Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:57 AM CST – China

History

Jean Jérome Augustin Bussiere

Back to Life

French doctor Jean Jérome Augustin Bussiere came to China in 1913 and stayed for 41 years, treating politicians, liaising with celebrities and even helping Chinese forces during World War II. Six decades later, a CCTV documentary team dusts off his forgotten story

Jean Jérome Augustin Bussiere Courtesy of Interviewee

Bussiere’s son examines his father’s effects at his home in France Courtesy of Interviewee

Wedding portrait of Bussiere and his wife, Wu Sidan Courtesy of Interviewee

After being left out of history books for more than half a century, Jean Jérome Augustin Bussiere, a French doctor who lived in China from 1913 to 1954, returned to the public eye in June 2015 when China’s State media outlet CCTV broadcast the documentary Once Upon a Time in Bussiere’s Garden.

The documentary was made after the Chinese government held a conference in March 2014 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping identified Bussiere as a Frenchman who had “made great contributions to the historical development of China.” In addition, France held a photo exhibition in Paris this June that told the story of the forgotten doctor’s life in China.

According to historical records, Bussiere was a witness to many of China’s most historic milestones during his stay in the country, from the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the founding of the Republic of China (ROC), from fighting against Japan during World War II (1937-1945) to the Civil War (1945-1949), and then to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. During the process, he was as much a participant as an onlooker, keeping in close touch with influential officials and politicians and even getting involved in war before finally leaving the country due to political reasons.

The documentary opens with a voice-over by the doctor’s son, Jean Louis Bussiere. “I was a two-year-old child when my father passed away [in France], so [he has] remained a mystery to me. I wanted to know who were those people standing beside him in the photos and how he got deep into Chinese society. It is a fascinating phase of history and few people know about it.”

Bussiere’s Salons

Born in 1872, Bussiere received his medical degree at a French naval medical institute and practiced medicine in several French colonies before he arrived in China in 1913. Although China was buffeted by social and political upheaval at that time – the Qing Dynasty had collapsed and warlords jostled for regional supremacy – it was a brand new phase of life for Bussiere. He swiftly earned a reputation among China’s upper classes for his superb medical skills.

According to the documentary, Bussiere introduced some vaccines and surgical tools to China, impressing a great many Chinese people who were previously skeptical about Western medicine. The doctor’s son found many notes sent from the era’s rich and famous among the late Bussiere’s things. There were even invitations from royals, proving Bussiere’s high social status at the time. Besides high-ranking officials and nobles, Bussiere’s patients even included politician and general Yuan Shikai, who was elected the ROC’s first president in 1913 and then attempted to revive China’s monarchy by having himself declared Emperor in 1915. As Yuan’s medical consultant, Bussiere performed the final operation on “Emperor” Yuan, who died of uremia.

Some of Bussiere’s old neighbors still have clear memories about the salons he held every Wednesday at his home, located beside the French embassy in Beijing’s foreign concession. Chinese and French dignitaries met at these events to exchange news and discuss current affairs.

“The doctor lived here for years and remains well known among French notables in Beijing. He received many friends every week who, though not necessarily Sinologists, all had a deep interest in China and Asian countries. They shared information and ideas with each other, regardless of their birthplaces or educational backgrounds,” wrote Pierre Morel, former French ambassador to China.

In 1923, Bussiere rented some land near Mount Yangtai in the remote western suburbs of Beijing and built a three-story garden villa. He started holding his salons there and it soon became an upper-class social hub. The list of participants included French Sinologist André d’Hormon, poet-diplomat winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize for Literature Saint-John Perse, as well as a great number of Chinese luminaries who were well known for changing the course of Chinese history, such as Tsai Yuen-pei, the ROC’s first education minister and president of Peking University from 1916-1927, and Wang Ching-wei, who served as the ROC’s propaganda minister in 1924 and later surrendered to the Japanese army during World War II.

“Nearly every guest sensed sincerity and friendship in my father’s salon,” said Bussiere junior. “They tasted cakes, fruits and wine together and shared their thoughts and feelings. They came and went like clouds, while my father stayed planted there like a tree, witnessing the changes.”

Work-Study

Bussiere played an even bigger role in Chinese history when he engaged in a Sino-French work-study program in 1915. It was initiated by Li Shih-tseng, a prestigious member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the early ROC period who was also a frequent guest at Bussiere’s salons. Li called on Chinese youth to study in France on a work-study basis, with Bussiere serving as a primary coordinator, thanks to his social network in the French embassy.

With the support of his salon guests, the program made it possible for Chinese young people to learn more about the outside world, opening the door for a great number of future politicians and revolutionaries. From 1919-20, the program sent around 2,000 Chinese students to France, many of whom have deeply changed China’s fate. Program alumni include first PRC premier Zhou Enlai as well as Deng Xiaoping, the designer of China’s Reform and Opening-up policy.

Besides conducting the program’s logistical work, Bussiere still devoted himself to medical practice, not only performing physical examinations on the program’s Chinese students, but also treating poor civilians, free of charge. Former patient Hu Baoshan remembers going to the doctor although he couldn’t afford medical care. “Bussiere had to use gasoline to sterilize my leg before an operation,” Hu told CCTV. “Despite [economic hardship], he bore the entire cost of his medical practice… If not for him, I would have died.”

