How I Wrote It

Xue Yiwei wrote a novel about a doctor forgotten to Canadians — but is a hero in China

Physician Norman Bethune helped China during the War of Resistance. His legacy was the inspiration for Dr. Bethune's Children.
Xue Yiwei is the author of Dr. Bethune's Children. (Linda Leith Publishing)

Xue Yiwei, famous to millions and a bestselling author in China, has lived quietly in Montreal for the past 15 years. It was on a street in Montreal 10 years ago that the idea to write a letter — which would later become an entire book attesting to his own lived history and that of an entire generation of Chinese — first came to him. 

Dr. Bethune's Children is inspired by physician Norman Bethune. Dr. Bethune provided medical services to wounded soldiers and civilians in three major conflicts: World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the War of Resistance in China. Bethune is largely forgotten in Canada, but in China, he's considered a hero for treating soldiers and training doctors and nurses. His eulogy was required reading for many Chinese students, including Xue Yiwei, and his legacy is partly why Xue Yiwei would eventually move to Canada.

In his own words, Xue Yiwei discusses why he wrote Dr. Bethune's Children.

The book he was meant to write

"My reason of writing this book is to bear witness to history. Writing Dr. Bethune's Children is a 'must' for me and the tedious, painful struggle of helping it reach the readers has been both an ordeal and a literary adventure. I couldn't imagine my life without having written this destined book that provides me with an identity as one of Dr. Bethune's children. Dr. Bethune's Children is a novel dealing with the most profound myth connecting Canada and China."

Being banned in China

"Ten years have passed since I first had the idea of writing to Dr. Bethune in 2007. The first draft was written in English and it was completed in 2009. By the end of 2010, I had rewritten it in Chinese. After the failure to publish it in mainland China, the Chinese original was published in Taiwan. The coming English version is based on the Chinese one, but it is in fact a 'higher' version because I had rewritten much of the translation draft in English."

The influence of Wittgenstein

"To some extent, my career as a writer began with a metaphysical debate with Wittgenstein's conclusion line, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must be passed over in silence.' This is also my own conclusion about writing. To try to speak out what one cannot speak should be a novelist's ambition and responsibility. Dr. Bethune's Children follows this direction." 

An emotional experience

"The writing of this book has been the most emotional experience in my entire literary career. I was laughing one moment and crying the next. The childhood of Dr. Bethune's children synchronized with the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese life went crazy in both comical and tragical ways."

Becoming comfortable with fame 

"When a stranger approached me in public mentioning a title of my works or with one of my books, asking for an autograph. I always felt a little embarrassed. But in the meantime, it also made me feel proud: proud of the magic of words, proud of the power of literature."

Xue Yiwei's comments have been edited and condensed. 

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