Bethune in China — a blip in a paragraph

Hey, let me make one thing clear.  I have nothing against Dr. Norman Bethune.  He was an eccentric, extremely talented, and brave man but was his contribution to China so unusual that he deserves a taxpayer-funded 2.5 million dollar addition to his Gravenhurst birthplace memorial?  Let me also make it clear that I have not as yet visited the new memorial museum but my concern is with historical truth and balance.

If you‛re a politician interested in cozying up to the Chinese in the interests of expanding trade, then the answer to the 2.5 million dollar question is, apparently, yes.  If you‛re a Canadian taxpayer interested in maintaining some semblance of historical truth and in paying tribute to Canadians who actually did make a difference in China, the answer is an unqualified no.

In keeping with the often neglected premise of this blog, let‛s take a look back to 1987 when I was already expressing reservations about Canada‛s participation in the idolization and mythologizing of Bethune’s role in China while simultaneously overlooking an entire host of Canadian doctors who had preceded him.  (We called them Christian medical missionaries and, in that context, Bethune was a Communist medical missionary.)

I have a more than casual interest in this subject because back in the 1970s I wrote a two volume biography of Dr. Bob McClure who spent most of his childhood in China, was educated at U of T, and then served the Chinese as a surgeon from 1923 until December 1948.  (He later became the first lay Moderator of the United Church of Canada.  I guess you could call him a card carrying Christian.) But I never think of McClure without thinking of a host of his Canadian forerunners and colleagues.

Then in the 1980s I wrote a full length stage play, McClure, which was produced by Hamilton‛s Theatre Aquarius and sent by it on a national tour.  There were productions by other theatres, some of which I also managed to attend.  After any performance, if the playwright is present, he/she is quite likely to be asked some awkward questions.  McClure always elicited a real puzzler.   “How come we’ve only heard about Bethune?”

In 1987 that persistent question sent me to my keyboard.

                                               “How come…?”

….The typical questioner is in his or her early twenties, intelligent, keen, and wearing a look of amazement….  It’s a question I’ve pondered for more than a decade. But it’s a question I can’t begin to answer in the chatter and noise of a theatre lobby. [And here I am more than a quarter of a century later still attempting to answer it!] ….

“Why have we only heard of Bethune?”

When young people put the question to me there is often more than amazement in their tone. There is a sense of accusation that makes me, as a Canadian, acutely uncomfortable.

Why, indeed?

Why have we as a nation learned to idolize Bethune, who was in China for 21 months, while we know nothing at all about a whole host of Canadians who devoted their lives to China?

McClure’s own father went to China in 1888. He not only founded a hospital but taught an entire generation of Chinese doctors. He  translated medical texts into Chinese and laid foundations in pathology that Chinese doctors are building upon to this day.  Dr.William McClure? Who’s he?

And what Canadian ever heard of Dr. James Menzies, Dr. Percy Leslie, Drs. Gordon and Ernest Struthers, Dr. Mary Grant Atak, Dr. Helen Craw Mitchell?  The list can go on and on and on.

Bob McClure is a writer’s dream because he enjoyed adventure.  The Age of the Warlords, the Second Revolution, the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the rise of Communism, all provided a gung-ho surgeon with enough adventure for a lifetime.

But Dr. Richard Brown, a Canadian Anglican, was no slouch when it came to adventure. Battle-field surgery or night time ventures through Japanese lines, it was all breakfast and dinner to Dick Brown. He even worked for several months in the Shansi caves with Bethune.  Ever hear of Dick Brown?

Here in Canada, Bethune made an enormous contribution to thoracic surgery and to the treatment of TB. In Spain he made an indelible mark in the area of battlefield blood transfusions. Every time we go to a mobile blood clinic we are indebted to Bethune.

But we idolize him for his 21 months in China!

Those months were heroic, and he died of them, but in the epic story of Canadian doctors in China they were a mere blip in a paragraph.

We’ve established a shrine to Bethune and have already, through TV and film, invested huge sums in perpetuating his mythology.  A Canadian film crew is in China this very minute busily continuing the strange exercise.

I expect the film will show Bethune, in 1939, laying the foundations for Chairman Mao’s much vaunted system of rural medicine based upon the “barefoot doctors”.  It was a system that McClure (and at least one other doctor) had going back in the mid thirties while Mao was still on the Long Trek, but history means nothing to us.

I’ve still not answered the question the young people put to me with that look of combined surprise and accusation.

The only honest answer I can give is appallingly embarrassing, and it comes in two parts.

First: Bethune was a card carrying communist and as such was taken to Mao’s bosom.  In later years his story was seized upon by the Chinese government, for propaganda reasons, as an example of the communist international brotherhood.  The Chinese sold the mythology to us and for diplomatic reasons we bought it.  The Bethune shrine at Gravenhurst was established, after Chinese urging, by our Department of External Affairs!

