Han Suyin

(1917 - 2012)

Author Biography and Bibliography

Eurasian writer: Elizabeth Comber
Han Suyin was a prominent writer on modern Chinese and Asian subjects. Han Suyin portrait
Her books ranged from historical romantic fiction to modern Chinese history and a multi-volume autobiography.
She was born on September 12, 1917 in Henan Province (formerly Honan). Her birth name was apparently Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow. She signed her name as Han Suyin or Dr. Elizabeth CK Comber. She died on November 2, 2012 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In 1975 I met her quite briefly at the Australian National University in Canberra. This was just before my first visit to Asia. This brief meeting at a tea reception inspired me to try one of her books. Reading that first book led to another and then another.
Her attitude and perception of Asia must have been heavily influenced by her family background. Her Chinese railway engineer father met her Dutch/Flemish mother while attending university in Belgium.
Her life was always been suspended between the East and the West.
She walked a line between Communism and Capitalism; fiction and non-fiction. While she has rarely hid her leftist leanings, she came from a quite bourgeois background. In 1938 she married a Kuomintang officer named P.H. Tang who rose to the rank of General before he was killed in 1947.
There are certainly some mistakes and omissions in her writing, but she did an excellent job at making things interesting.
She does gloss over the many crimes of the Chinese Communist Party. For a perceptive alternate view, I recommend Harrison Salisbury's The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng
HSY received her medical training in London. During the Korean War period, she worked as a doctor in Hong Kong. This is the period portrayed in The Many Splendoured Thing.
While this book was her greatest success; it was also her most scandalous. Written as a novel it revealed personal secrets that shocked and hurt many of her friends and family. A close family member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that "it is truly unfortunate that she has a propensity sometimes to mix fact with fiction with unpleasant results for the persons concerned".
I have revealed much of myself on the web. Writing and revealing one's personal truths and secrets is a noble human goal. Unfortunately, this can conflict with truths and desires as others perceive them.
Writing these pages has forced me to sift through alternative perceptions. Histories or biographies that attempt to reveal 'Truth' is rather like taking blurry snapshots of a moving target. Having completed my own first five decades, I find it becoming harder to accept any truth and reality as rock-solid and permanent. We all have personal demons, fears and realities which we alternatively hide and reveal.
After Hong Kong she spent at least ten years based in Johore Bahru, Malaysia. She worked at an anti-tuberculosis clinic and married Leon Comber.
He was a Malayan Special Branch Officer during the 1948 to 1960 'Emergency' period. (After many years in book publishing he is now a research associate at the Monash Asia Institute of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia).
After this period, she shared her life with her Indian husband Vincent Ruthnaswamy until his death in the spring of 2003. Much of this period is thinly disguised in her novel The Mountain is Young. It is also discussed emotionally in the memoir A Share of Loving.
Her daughter, Yungmei Tang, was adopted. This is another family secret revealed in her mother's fiction.

Han Suyin has long been based in Lausanne, Switzerland. I phoned her in 1998 and exchanged a couple of letters. She said then that she owned neither a television nor a radio but that she read five newspapers per day. At various times, she has maintained homes in Beijing and New York.
Her most interesting fiction seems quite autobiographical while her autobiography is written like a third-person novel. Reading it is a great way to get an overview of modern China's history.
I have received email messages from friends, relatives and correspondents of HSY. Much of my information is from them. I welcome further reader contributions.
The University of Minnesota hosts an extensive Han Suyin Page that was created by Teresa Kowalska.

A Partial Bibliography
Destination Chungking (Fiction - 1942)
See Singapore (Non-Fiction - 1942) Photography by Peter Robinson
A Many-Splendoured Thing (Fiction - 1952)
(Filmed in 1955 as Love is a Many-Splendored Thing starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden)
... and the Rain My Drink (Fiction(?) - 1956)
The Mountain Is Young (Fiction - 1958)
Two Loves (Fiction - 1962)
One volume containing two novellas: Cast But One Shadow and Winter Love.
The Four Faces (Fiction - 1963)
Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution:
The Morning Deluge 1893-1953 (1972 - 2 Volumes)
Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese revolution, 1949-1975
China in the Year 2001 (Non-Fiction 1967)
Asia today;: Two Outlooks (Non-Fiction 1969)
Lhasa, the open city: A journey to Tibet (Non-Fiction 1977)
Till Morning Comes: A Novel (Fiction - 1982)
The Enchantress (Fiction - 1985).
Han Suyin's China (Non-Fiction - 1987)
(Large format Photography book with Han Suyin commentary)
Fleur de soleil: Histoire de ma vie (Non-Fiction - Paris l988)
Tigers and Butterflies: Selected Writings on Politics, Culture and Society (1990)
Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976 (1994).
There is a book excerpt and photo at the GoldSea web site.
Han Suyin's autobiography / history series consists of:
The Crippled Tree (1965)
A Mortal Flower (1966)
Birdless summer (1968)
My House Has Two Doors (1980)
Phoenix Harvest (1980)
A Share of Loving (l987)
(Most recent one that I have read. It is not her best effort.)
Wind in My Sleeve (1992)

Writings about Han Suyin include:
A Many Splendoured Woman: a Memoir of Han Suyin by GM Glaskin
Entretiens de Fernand Seguin avec Han Suyin... Published 1969 by Editions Ici Radio-Canada. This contains transcripts in French from the TV program Le Sel de la Semaine.

From one China to the other (1956)
Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Forward by Han Suyin
China 1890-1938: From the Warlords to World War (A History in Documentary Photographs) (1989)
There is an earlier volume of photographs, 'China with a Thousand Faces', but I have only found it listed in French as La Chine Aux Mille Visages, 1900-1938
Monuments of Civilization: Ancient Cambodia (1978) Donatella Mazzeo and Chiara Silvi Antonini
Foreword by Han Suyin
Most of her books are out of print. One can find a good selection at www.Alibris.com and www.AbeBooks.com.
I have seen bookstores file her books alphabetically under both 'Han' and 'Suyin'. Some are listed under 'Romantic Fiction' and some in the 'History' area. Happy hunting.

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