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Han Suyin

Elizabeth KC Comber
Born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chow
12 September 1916 or 1917
Xinyang in Henan, China
Died 2 November 2012(2012-11-02) (aged 95)
Lausanne, Switzerland
Pen name Han Suyin
Occupation Author and physician
Language Chinese, English, French
Ethnicity Hakka-Flemish
Citizenship British
Period 1942–2012
Genre Fiction, history, biographies
Subject Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai
Notable works A Many-Splendoured Thing
The Crippled Tree
My House Has Two Doors
Spouse Tang Pao-Huang (1938–1947)
Leon F. Comber (1952–1958)
Vincent Ratnaswamy (1960–2003)
Children Tang Yungmei and Chew Hui Im
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Han.

Han Suyin (simplified Chinese: 韩素音; traditional Chinese: 韓素音; pinyin: Hán Sùyīn; 12 September 1916 or 1917Template:Spaced ndash2 November 2012)[1] was the pen name of Elizabeth Comber, born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou (Chinese: 周光瑚; pinyin: Zhōu Guānghú).[2] She was a China-born Eurasian,[3] a physician, and author of books in English and French on modern China, novels set in East and Southeast Asia, and autobiographical memoirs which covered the span of modern China. These writings gained her a reputation as an ardent and articulate supporter of the Chinese Communist revolution. She lived in Lausanne until her death.


Han Suyin was born in Xinyang, Henan, China. Her father was a Belgian-educated Chinese engineer, Chou Wei (Chinese: 周煒; pinyin: Zhōu Wěi), of Hakka heritage, while her mother was Flemish.

She began work as a typist at Peking Union Medical College in 1931, not yet fifteen years old. In 1933 she was admitted to Yenching University where she felt she was discriminated against as a Eurasian. In 1935 she went to Brussels to study medicine. In 1938 she returned to China, married Tang Pao-Huang (Chinese: 唐保璜), a Chinese Nationalist military officer, who was to become a general. She worked as a midwife in an American Christian mission hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan. Her first novel, Destination Chungking (1942), was based on her experiences during this period. In 1940, she and her husband adopted their daughter, Tang Yungmei.[4] In 1953, she adopted another daughter, Chew Hui-Im (Hueiying) in Singapore.[5]

In 1944 she went to London to continue her studies in medicine at the Royal Free Hospital. In 1947, while she was still in London, her husband died in action during the Chinese Civil War. She graduated MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery) with Honours in 1948 and in 1949 went to Hong Kong to practice medicine at the Queen Mary Hospital. There she met and fell in love with Ian Morrison, a married Australian war correspondent based in Singapore, who was killed in Korea in 1950. She portrayed their relationship in the novel A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952) and the factual basis of their relationship is documented in her autobiography My House Has Two Doors (1980).[6]

In 1952, she married Leon F. Comber, a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch, and went with him to Johore, Malaya (present-day Malaysia), where she worked in the Johore Bahru General Hospital and opened a clinic in Johore Bahru and Upper Pickering Street, Singapore.

A very human account of Han Suyin, the physician, author and woman, occurs in G. M. Glaskin's "A Many-Splendoured Woman: A Memoir of Han Suyin" disclosing even the occasional spelling mistake in her written medical prescriptions.[7]

In 1955, Han Suyin contributed efforts to the establishment of Nanyang University in Singapore. Specifically, she offered her services and served as physician to the institution, after having refused an offer to teach literature. Chinese writer Lin Yutang, first president of the university, had recruited her for the latter field, but she declined, indicating her desire "to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens," according to the Warring States Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[8]

Also in 1955, her best-known novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing, was filmed as Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. The musical theme song, "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In her autobiography My House Has Two Doors, she distanced herself from the film, saying that although the film was shown for many weeks at the Cathay Cinema in Singapore to packed audiences, she never went to see it, and that the film rights were sold to pay for an operation on her adopted daughter who was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. Much later, the movie itself was made into a daytime soap opera, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, which ran from 1967 to 1973 on American TV.

In 1956, she published the novel And the Rain My Drink, whose description of the guerrilla war of Chinese rubber workers against the government was perceived very anti-British, and her husband is said to have resigned as acting Assistant Commissioner of Police [Special Branch] mainly because of this. In a 2008 interview, he said: "'The novel portrayed the British security forces in a rather slanted fashion, I thought. She was a rather pro-Left intellectual and a doctor. I understood the reasons why the communists might have felt the way they did, but I didn't agree with them taking up arms.'"[9] After the resignation, he moved into book publishing as the local representative for London publisher Heinemann.[10] Han Suyin and Leon F. Comber divorced in 1958, and he eventually moved to Hong Kong, where he became managing director for Heinemann's subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Since 1991 he has lived in Australia, where he is Honorary Research Fellow at Monash Asia Institute, Monash University.[10]

In 1960 Han Suyin married Vincent Ratnaswamy, an Indian colonel, and lived for a time in Bangalore, India. Later, Han Suyin and Vincent Ratnaswamy resided in Hong Kong and Switzerland, where Han Suyin remained, living in Lausanne. Although later separated, they remained married until Ratnaswamy's death in January 2003.

After 1956, Han Suyin visited China almost annually. She was one of the first foreign nationals to visit post-1949 revolution China, including through the years of the Cultural Revolution. In 1974 she was the featured speaker at the founding national convention of the US China Peoples Friendship Association in Los Angeles.

She died in Lausanne on 2 November 2012, aged 95. She is survived by two daughters, Tang Yung Mei and Chew Hui Im.


Han Suyin funded the Chinese Writers Association to create the "National Rainbow Award for Best Literary Translation" (which is now the Lu Xun Literary Award for Best Literary Translation) to help develop literature translation in China. "Han Suyin Award for Young Translators" sponsored by the China International Publishing Group was also set up by Han Suyin. So far it has given out awards 21 times(in 2009).[11]

Han has also been influential in Asian American literature, as her books were published in English and contained depictions of Asians that were radically different from the portrayals found in both Anglo-American and Asian-American authors. Frank Chin, in his essay "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake", credits Han with being one of the few Chinese American writers (his term) who does not portray Chinese men as "emasculated and sexually repellent" and for being one of the few who "[wrote] knowledgeably and authentically of Chinese fairy tales, heroic tradition, and history".[12]


Cultural and political conflicts between East and West in modern history play a central role in Han Suyin's work. She also explores the struggle for liberation in Southeast Asia and the internal and foreign policies of modern China since the end of the imperial regime. Many of her writings feature the colonial backdrop in East Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.


Autobiographical works

  • The Crippled Tree (1965) – covers China and her and her family's life from 1885 to 1928
  • A Mortal Flower (1966) – covers the years 1928 – 1938
  • Birdless Summer (1968) – covers the years 1938 – 1948
  • My House Has Two Doors (1980) – covers the years 1949 – 1979 – split into two when released as paperback in 1982, with the second part called Phoenix Harvest
  • Wind in My Sleeve (1992) – covers the years 1977 – 1991
  • A Share of Loving (1987) – a more personal autobiography about Han Suyin, her Indian husband Vincent and Vincent's family[4]
  • Fleur de soleil – Histoire de ma vie (1988) – French only: Flower of sun – The story about my life

Historical studies

  • China in the Year 2001 (1967)
  • Asia Today: Two Outlooks (1969)
  • The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893–1954 (1972)
  • Lhasa, the Open City (1976)
  • Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution, 1949–1965 (1976)
  • China 1890–1938: From the Warlords to World War (1989; historical photo-reportage)
  • Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994)


  • Tigers and Butterflies: Selected Writings on Politics, Culture and Society (London: Earthscan, 1990)


  1. ^ Shanghai Daily
  2. ^ Alison Lake, "Han Suyin, Chinese-born author of ‘A Many-Splendoured Thing,’ dies at 95," Washington Post, 4 November 2012: "She later changed her middle name to Elizabeth, the name she preferred."
  3. ^ Time Magazine, 13 November 2006: Han Suyin – In voicing her Eurasian identity, she defined a people Retrieved 2012-05-17
  4. ^ a b Ding Jiandong: Han Suyin Research Retrieved 2012-05-17
  5. ^ Han Suyin, "My house has two doors." (Jonathan Cape Ltd, London. 1980. ISBN 0-224-01702-0), p. 217
  6. ^ John Jae-nam Han: Han Suyin (Rosalie Chou) (page 104 in Asian-American Autobiographers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook) Retrieved 2012-05-17
  7. ^ Gerald Marcus Glaskin, A Many-Splendoured Woman: A Memoir of Han Suyin. (Graham Brash, Singapore. 1995. ISBN 978-981-218-045-2)
  8. ^ Sinologists – Lin Yutang
  9. ^ Martin Vengadesan, The officer who loved Malaya, thestar online, 30 November 2008.
  10. ^ a b Monash Asia Institute: Dr Leon Comber Retrieved 2012-05-17
  11. ^ Sculpture of Han Suyin Unveiled Dong Chun
  12. ^ Chin, Frank. "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." 1990. Reprinted in The Big Aiiieeeee!, Meridian, 1991. Above quote is on p.12

Other references

External links

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