Dr. Norman Bethune's Tomb, Martyrs' Memorial Park, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province

Born in Canada in 1890, Norman Bethune is now renown throughout China as a hero of the Anti-Japanese War. In 1909 he enrolled in university with plans to become a doctor, however when World War I broke out he left his studies to participate and became a stretcher-bearer in France. After being wounded by shrapnel, he returned home to complete his medical degree. For many years Bethune specialised his skills at various hospitals and clinics, and throughout this time developed a number of surgical tools and procedures – some are still in use today. During the depression of the 1930s, Bethune became increasingly concerned with the health of the poor and in turn, campaigned for a more socially equal healthcare system in Canada.

To understand better how this could be carried out, Bethune visited the Soviet Union in 1935 to observe their socialist practices. It was during this time that he became a communist and upon returning home, joined the Communist Party of Canada. Soon after he traveled to Spain to support the communists fighting against the fascist forces. Bethune provided medical guidance and supplies to those working in the Republican Army and it is thought that during this time he also invented battlefield blood banks – an initiative that saved the lives of hundreds on the frontline.

Returning home to Canada in 1937, Bethune intended to raise further funds and return to Spain to continue his work. However, when news broke of the Japanese aggression occurring in China, he changed his focus and in January 1938 travelled to the Shanxi-Hebei region with a mobile medical unit. For the next 18 months Bethune worked on the frontline, treating both wounded soldiers and local civilians for weeks at a time. It is said that he also established over 20 medical teaching hospitals during this period. Whilst operating on a soldier at Tangxian in November 1939, the doctor cut his finger and contracted septicemia. In only a matter of days he died from his wounds.

After his death, the local people carried his body for four days through the nearby mountains for burial. Only months later it was moved again and laid in state for thousands of local people to pay their respects. In 1952, well and truly after the war had ceased, Bethune’s body was moved to the Martyrs’ Memorial Park at Shijiazhuang. A large tomb was built to receive his remains and nearby a statue of Bethune was erected as a memorial. Within the park, a small museum displays a series of photographs of Dr Bethune and a collection of the medical instruments he used whilst on the battlefield. Every year on tomb sweeping day, hundreds of local citizens lay flowers and wreaths on the monument to commemorate the doctor’s life and work.

As well as the memorial, Dr. Bethune has been remembered in a number of different ways throughout China. During the 1960s, Mao Zedong wrote an essay about Bethune and his work, which was later published in elementary textbooks across the country (and may still be featured today). A number of hospitals and medical clinics were named in his honour, including the Norman Bethune International Peace Hospital that sits across the road from his tomb. In 1991, the Norman Bethune Medal was established to celebrate an individual’s contribution and humanitarianism to the medical profession – it is the highest medical honour awarded in China.

In Canada as well, the manse which Behune was born in, was bought by the Government of Canada and opened as a house museum in the 1970s. Operated by Parks Canada, the museum educates visitors on the life of Dr. Bethune and his contributions to the world of medicine as well as his commitment to social equality.

Sources and related Web-links:

  1. Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart, Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune (MQUP, 2011), https://books.google.de/books/about/Phoenix.html?id=u4eKCrdHwVgC&redir_esc=y 

  2. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/html/cd/1985/198508/19850803/19850803004_8.html