Han Suyin is the nom de guerre of a Eurasian doctor and author who also goes by the name Elizabeth Comber. She is the author of many novels, biographies, histories, and a multi-volume autobiography.
Han Suyin was born as Elizabeth Kuangchu Chow or Chou in 1917 in Henan province, China to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Her father had gone to Belgium to study railway engineering, where he met and fell in love. Both sets of parents opposed the marriage, but when the young woman became pregnant, they relented. Suyin's eldest brother was born in Belgium; in 1913 the family moved to China, where Suyin and her six siblings were born. As a girl Suyin found herself confronted by horrifyingly widespread famine and death; she idealistically decided to become a physician to save her countrypeople from such hardships. When her family moved to Beijing, she was scorned by other Chinese because she was a Eurasian, but strong-willed Suyin began to work as a typist at Beijing Hospital in order to pursue her dream. She enrolled in Yenching University in 1933 and the University of Brussels in 1935. But in 1938, hearing of the war then raging in her country, she abandoned her studies and returned to China, drawn by her strong roots and her need to work to ease the suffering of the Chinese.
In China Suyin worked as a midwife and married a Kuomintang officer, Pao Tang, who eventually rose to the rank of general. During this period she wrote her first book, Destination Chungking (published 1942), an idealized account of a young couple much like Pao and herself who were fighting for Chiang Kai-Shek's China. The fictionalized autobiography did not do well, and Suyin, demoralized, did not write another book for a decade. In China Pao and Suyin adopted a daughter, Yungmei or Mei; they then moved to London, where Pao was posted there as a military attache. The marriage, which had never been particularly happy, truly soured, and Suyin, bored with the diplomatic life, finished her medical education at London University. Tang died in 1947.
After the Communist Revolution of 1949, Suyin reasoned that, as a spouse of a Kuomintang officer, she would be considered an enemy of the state, so she worked for a time as a medical officer in Hong Kong; during this period she fell in love with Ian Morrison, foreign correspondent for the London Times and son of Australian journalist George Morrison. After some months Morrison died in Korea, reporting on the Korean war. Suyin turned the affair into the best-selling A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952); the frank admission of a love affair between a Eurasian woman and a white man scandalized British neo-colonial society, but it was a sensation, and in 1955 was made into the Academy Award-winning movie "Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing".
In 1952 Suyin married Malayan Special Branch Officer Leon Comber; she left Hong Kong and for ten years worked in Malaysia (then Malaya) at a tuberculosis clinic. Out of this period came Suyin's condemnation of British "emergency" rule in Malaya, ...And the Rain My Drink (1957). When I visited Malaysia many years later I found it haunting to travel through the rubber plantations, for Suyin had written movingly about how the British special service had imprisoned, tortured, and killed the Chinese who they considered Communist sympathizers, in some cases rightly, in some wrongly. At some point she and Comber divorced; he now lives in Australia. Suyin is now married to an Indian army colonel, Vincent Ruthnaswamy. The end of her second marriage and her acquaintance with her third is chronicled, in thinly disguised form, in The Mountain is Young (1958). Other novels include Cast But One Shadow (1962), Winter Love, The Four Faces (set in Cambodia and featuring Noroddom Sihanouk), Till Morning Comes, The Enchantress (a mystical historical fantasy set in Switzerland, Siam, and China).
By the late 1950s China began to encourage overseas Chinese to return, and though friends feared that if she went back to China she would never be allowed to leave again, Suyin has managed to move continuously back and forth between the west and the east since then. These trips have helped her to write dense historical works on China, including a two volume biography of Chairman Mao - The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution; 1893-1954 (1972) and Wind in the Tower: Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Revolution; 1949-1976 (1976) - and a biography of Premier Zhou Enlai, Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976 (1994). Communist-haters resent her often admiring portraits of these two giants of modern China, so if you're one of them, don't read these books. If you're interested in Chinese history, however, I can recommend these exhaustive, beautifully written, and intelligent books which are enriched by the fact that their author actually met the people she is portraying. Her sympathy arises from the admiration of a humanist woman who can remembers being a girl surrounded by starving people and who is pleased, as an adult, to see people fed.
Suyin has also written a monumental multi-volume autobiography, which includes The Crippled Tree (1965), A Mortal Flower (1966), Birdless Summer (1968), My House Has Two Doors (1980), Phoenix Harvest (1980), A Share of Loving (1987), and Wind in My Sleeve (1992). These lyrical books introduce a western audience to the vast breadth of Chinese history from ancient times to the present through the story of her family clan and herself. I'll wager you'll learn far more about modern China from reading these books than you would any other way.
As I wrote this I listened once again to a two hour long CBC radio interview with Suyin, taped at her homes in Switzerland and New York. The 82-year-old is lucid, humourous, passionate, and intelligent, and it's a great fun to listen to her talk about her life. You can find the interview at:
I've drawn also from these websites: