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Norman Bethune is viewed as a national hero and martyr in China, whose eulogy by Mao Zedong used to be required reading for children. His reputation as a martyr in the war against Japan is being recalled by state media as tensions between Beijing and Tokyo rise dangerously. (The Canadian Press)
Norman Bethune is viewed as a national hero and martyr in China, whose eulogy by Mao Zedong used to be required reading for children. His reputation as a martyr in the war against Japan is being recalled by state media as tensions between Beijing and Tokyo rise dangerously. (The Canadian Press)

Beijing finds renewed use for Norman Bethune’s legacy Add to ...

The legacy of the best-known Canadian in China is being put to work in a new kind of propaganda, as Beijing seeks to buttress its arguments that Japan is a dangerous aggressor with an ugly military past.

For the decades that he served as a doctor, Norman Bethune was a colourful inventor, an irascible medical pioneer and an ardent Communist who worked fearlessly on the front lines of wars with fascist states, both in Spain and China.

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But in the decades since he died from an accidental self-inflicted scalpel nick, he has been most useful as a symbol – first to Mao Zedong, who celebrated his “great warm-heartedness toward all comrades,” and later to Canada, which still seeks to trade on the famed Canadian to win over Chinese hearts and wallets.

Now, China is putting Dr. Bethune’s name to fresh use, adding him to a newly created list of heroes and martyrs in its battles against Japanese occupation – an honour he might well merit, though he would not likely be impressed by how far China has strayed from its early Communist roots.

“The war of the Chinese people against the Japanese is the greatest nation-defending war in Chinese history,” said an announcement on the website of China’s Civil Affairs Ministry. The heroes of that war were China’s saviours, the announcement says, who “used their bodies and blood to build an iron Great Wall to guard the nation from indignity.”

The creation of a heroes and martyrs list comes ahead of several newly minted Chinese calendar dates, including a Sept. 3 Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression – marked Wednesday by China’s top leadership in a solemn ceremony accompanied by state media headlines calling for an “anti-Japanese aggression spirit” and a Dec. 13 National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims.

The aim is to draw attention to war dead in service of “cultivating patriotism, collectivism and socialist moralities so as to consolidate the Chinese nation’s cohesiveness,” the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress said this week.

China is locked in a bitter and potentially dangerous feud with Japan, which has erupted into arguments over islands whose ownership is disputed, anti-Japanese protests in China and a rise in military tensions that have raised fears over the possibility of violence between the two countries.

China’s state-controlled media has eagerly seized upon the profound dislike between the two countries, running lengthy history pieces that describe Japanese atrocities and devoting scathing coverage to every bid by Tokyo to regain some of its own military strength.

The antipathy toward Japan is strong enough that it is propelling China past old hurts. Roughly one-third of the heroes and martyrs on the new Chinese list were members of the Kuomintang, the political party against whom the Communists fought a vicious civil war, and eventually routed. China retains a fraught relationship with the Kuomintang leadership of Taiwan.

“The list shows major progress from the past,” said Su Zhiliang, a professor of history at Shanghai Normal University. “China is doing what must be done to become a modern country now.” He added: “In the past, it focused on solidifying authority and class struggles. Now, it’s time to consider what a country should do.”

Dr. Bethune’s inclusion is intriguing in part because it rings more true than his reinvention by Canadian political authorities as a kind of ambassador for a country he often criticized.

Dr. Bethune was drawn to China in the 1930s because of “the horrors of the Japanese invasion,” which he saw first-hand, both in the gruesome injuries he treated and several episodes where Japanese aircraft dropped bombs that narrowly missed killing him, according to his biography, Phoenix: The Life of Bethune. He called the Chinese “victims of cruel aggression,” according to Phoenix authors Roderick and Sharon Stewart. And he spoke in admiring terms about “China in her glorious struggle against Japanese Imperialism.” Although he spent just 655 days in China, he is buried in a Chinese martyrs’ cemetery.

“He’s been used for a lot of things, but this is one area where it actually makes sense,” said Mark Rowswell, the Canadian entertainer in China who has also served as a goodwill ambassador for Canada. “He was totally dedicated to that struggle and did give his life for it.”

Mao himself, in the opening words of a eulogy that Chinese children were long made to memorize, said Dr. Bethune “made light of travelling thousands of miles to help us in our War of Resistance Against Japan,” and later “died a martyr at his post.”

Children no longer study the eulogy, but Dr. Bethune continues to occupy a page and a half in seventh-grade history textbooks. A copy obtained by The Globe and Mail notes how “the Chinese people’s war against the Japanese received broad sympathy and warm support from the international community.”

Dr. Bethune died in 1939, but his memory remains surprisingly vibrant. The country’s top medical prize, awarded only every five years, is the Bethune Medal. Tourists travel by the thousands to his childhood home in Gravenhurst, Ont., where the Canadian government spent $2.5-million on a visitors’ centre that opened in 2012. This summer, his alma mater, the University of Toronto, unveiled a new sculpture of Dr. Bethune that was paid for out of a $800,000 bursary and award program funded by two Chinese business leaders, Zhang Bin and Niu Gensheng.

In China’s big cities and small villages, people still today bring up “Bai Qiu’en,” Dr. Bethune’s Chinese name, to Canadians they meet.

Keeping his name alive serves a few goals in modern-day China. “It’s connected to the current anti-corruption campaign. Things like, ‘How to be a noble person and a man of moral integrity who is above vulgar interests,’ are still very meaningful,” said Yuan Yonglin, director of the Chinese Bethune Spirit Research Association. And China has found in its history fertile ground for propping up its arguments domestically amid ongoing rows with neighbours. “Currently, the international condition requires calling up people’s patriotism,” he said.

There is a certain irony, then, in the likelihood that the doctor would be aghast at China today – a capitalist country that is Communist in name alone.

“I think it’s safe to say most of the true believers of the Communist struggle in the 1930s, especially the foreign ones but also Chinese, would be horrified at the China of today,” Mr. Rowswell said. “But like all historical figures in China, Bethune has become a one-dimensional cartoon character. Historical accuracy is largely irrelevant.”

With a report from Yu Mei

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