Historic Home

Head north of Toronto along Highway 11 and you’ll hit the picturesque little town of Gravenhurst, official population of 12,000 but one that swells in the summer months as the gateway to the Muskokas and the summer playground of cottage-goers and celebrities alike.

It’s also one of the best places in Ontario to practice your Mandarin.

Nestled into a residential area not far from the downtown centre or the bustling and redeveloped waterfront, is a Victorian-era home which is visited every year by many thousands of Chinese from around the world.

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The Bethune Memorial House is a national historic site run by Parks Canada to help remember the humanitarian efforts of Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician born in the house and buried in the Cemetery of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, the capital and largest city in China’s Hebei Province.

He is remembered and revered by more people in China than there are Canadians alive today.

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The Bethune House is celebrating its 40th year as the only tangible Canadian connection to a man who dedicated his life as a frontline surgeon during the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, especially with the Eighth Route Army commanded by none other than Mao Zedong himself.

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Bethune would earn his enduring acclaim in China, even though he spent only two years there and would ultimately die of blood poisoning contracted while operating on a soldier, with the help of an essay by Mao – one that was required reading for millions of Chinese schoolchildren in the decades following his death.

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Elementary school text books in China still have the essay today which, in part, reads:

“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.”

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