Historical Fiction




Han Suyin. (1952). A Many Splendoured Thing. London: Jonathan Cape.

A Many Splendoured Thing  is a fictionalized autobiographical account of approximately an year (from 1949 to 1950) in Han Suyin’s s life when she has an affair with a British journalist named Mark Elliot. Largely set in Hong Kong, the personal story of a love affair between a Eurasian woman and a British man becomes a quasi-epical narrative that meditates on themes ranging from the complexities of cross-cultural romantic relationships and China’s political and social future under communism to the role of western educated intellectuals in the emergent communist nation—all refracted and complicated through Suyin’s negotiation of  self-identity.

Hong Kong in this narrative becomes the geographical, cultural and psychological space which enables Suyin to reflect on the heterogeneity of her identity, and a socially-unsanctioned relationship with a married western man. At the same time, she experiences a poignant conflict  the need to contribute to a China changing radically under communist rule and  retain a sense of autonomy increasingly becoming unavailable on the mainland. In this sense,  A Many Splendoured Thing articulates the multiplicity of conflictual discourses that characterize Hong Kong which are often expressed in clichéd and simplistic “East meets West” terms in a wellestablished tradition of popular anglophone writing. However, Han Suyin’s narrative  has a multi-layered richness uncharacteristic of this tradition. The author herself highlights  Hong Kong’s unique position when she writes in the epilogue that Hong Kong was the only place in which this book could have been written.

The story of Suyin’s and Elliot’s relationship is constantly complicated by the knowledge of its ultimate impossibility which is bound to the cultural politics of mid-twentieth century China as communist forces triumph against the nationalist Kuomintang.  Trained as a doctor in England,  Suyin wants to return to China and serve the people but at the same time wants desperately to be with Mark. But Mark, a journalist with possible connections to British espionage in the past, will not be accepted  in China. These two competing interests in Suyin’s life reflect the conflictual influences and commitments that shape western-educated Chinese who are chronicled sympathetically in the narrative. There are many sequences where Suyin and other Chinese intellectuals, businessmen and professionals in either forced or self-imposed exile (especially those in exile from Shanghai) discuss the future of China.

The narrative suggests that those western educated Chinese intellectuals who became fellow-travellers to the communist movement or decided to stay and work with the communist regime did so  out of  a painful sense of deracination which was partly a product of their education and acculturation within a different culture. The figure of Suyin in the story as a Eurasian woman relates to this dilemma. Suyin contests the commonplace denigration of Eurasians as a provincial and archaic colonial attitude, and celebrates the heterogeneity of her identity but at the same time she is intensely self-conscious about  the label, “white Chinese”. As a whole, the book is ambivalent about the idea, and reality, of a globalized and culturally and spatially dispersed Chinese identity. China as a place always maintains a powerful and authoritative presence in the story, and the awareness  that a return to China may be impossible is visible as an enduring and sustained angst.

There is also positive portrayal of the dynamism, discipline and energy created by the communist movement which emerges from a sense of guilt Suyin has about her wealthy feudal background. But this admiration for communism is tempered by knowledge of the culture of denunciation, authoritarianism, and repression it can create. This is largely focalized through Suyin’s friend Sen who is also a western trained professional but maintains a dogmatic faith in the communists. The story ends with the outbreak of the Korean War during which Mark, reporting from the frontlines, is killed. The epilogue suggests that Suyin decides to stay in Hong Kong and write this book as a form of memoralization of her love for Mark. (HR)


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