Chairman Mao Zedong sang his praises for his selfless work and service in an article that appeared in primary school textbooks for decades. Sixty-seven years later, the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune has moved China again in a 20-episode television drama series.
The TV series, filmed in China and Canada and starring Canadian actor Trevor Hayes, tells the story of the Canadian doctor who treated Red Army soldiers on the battle front and died from blood poisoning.
"Normally I don't like TV series depicting revolutionary heroes, which are too preachy," admitted Luo Chenyu, a student from Beijing No. 14 Middle School who was at first "forced by his parents" to watch the program. But gradually he became caught up in the story. "It was so vivid and touching," said the 17-year-old boy.
That is what 30-year-old Yang Yang, director of the TV series, wanted to achieve.
Yang Yang had only the vaguest idea of the story of Norman Bethune, who died in the winter of 1939. "The only image I had of him was what I could imagine from Chairman Mao's article," she said.
After reading everything she could lay her hands on, she came to see the Canadian surgeon as a man with a strong personality and also some shortcomings. "He was an interesting man, a good doctor and a good friend. I wanted to depict him as a person and not as some kind of remote hero."
In the TV series, Bethune gradually changes from a playboy who injures himself while showing off in front of a girl into an idealist who dies after cutting his finger during surgery.
Tong Diyi, a 40-year-old securities specialist, confessed that he cried during the final episode when Bethune dies and local peasants line up in the snow as his body is carried out. "It reminds us that there is something in this world more important than money."
Critics are delighted to see that people like Tong have been touched by the drama.
"Society is developing so fast, making people so busy and stressed that they have become numb," said Hu Ping, writer and TV critic, who hopes that the series will appeal to people's emotions and compassion.
Zhong Chengxiang, vice chairman of the China Federation of Literacy and Art Circles, believes that the TV series will be successful because it reflects current social problems.
"Many young people today have only a hazy idea of their life goals, while Bethune, a privileged person in the 1930s, abandoned a carefree life in Canada and devoted himself to China's revolution," said Zhong. "It is uplifting for the audience."
"Doctors need more than technique to treat their patients," said Lu Kan, vice director of the Literature and Art Bureau under the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, quoting Dr Bethune as saying.
The series cost 30 million yuan (3.75 million U.S. dollars), 1.5 million on average for each episode, making it the most expensive TV series in China.
The cast includes more than 100 westerners, according to Yang Yang.
Doctor Bethune came to China in 1938 during China's war of resistance against Japanese aggression and set up a front-line mobile hospital where he operated on wounded soldiers. He is credited with saving thousands of lives.
"If businessmen, politicians, educators, artists and people from all walks of life reflect their own lives after watching the series, I will be very satisfied," said director Yang Yang.