Han Suyin (1917—)

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Han Suyin (1917—)

Chinese author and physician who wrote the muchacclaimed novel A Many-Splendored Thing. Name variations: Elizabeth Chou; Chou Kuang Hu; Zhou Guanghu; Elizabeth Comber. Born Chou Kuang Hu or Zhou Guanghu on September 12, 1917, in Peking (Beijing), China; daughter of Y.T. Chou and Marguerite (Denis) Chou; attended Yenching University in Peking; graduated from University of Brussels, B.Sc.; graduated from London University, M.B., B.S., 1948; married General Pao H. Tang (Bao Dang), in 1938 (died 1947); married Leonard F. Comber, on February 1, 1952 (divorced around 1962); married Vincent Ruthnaswamy, in 1964; children: one daughter, Yung Mei (adopted 1941).

Selected works:

(autobiographical fiction) Destination Chungking (Little, Brown, 1942); A Many-Splendored Thing (Little, Brown, 1952); From One China to the Other (Universe, 1956); … And the Rain My Drink (Little, Brown, 1956); The Mountain is Young (Putnam, 1958); (novellas) Two Loves (Putnam, 1962, published in England as Cast But One Shadow and Winter Love, J. Cape, 1962); The Four Faces (Putnam, 1963); The Crippled Tree (Putnam, 1965); A Mortal Flower (Putnam, 1966); China in the Year 2001 (Basic Books, 1967); Birdless Summer (Putnam, 1968); Asia Today: Two Outlooks (McGill-Queens University Press, 1969); The Morning Deluge: Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Revolution, 1893–1954 (Little, Brown, 1972); My House Has Two Doors (Putnam, 1980); The Enchantress (c. 1985).

Han Suyin was born in a Chinese railroad station in 1917, while her mother was journeying to Peking. As the biracial offspring of a Chinese father, Y.T. Chou, and a Belgian mother, Marguerite Denis Chou , the young girl felt that she did not belong either to the Chinese culture in which she lived or the European heritage of her mother. She was convinced that Marguerite preferred her other daughter, who was white, to "the yellowish object" she felt herself to be, and she could not find solace within her own family. Even the variety of her names reflect her dual identity. Feeling that her given name, Chou Kuang Hu (Zhou Guanghu), was unpronounceable to her non-Asian friends, she became known as Elizabeth Chou. She later took the pseudonym Han Suyin while writing her first book, Destination Chungking (1942). Though some translate the name to mean "a gamble," Han insisted that her name translates as "a common little voice."

Han Suyin started her college education at Yenching University in Peking, but soon left to study at the University of Brussels in 1936. She met her first husband, Colonel Pao Tang (Bao Dang), on a boat returning to China, and they

married there in 1938. The marriage proved to be extremely unhappy. A brutal man, Tang beat his wife to discourage her from pursuing an education. Han was spared a life of misery when Tang was killed in the fighting with Communist Chinese in 1947. Meanwhile, she had adopted Yung Mei , a one-year-old girl in 1941 and, after her husband's death, moved to London with her young daughter to complete her medical studies. To supplement her small scholarship, Han worked as a stenographer, museum curator, and typist.

In 1949, Han Suyin took a position as resident physician at a hospital in Hong Kong, practicing medicine during the day and writing at night. There, she met and fell in love with British journalist, Ian Morrison. Their alliance encountered many obstacles, including the hostility of a society that disapproved of interracial relationships, and the fact that Morrison was married. The relationship ended in tragedy when, while covering the war in Korea, he was killed when a jeep he was riding in hit a land mine.

Han drew on her deep sorrow to write a largely autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendored Thing (1952), which closely mirrored their affair. The book was a huge success, earning a fortune for Han and establishing her international literary reputation. The novel managed to interweave an intimate personal narrative about a love story involving a Eurasian and a Westerner with an objective report on modern Asia. It was later made into a successful movie, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, starring Jennifer Jones .

In February of 1949, Dr. Han accepted an assistantship in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department of Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong and married for the second time on February 1, 1952. Her husband, Leonard Comber, was a former British police officer. The marriage lasted for about ten years, ending in an amicable divorce around 1962. She traveled widely and frequently discussed political events with those in her social circle, including Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing , Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, and president Gamel Abdel Nassar of Egypt.

Han lived in numerous countries but spent most of her early to middle years in China. Her autobiography, My House Has Two Doors (1980), is a detailed account of the three decades between 1949 and 1980 when she experienced events that eventually formed Red China, including the Civil War, the Freedom of Expression movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. During the 1950s, the Chinese Communist government suspected her of being an American spy despite her earnest medical work for her compatriots—an ironic twist given the fact that she was simultaneously blacklisted as a Communist in the United States.

Han Suyin's publications were instrumental in providing insight into the governments of China, Cambodia and India, although many critics took offense at her virulent criticism of Western values. Always outspoken, she never apologized for her opinions and continued to lend her support to the government of Mao Zedong. Among her works are Destination Chungking (1942), written in collaboration with Marian Manly ; A Many-Splendored Thing (1952); … And the Rain My Drink (1956); From One China to the Other (1956); The Mountain is Young (1957); Four Faces, about Cambodia (1960); The Crippled Tree (1965); A Mortal Flower (1966); Lhasa, the Open City; Birdless Summer (1967); Asia Today: Two Outlooks (1969); The Morning Deluge: Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Revolution, 1893–1954 (1972); My House Has Two Doors (1980); The Enchantress (c. 1985); and two novellas, Cast But One Shadow (1962) and Winter Love (1963).

Han met her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, an Indian military engineer, in Katmandu at the coronation of King Mahendra and Queen Ratna Devi of Nepal. Eight years after that first meeting, they married in 1964. As of 1985, they were living in Lusanne, Switzerland.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1957. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1957.

Han Suyin. My House Has Two Doors. NY: Putnam, 1980.

Kinsman, Clare, ed. Contemporary Authors Vols. 17–20. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976.

The New York Times Biographical Service. December 3, 1977, January 25, 1985.

related media:

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (102 min. film), starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden, screenplay by John Patrick, directed by Henry King, produced by 20th Century-Fox, 1955.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland