicated to researching the life of Norman Bethune, who died at the age of 49. What is behind Stewart's incessant passion for and dedication to writing about Bethune?

"Why have I spent so much of my life studying Bethune and writing about Bethune?" Stewart said. "Well, it was exactly 40 years ago this month when I learned about Bethune. What stands out to me most about Norman Bethune is that throughout his life, he had the courage of his convictions. He had a deep belief himself and was determined to take action based on what he believed, even gave up his position in the Montreal hospital, leaving behind his friends and risking his life. He did this first in 1936 when he answered the Spanish Civil War and set up a mobile blood bank service, and then again at the beginning of 1938 when he made his way to China after the invasion there by the armies of Japan."

To research Bethune's life, Stewart visited, during his numerous trips to China, the places where Bethune lived and worked. Stewart was given a warm reception each time he came to the country, which touched him deeply.

"From my first visit to China in 1972 to my last in 2005, I have always been treated with considerable respect," Stewart said. "To obtain information about Bethune in 1972, I was taken to many parts of China to interview doctors, nurses and the Eighth Route Army soldiers who had worked with Bethune and patients treated by him. In 1975, and again in 2005, I was escorted to the areas where Bethune worked. Doors were open to me everywhere. For nearly 40 years, I have always been treated as 'lao pengyou' (an old friend)."

Almost everyone Stewart had met had a story to tell about Bethune, Stewart said. He interviewed Nie Rongzhen, a former Chinese leader, who also served during China's anti-aggression war as the commanding officer in the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Border Region Military Command where Bethune worked and scarified his life. Knowing that Stewart came to China for Bethune's stories, Nie received him. Stewart also met with Dong Yueqian, Bethune's former interpreter, and talked with some of Bethune's former colleagues.

In 2005, when Stewart paid another trip to Hebei Province, an 80-year-old woman overwhelmed him with her passionate recounting of how Bethune treated her illness despite his busy schedule.

Stewart said he realized Chinese people's deep feelings for Bethune during the course of his research.

"From the very beginning, there was never any difference," he said. "In 1972, in all of those places, I met people who were then very old at Shijiazhuang, of course, where I spent several days. And I met people who had worked with [Bethune]. So many of them told me their stories, one of them crying, breaking into tears when she remembered the day Bethune had died."

Stewart said although Bethune lived in China for only two years, he had done a lot of work in the country, and his contribution to the revolutionary cause of China still exerts influence today.

"And I believe his most important achievement was he was successful in making the most of the young men that he was training, believing that they had the ability to acquire the skills he had, and eventually to be able to do the work that he was doing," Stewart said. "During the months that he had been training them on the battlefield and in the hospitals, Bethune worked tirelessly to encourage them to have confidence in themselves in order to understand that they could become as good as any foreign doctor. Those young students of Bethune who were inspired by him to believe in themselves went on to become prominent doctors in the People's Republic of China."

For Stewart, one of the important reasons for Bethune's strong connection with China was his status as a communist. But Bethune's communist membership made him a quite controversial figure in Canada. Despite various perceptions towards him at different stages, Bethune's glorious deeds finally transcended ideologies, and he came to be acknowledged by a growing number of Canadians.

Stewart said it has been worthwhile for him to research Bethune's life, and he and his wife are willing to do more to help others better understand Bethune.

"Both my wife and I believe that interest in Bethune will continue to grow," Stewart said. "When I wrote my books in the 1970s, many Canadians were opposed to praising Bethune because he had been a communist. If I remember, that was then the time of the cold war, and most Canadians were very anti-communist. Today, exactly 20 years after the beginning of the end of the cold war, most young Canadians are more willing to learn about Bethune. Today, few Canadians know very much about Bethune's life in Canada or Spain, and, of course, they know almost nothing about what he did in China. We hope that our book may change that."
Stewart also said Bethune had built a bridge linking the friendly ties between China and Canada. Stewart hopes his books will provide a window for the two sides.

"Well, our books contribute to the better understanding between Chinese and Canadians. That will be our hope. Any book, movie or television program about our two countries which causes individuals to open their eyes, and more importantly their minds, to see that we have much to learn from each other, is useful. If our books can reveal to Chinese readers something about Canada and to Canadian readers something about China, we will both be very happy."

Stewart is now 75 years old. He is looking forward to returning to China again and revisiting the places where Bethune lived and worked. He said although he was not able to meet Bethune in person, he has been delighted to get tied up with the name "Bethune."

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