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Norman Bethune: 'Selflessness lives on'

In China, he's been a national hero since his death in 1939. But in his birthplace of Canada Dr. Norman Bethune was virtually unknown until the 1970s. His communist beliefs and unorthodox personality made him a controversial figure in Canada. His medical accomplishments, however, are irrefutable. Bethune cared for the wounded in wartorn Spain and China, and in the process revolutionized military medicine.

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It's 1999, the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. And even though there's now "more interest in the markets than in Mao" in China, many of the old Communist heroes like Bethune are still revered. In this clip from The National, people in China comment on his legacy. "Bethune's spirit of selflessness lives on," says one man. "Chinese people are so influenced by Bethune that in their hearts, there's always a concept of selfless contribution," adds another.
• Although Bethune's story has long held a prominent place in Chinese culture, his name was invoked with renewed vigour during the 2003 SARS epidemic. A 2003 Globe and Mail story said China was glorifying Bethune's name almost daily in its SARS-related propaganda: "Whenever a Chinese doctor dies from the SARS virus these days, he is invariably lauded as 'a Dr. Bethune of the new century.' When military volunteers go to Beijing to fight the disease, they are referred to as Bethunes."

• Bethune's nurse in China, Jean Ewen, passed away in October of 1987. Her ashes were brought to China in 1988. The Chinese government placed her ashes in the Cemetery of Martyrs, where Bethune was buried. "She left her heart there," said Ewen's daughter Laura Meyer. According to Ewen's family, the nurse greatly admired Bethune but wasn't always happy working with him. She disliked his impatience and his chauvinist attitudes.

• As more Canadians began to study Norman Bethune over the years, the interesting contradictions in his personality became clearer. The Chinese culture glorifies his great selflessness -- which he clearly exhibited while helping out in Spain and China -- but those who knew him well have also emphasized his extreme selfishness in personal matters.

• Hazen Sise (who worked with Bethune in Spain) once said he believed Bethune would have been grateful for his deification in China, but he also would have found it hilarious. "I think he would be hooting with laughter," said Sise in a 1972 CBC Radio interview. Sise stressed that Bethune was a great man, but he wasn't superhuman. "(The Chinese) do tend to forget that he was only human after all, and had a lot of the foibles of normal human beings."
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 29, 1999
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Raymond Saint-Pierre
Duration: 2:39

Last updated: February 10, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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