The Han Suyin Literary Prize

The Han Suyin Prize is awarded annually to two BU students for the best literary translations from into English from Chinese. Submissions from Japanese and Korean can also compete for the prize. The competition is open to both undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at BU.

Established in 2022, the prize honors Han Suyin.

Han Suyin was a physician and a writer. She was born Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow in 1916 in Henan Province, China to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. She studied medicine first in China, later in Brussels, and then finished her medical studies in London. After obtaining her degree, she moved to Hong Kong to practice at the Queen Mary Hospital. She also lived and worked in Singapore, where she opened a private clinic. After the 1949 Revolution, Han was one of the first foreign nationals to visit China and played an important role in setting up some of the initial US contacts with the People’s Republic in the early 1970s.

Han once told a journalist, “I could be a top-grade, highly paid [medical] specialist.” But, she said, she was “possessed of a demon” that forced her to write instead of practicing medicine full time. While in Singapore, Han was involved in the establishment of Nanyang University, which offered a primarily Chinese-language liberal arts curriculum. The University wanted to hire her as professor of literature, but she refused, saying that she wanted “to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens.”

Han went on to write nearly twenty books, including a biography of Mao and an account of the guerrilla war in Malaya, which was considered anti-British and forced her second husband, who was British, to resign from his post. She also wrote a three-volume account of her own family history, as well as novels set in China, India, Nepal, Cambodia, and Tibet. She is probably best known as the author of A Many Splendored Thing, a quasi-autobiographical novel about a love affair between a half-Chinese, half-European doctor and an English journalist working in Hong Kong in the late 1940s. The book was the basis of a successful 1955 Hollywood movie starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones, which made her famous.

Han died in 2012, in Lausanne, Switzerland. The obituary in The Guardian observed that she was “half-Chinese, but striving to be whole Chinese, she was as full of contradictions as her motherland. When the epic of modern China is re-examined, she and her works will provide important and readable evidence.”

Han Suyin was also a supporter of translation and helped create the National Rainbow Award for Best Literary Translation (now the Lu Xun Literary Award for Best Literary Translation) to help develop literary translation in China. In 2009, she also set up the Han Suyin Award for Young Translators, sponsored by the China International Publishing Group. Later renamed the Han Suyin International Translation Contest, this is one of the most prestigious translation competitions in China, with more than 40,000 participants in 2021.