Review of China Nurse, 1932-1939

On the front lines

Ewen, Jean. China nurse, 1932-1939. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

Jean Ewen was a Canadian nurse who spent 6 years in China, working first with Catholic missionaries, then with the Chinese Communists’ 8th and New 4th armies. This might seem like a drastic change, but there is a back story of course. Her father was Tom Ewen (or McEwen?), a prominent member of the Canadian Communist Party. As Jean tartly remarks, he looked forward to the proletarian revolution, “in which he could play a more interesting role than being a father to his four children.” Ewen herself is emphatically not a communist, and her decision to head off to China as a Catholic missionary is classic youthful revolt against parental authority.

According to Ewen, she arrived in China in mid-1933 (oddly conflicting with the title of the book), and took up nursing posts in increasingly isolated areas of Shantung province, encountering bandits, floods, famine, and all manner of political turmoil, but apparently getting along well with both the missionaries and the desperately poor peasants she nursed.

She returned to Canada in June 1937, just missing the beginning of the China-Japan war. In December, she was recruited by the Canadian Communist Party for a medical mission to the Chinese Communists’ Eighth Route Army in northwestern China. Also on the mission was the famous Dr. Norman Bethune, about whom Ewen has many interesting things to say.

Basically, Ewen found Bethune a “gifted physician,” but a rather awful person, and the conflict between them is very entertaining to read about. After a horrific air raid, in which she is “scared spitless,” Bethune ponderously informs her that “Every man must have two baptisms in his life–once with fire and once with water.” This, Bethune explains, is her baptism of fire, to which Ewen snaps, “You are nothing but a bloody missionary.” Bethune then rains down fire on her a second time: “He yelled and screamed, talking so quickly that I don’t think he knew exactly what he was saying. ‘Don’t you ever say anything like that to me again, you dizzy bitch!'”

Bethune and Ewen soon parted ways, but Ewen stayed for over a year, first in Shensi, then in Anhui, where she worked with the Communist New Fourth Army and Agnes Smedley, among other people. This, according to Ewen, was a terrible snafu, with the Army finally taking over the hospitals and medical services.

Ewen is often a very evocative writer, as in her description of sleeping in one of the loess caves that served as housing in Shensi: “From the bed roll you hear all the chattering of the mice and the scratching of the crawlers who live in the earth. You never know just how alive the earth is until you occupy a cave.” Her description of the brutal Japanese air raids and the chaos that followed are also some of the most vivid I’ve read about the war.

Overall, this book is a great read, but the reader must be careful, especially when Ewen is describing events in which she has not herself participated. Her description of the famous Sian Incident of Dec. 1936 is a mess, and there are many odd departures from fact throughout the book. Oddest of all is her description of leaving Sian in October 1938, on pages 118-120, where she seems to go from Sian to Chengchow, then back to Sian, in order to get to Hankow! The Chinese transcriptions are also totally scrambled, but fortunately few.

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