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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

The story of the iconic 1939 Norman Bethune photo

Updated: Mar 4

In May, 1972, in the magazine China Reconstructs photographer Wu Yin-hsien told the story of how he came to take the iconic photo of Dr. Norman Bethune at work in a field hospital in China, 1939.


THIRTY YEARS AGO, When I first took up the camera in Shanghai, I used to photograph --anything that was pretty -- birds, flowers, anything that met what I considered my artistic standard. Though I came from a poor family and thought well of the working people, yet I felt the workers, peasants and soldiers could not be the main subjects for photographic art. Sometimes by chance I did take some pictures of rural scenes and the life of the poor. But this was chiefly because they caught my fancy; I sought only after beauty of form, effects in light and shadows. I was not clear whom photographic art should serve.

In 1938, the year after the outbreak of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, I went to Yenan. The broad vistas of the liberated areas opened my eyes and a change began to take place in the way I thought and felt and my approach to photographic art.

Not long after I reached Yenan I joined the film team of the General Political Department of the Eighth Route Army, which was led by the Chinese Communist Party. In 1939 I went with the film team into the revolutionary base areas and shot the long documentary Yenan and the Eighth Route Army. During that period I lived with the workers, peasants and soldiers. Hence the film reflected rather well the militant spirit of the army and people -- their unity in the common effort to resist Japanese aggression, and the way the people's leaders shared the hardships with the army and the people.

It was during this period that I took my photo of Doctor Norman Bethune at work. If I had looked at that scene with the feeling and preferences I had had in Shanghai, I would perhaps have considered the subject a far cry from my "artistic standard". But when I went deep into the actualities of life's struggles, I thought differently. I learned that Dr. Bethune had made light of travelling thousands of miles to China to help our country. And when I saw him wearing straw sandals and a white apron around his waist, bending over the crude "operating table", all his attention concentrated on saving the wounded, I was so moved by his proletarian internationalism that I could not but record it with my camera.

I think the photographer must know and understand his subject before he can create a good picture. I lived with Dr. Bethune for two months at the Shansi-Chahar-Hopei front. Once he spent three days and three nights without rest, operating on wounded soldiers. When the wounded were out of danger, he learned that another comrade was hurt at the front. He threw his bag over his shoulder and went 20 kilometers to give treatment. His operating room was an old temple, and at first he did not even have surgical instruments. With the help of a blacksmith he had scissors and scalpels forged, and with the carpenter he made splints, apparatus for applying traction and a portable "operating theater" that fitted over the backs of two donkeys. Within a few months he had treated more than 500 wounded back to health. Comrade Bethune's "great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people"* will always be remembered

* From Chairman Mao's article In Memory of Norman Bethune.


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