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Indian doctor working in wartime China remembered as eternal bond between two countries

(Xinhua)    10:58, August 25, 2020

SHIJIAZHUANG/NEW DELHI, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- A bronze statue of an Indian man erected outside a medical school in north China, is to be formally unveiled early next month. When passers-by look up, they might not recognize the face but most of them have heard the name: Ke Dihua.

Ke Dihua is a household name in China. With his full name being Dwarkanath Kotnis, he was one of five Indian physicians sent to China to provide medical assistance during World War II, where he breathed his last breath.

Apart from the school named after him as the Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School, there are memorials of Kotnis in both Shijiazhuang, the capital of China's Hebei province, and Tangxian county where he once worked.

In North China Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery (or North China Military Martyrs Cemetery), his white grave headstone has witnessed numerous visitors coming to mourn and leave bouquets throughout the decades.

"We were astonished to see how the Chinese people did not forget their foreign friends who helped them in their anti-fascist and liberation struggle," said Mrigendranath Gantait, president of the Dr. Kotnis Memorial Committee (DKMC) in West Bengal, India, once after a tour to China.


Kotnis was born in 1910 to a middle-class family, and studied medicine before coming to China in 1938, one year after China began a full-scale resistance against the aggression of Japanese invaders.

"At that time, China was in tremendous difficulty," said Lou Yue, a research fellow with the North China Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery who spent years studying the life of Kotnis.

"We had an acute shortage of practitioners and medicines," she said. "Many injured soldiers died or were crippled because they couldn't receive timely treatment."

"At the request of Chinese leader Zhu De, the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, sent a five-member team of doctors on behalf of the Indian people to China to show solidarity with the Chinese in their fight against Japanese fascist aggression," said Gantait.

Like Kotnis, or Ke Dihua, each of the other four doctors had a Chinese name ending with "hua," the character meaning China.

Lou can tell many stories about Kotnis, collected from ordinary people. "He helped his patients with food. He was careful and quick while changing dressings so that the wounded wouldn't feel too much pain. He gave his horse and hat to patients on the march," she said.

Kotnis was so hard-working that during one battle in 1940, he performed operations for up to 72 hours, and treated more than 800 patients in 13 days.

"Despite hearing news of his father's death, he did not return to India. Instead, he reaffirmed his commitment to continue his work in China. Such mental strength for a peoples' cause is exemplary," Gantait recalled.

The efforts of Kotnis won him the nicknames "Dr. Thoughtful" and "Old Ke," a way the Chinese used to refer affectionately to their friends.

In 1941, he was appointed as director of the Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital, named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. After his appointment, he performed about 2,000 operations.

Kotnis, who learned to speak fluent Mandarin, also taught medicine to Chinese students.

When a student graduated, the doctor would write something to encourage him: "Study hard for the sake of the liberation of the oppressed mankind" in English, and "Victory in the war of resistance against Japan" in Chinese. He Jiangyong, whose mother Xue Ying was one of Kotnis's students, donated a graduation album to the North China Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery.

Without textbooks, Kotnis would compile them himself.

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1942, when he was writing on page 173 of his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, with the pen leaving a long line on the paper. He later died of epileptic seizures at the age of 32.

"He made his highest sacrifice by giving his life for the cause of the Chinese peoples' liberation movement," said Gantait.


Late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was deeply affected by his death. He wrote in his eulogy "the army has lost a helping hand, the nation has lost a friend. Let us always bear in mind his internationalist spirit."

"Dr. Kotnis swore by the tomb of Dr. Bethune 'I will live a life as yours'," said Lou. "He lived up to his oath."

Kotnis's wife, a Chinese woman called Guo Qinglan, gave birth to their son less than four months before his death. The boy was named Yinhua, two Chinese characters literally meaning "India" and "China." Unfortunately, Yinhua died in 1967 at the age of 24 as a result of medical malpractice, shortly before graduating from medical college.

However, the memory of the doctor that connects China and India is everlasting.

According to Gantait, a movie in India in the 1940s about the life of Kotnis, "Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani" which means the Immortal Story of Dr. Kotnis in Hindi, was popular among Indian people.

The All India Dr. Kotnis Memorial Committee (AIKMC) was founded in the same year, led by Bejoy Kumar Basu, another doctor in the five-man team from India, known as Ba Suhua to the Chinese. "After functioning for more than 25 years, activities of the AIKMC gradually stopped. But DKMC in West Bengal has been continuing its functions for the last 47 years since its inception in 1973," said Gantait.

Gantait visited China in 1978, when he went to the Kotnis memorial in Shijiazhuang, as well as to the Gegong village in the Tangxian county of Hebei province, where Kotnis lived and died.

"The villagers gave us a description of Kotnis's activities," he said. "One woman was weeping when she described her memories of Kotnis. It touched my heart to know how one Indian doctor was so deeply rooted in the heart of a remote hilly village in China."

He was then doing acupuncture training at Nanjing University. Twelve years later, the Dr. B.K. Basu Memorial Research and Training Institute of Acupuncture was set up by the West Bengal government, of which Gantait became the first director until his retirement in 2010.

He also persuaded the West Bengal government to give legal recognition to acupuncture therapy in 1996. "West Bengal was the first state of India to give legal recognition to acupuncture," he said.

"Acupuncture therapy itself acts as a bridge of friendship with the Chinese people," said the old man emotionally. "When common people get the benefits from acupuncture clinics, they develop a soft spot for China."

His latest visit to China was in 2018, when he led a seven-member DKMC delegation on the 80th anniversary of Kotnis and his teammates' arrival in China. "DKMC members were amazed to see how the Chinese have remembered Dr. Kotnis," he said.


More than 3,000 km away in Shijiazhuang, the legacy of Kotnis has also been handed down in a school.

Hu Bangzhong, a researcher who has helped prepare the founding of the Kotnis memorial in Shijiazhuang since 1975, retired in 1990. Bored with solitary life at home, he got a job at a local school.

One day a friend asked him why he never founded his own medical school.

Years of research had planted the stories of Kotnis deep into Hu's mind. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps he could start a medical school, and name it after the revered Indian doctor.

He then wrote a letter to the wife of Kotnis, Guo Qinglan. Ten days later he received a reply. Guo was happy to be the honorary president of the school.

According to Liu Wenzhu, an official of the Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School, since the founding of the school in 1992, more than 45,000 medical professionals have graduated from it.

Each of the new students and staff must swear in front of a stone statue of Kotnis that they would work like him.

Liu hopes that Kotnis will be remembered not only as a symbol inspiring medical students to work hard, but also an eternal bond between the peoples in China and India.

"We are the world's two most populous countries ... We should always be friends, coexisting peacefully," he said.

The wish was shared by Gantait, who noted that the two countries should strengthen exchanges and cooperation in various fields, which is "the right tribute" to the celebration of 75th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression this year, and the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Liang Jun)

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