A controversial hero

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The man depicted in portrait form and as the main character on the stamps issued by China in 1960 was a Canadian physician, medical innovator, and noted communist. He became expert in thoracic surgery and developed or modified more than a dozen new surgical tools.

Norman Bethune achieved acclaim first for his service as a frontline surgeon supporting the democratically elected Republican government during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). But it was his service in China with the Communist Eighth Route Army during China’s second war with Japan (1937-1945) that would earn him enduring gratitude.

Mao Zedong, China 1993

Dr. Bethune effectively brought modern medicine to rural China, often treating sick villagers as well as wounded soldiers. His selfless commitment made a great impression on the Chinese people, especially their leader, Mao Zedong.



Mao wrote a eulogy to him, which was memorised by generations of Chinese people: “Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people. Every Communist must learn from him. … We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.”

The 1979 stamps above commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death and show a statue of Bethune in Shijiazhuang Hebei, China and a depiction of Bethune working in a battlefield operating theatre. There are many statues dedicated to Norman Bethune in China and Canada.

In 1990 Canada and China made a joint issue of two stamps featuring the man who achieved acclaim in both countries.


Part of his legacy is the existence to this day of hospitals and colleges bearing his name in China.

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