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Safety Zone Madness

The rape of Nanjing has been well-documented many times over during the last seventy years but perhaps nowhere so imaginatively as in Ha Jin’s latest novel, Nanjing Requiem.  In the prelude to his story, spoken in the words of one of its traumatized victims, a mere boy, Jin provides the horrific context of what is to follow:

“Oh, human lives suddenly became worthless, dead bodies everywhere, some with their bellies cut open, intestines spilled out, and some half burned with gasoline.  The Japs killed so many people that they polluted streams, ponds, and wells everywhere, and they themselves couldn’t find clean water to drink anymore.  Even the rice they ate was reddish because they had to use bloody water to cook it.  Once a Japanese messman gave us some bowls of rice, and after I ate it, I had the taste of blood in my mouth for hours.  To tell the truth, I never thought I would make it back to see you folks again.  Now my pulse still gallops in the middle of the night.”

The occupation of Nanjing began in December of 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  As Chiang Kai-shek retreated with his army—believing, apparently, that by retreating, the war with the Japanese could be more effectively run from the heartland—the city became an occupied zone and the site of massive carnage, rape, and what many call genocide.  Controversy still bounds today over what happened, but that historical dispute is not the center of Jin’s story.  Rather, he focuses on the humanity of a number of courageous people—Chinese but also Westerners who remained in the city after it was taken over by the Japanese.  The story merges historical figures with imaginary ones, a major accomplishment for a book as bloody as this one—as if to say that even in the most horrific events there are decent people who rise heroically to the cause out of little concern for themselves but, rather, for others.

Much of Ha Jin’s narrative is set at Jinling Women’s College, a Christian school for Chinese women, largely funded by Americans.  The school becomes the site for one of several refugee camps in Nanjing with the objective of providing refuge for 2500 women and children.  It’s the only camp in the city that did not permit men to stay there, and that gender restriction probably helped keep the number of deaths down but, ironically, increased the possibility that many women would be raped or forced into prostitution.  At the height of the debacle, the college had 10,000 refugees, bulging with people, creating enormous problems for food and water distribution and the elimination of human waste.

The narrator of the story is Anling, a middle-aged Chinese woman who teaches at the Jinling Women’s College and works closely with Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the college and an American missionary.  Anling is a memorable creation, a strong-willed woman; Minnie an historical figure whose tragic story doesn’t become fully resolved until her later return to the United States.  It is these two heroic women who largely keep the college functioning in the face of encroaching restrictions from the Japanese.  Anling’s story is complicated because her grown son, Haowen, who was educated in Japan, has remained in the country and married a Japanese woman.  During the occupation of Nanjing, Haowen is “trapped” in Japan along with his wife and child.  I say trapped but the intent of this sub-story is to demonstrate a tradition of cross-fertilization of cultures and educations for numerous Chinese prior to the war between the two countries.

Minnie is an equally conflicted character because several of her good intentions are thwarted by the presence of Mrs. Dennison, the aged founder of the College.  There’s staff in-fighting and disagreement about how the college should be run during these difficult times and continual problems with financing by the American benefactors.  Finally, there’s a sympathetic Nazi businessman—again, an historical figure, John Rabe—who manages the Siemens factory in Nanjing and like all of these other good souls is fully humanized.

I can understand the fascination of the Nanking massacre for a novelist of Hi Jin’s talent, but I found the story oddly lacking in dramatic tension.  Rather, as creative insight into historical fact, Nanjing Requiem shines.

Nanjing Requiem
By Ha Jin
Pantheon, 303 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: Clarson@american.edu

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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