Second: We Canadians are an insecure people who still have to be told by others what is good, or admirable, or heroic and who, by and large, have surrendered our own values and judgement.  We have even given others the mandate to create our heroes.  We are victims of self inflicted amnesia, dedicated to the betrayal of our past.

How can I unload all that onto an eager but innocent questioner?  

And now, at greater and greater taxpayer expense, the Bethune mythology continues to be promoted while we continue to overlook the myriad Canadian doctors, teachers, preachers, technicians, and other trailblazers who helped lay the foundation in China not only for Western medicine, but for literacy, public health and technology.  A good case can be made that without their dedication, and that of their counterparts from other countries, the China of today would not exist.  Whether that is good or bad or simply paradox upon paradox it does express, nevertheless, the truth.  Which is more, I expect, than can be said for the 2.5 million dollar shrine we have just built in Gravenhurst.

  “How come…?”
From Down Paradox Lane
Lindsay This week, July 7, 1987
Copyright © Munroe Scott


About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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9 Responses to Bethune in China — a blip in a paragraph

  1. Jean Koning says:

    Well, I’ll be …! You are absolutely right! I rmember Bob McClure, and when I think about it, I’m also aware of a number of Anglican missionaries who served in China all those years ago, so your message in this blog makes perfect sense. But you are right about us as Canadians – we simply don’t know our own history. So sad. Many thanks for helping to make me think – in a good way – as my First Peopels friends would say! Jean Koning.

  2. mark finnan says:

    Informative and engaging , as usual.
    The pricey memorial sure smacks of the exploitive manipulation of history for the sake of trade.
    I recall presenting your play McClure some years ago in Cobourg where it was well received.
    Was it the Canadian actor Barry Morse who played McClure?

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Sorry, Mark. I don’t recall which production played at that particular venue. I do know the actor wasn’t Barry Morse because he never played the McClure role. I only met Barry once and it was when I used him as narrator for a segment of the CBC series “Days Before Yesterday”, produced by Cameron Graham (a great unsung CBC-TV producer, by the way — one of the best. In the heritage department we should be building a memorial to him). I remember being afraid of giving directions to the great Barry Morse and finding my fears quite unwarranted. It was often that way with the best.

  3. Ken Ranney says:

    Despite the fact that I am a great admirer of Norman Bethune am in essential agreement with his political philosophy to the extent that I understand it, which is not great, I agree that the taxpayers’ money should not be spent on an addition to Norman Bethune’s birth-place, and I do see the hypocrisy.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Thank you, Ken. And I am sure a thoughtful reader like yourself has noticed that at no point have I criticized either Dr.Bethune or his philosophy. I simply take exception to the Canadian government spending our money on obsequiously distorting history for the sake of corporate trade.

  4. Lynn Squance says:

    Excellent piece. I actually knew about Bob McClure first as he was a friend of my grandfather’s. And I recall hearing the names of Dr Menzies and Dr Leslie, but whether they were perhaps mentioned in McClure: The China Years or mentioned by my uncle, Ronald Purves-Smith, who was raised in China by missionary parents, I can’t remember. Nonetheless, your biography of Bob McClure is excellent, such that I want to read it again. I can still remember some of the details from reading it over 25 years ago.
    I must admit that the $2.5 million price tag for the centre in Gravenhurst was not mentioned in the account that I read. It concentrated rather on the ‘communism’ aspect with a title ‘Red Scare: Communism Debate Heats Up In Canada’ — an Alberta Conservative MP was apparently spouting off about Bethune being a communist and not worthy of the recognition.
    Although I think of Bethune in the ‘hero’ category, I also agree that there were many others who did as much or more but remain unknown.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Lynn, the Dr.(James) Menzies you mention was Bob McClure’s immediate predecessor at the Hwaiking mission station in China. He had been murdered by bandits who invaded the single ladies’ compound. Menzies, unarmed, had rushed to their rescue. Menzies and McClure were only two of the many missionaries who were sent to China by Bloor Street Presbyterian Church in Toronto. (After 1925 known as Bloor Street United Church.)

  5. Edward Smith says:

    I quite agree that this is further evidence of Canadian insecurity, but is not the amnesia even more a manifectation of the guilt which accompanies any reminder of our once-collective Christian identity?

    For those interested in the remarkable story of Canadian cultural and religious imperialism in China, I recommend Alvyn Austin’s “Saving China: Canadian Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1888-1959”, and the more recent “Healing Henan: Canadian Nurses at the North China Mission, 1888-1947”, by Dr. Sonya Grypma.

    If Yann Martel is still sending books to Stephen Harper, or if he could be persuaded to add Tony Clement to his mailing list, these are titles he might consider.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      I confess that I’m not familiar with either book. Nor, apparently, is the Peterborough Public Library (fast search), which only verifies your point re amnesia. Both sound fascinating.I must follow up.

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