According to the documentary, Bussiere remodeled a watchtower in his garden, transforming it into a three-story clinic for local patients. Above his villa’s gate hung a stone plate, which Li Shih-tseng had engraved with four Chinese characters: Ji Shi Zhi Yi. It roughly translates to “Practice medicine to help the people.”

Due to a shortage of funds, the work-study program failed to continue after 1920, but Li and his supporters set up the French-Chinese University in Beijing, with Bussiere as a member of the board. The doctor also served as the first president of Shanghai’s Aurora University Medical School from 1932-48, pushing the school into a well-respected position within the Chinese medical world. After the PRC was founded, the university merged with several other medical schools to form present-day Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, which fostered a large number of the new nation’s most experienced medical experts and academics.

Wars

After World War II broke out and Japan invaded China proper in 1937, Bussiere had to suspend his salons for the sake of security. But he was not one to just watch the action from the sidelines. Taking advantage of the fact that Japan usually treated Westerners in China better, Bussiere helped the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Eighth Route Army transport medicine to the front lines.

Mei Hongkun, son of Bussiere’s then-driver, recalled an air of secrecy around the outings. “My father often brought a bag home and nobody was allowed to touch it,” Mei said. “When my mother asked where he was going, he would gesture ‘eight,’ meaning the Eighth Route Army.”

 “Dr Bussiere usually sat in the car calmly, since he held a pass granted by the Japanese army,” he added.

Mei’s words are supported by Rong Guozhang’s historical book Eight Years of the Peking People’s Resistance Against Japan, which revealed that Bussiere helped underground CPC member Huang Hao transport medicine through Beijing’s western mountains, first by bike, then in his Buick. He also secretly performed several operations on members of the Eighth Route Army.

After World War II, the Chinese were caught in a fierce civil war between the CPC and KMT. Considering various uncertainties, the French embassy instructed all French citizens to leave China, but Bussiere refused. By that time, he was practically a Beijinger, wearing Chinese clothes and speaking fluent Chinese.

“There are few doctors and little medicine here, and my patients need me. It is duty that asks me to stay,” he reportedly wrote to one of his friends. According to Chinese media reports, another reason he wanted to stay was that he had a lot of confidence in the CPC, as he had close relationships with many of its members.

Because Bussiere stayed in China, he met the Chinese woman who would become his wife, Wu Sidan. She was 52 years his junior. Despite this huge age gap, the couple cared for each other and married in 1952.

Leave

Everything seemed right for Bussiere in Beijing – he and his best friend d’Hormon even bought a tomb in the city’s western mountains. He didn’t want to leave China, even in death.

Their dream, however, was broken by the Korean War (1950-1953), during which the Chinese army joined North Korea to fight against the US. Meanwhile, in the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the new Chinese government stood against France to support the communist Viet Minh. In this political climate, an anti-imperialism campaign was sweeping through China, with all Westerners placed under tight supervision. After finding out that several foreign agents had contacted Bussiere, the Chinese government revoked Bussiere’s medical license in July 1954 and ordered him to either take Chinese citizenship or leave the country – without his wife.

Bussiere chose the latter. “I regard China as my second mother country and the Chinese people as my people… I believe I deserve to be China’s guest. My entire fortune and all of my friendships are in China… and I did what a Chinese patriot would do [during my stay in China]. Apart from that, I just did what a doctor should do… Could you allow a man as old and diseased as I am to live in Beijing if I promise not to work and pose a burden [on the government]?” Bussiere wrote in a letter to Premier Zhou Enlai.

“If the law does not permit [this], could you please keep my wife’s Chinese citizenship and allow her to go with me?”

In October 1954, Bussiere and Wu Sidan left Beijing for the region of Auvergne in central France, bringing with them only US$30 and Bussiere’s scripts, letters, photos, certificates and pet bird. Their five crates of antiques were confiscated by Chinese customs and were stored in the French embassy.

With almost no money, Bussiere and his wife had to start from scratch. Given that Bussiere was already 82 years old, Wu Sidan, who was born into a wealthy Chinese family, did the housework and labored on a farm by herself. Bussiere died in 1958, leaving his wife to raise their two-year-old son alone. She never remarried.

“After the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] broke out in China, it got harder and harder for my mother to contact her family in Beijing,” recalled Bussiere’s son. “She often stared at the mountains around our home in a daze, saying that they were very similar to the western mountains in Beijing [where Bussiere’s garden villa was located]. Once, when she watched a Chinese film, she burst into tears at the images of China.”

According to Bussiere’s son, Wu returned to Bussiere’s Chinese villa twice before her death in 2013 – once in 1983 and again in 1992 – but she saw nothing but an abandoned building covered with dust and weeds.

In 2013, the Beijing government defined Bussiere’s garden villa as a cultural relic deserving of protection and restored the building. Before that, few Chinese people knew what the wasteland was, and only a few of the old villagers living in the area could remember Bussiere, or what he looked like.

“I found a note written by my father in 1953 when collecting his effects,” Bussiere’s son said. “It reads: ‘I would not like to organize my materials, since I have been accustomed to their haphazard fashion. I closed my drawer and perhaps will not open it again… But someday, my children or grandchildren might see this note, being told that their father/grandfather earned some small honors in China.’” 

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