Nanjing Requiem

In December 1937, the Japanese invaded the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing (sometimes written as “Nanking” in the Wade-Giles Romanization of Mandarin), unleashing a reign of terror that led to around 200,000 deaths and 20,000 rapes. It was one of the most brutal episodes of that dishonorable decade of war.

Commentators have since wondered what motivated Japanese soldiers to act so mercilessly against the civilian and military residents of the fallen capital, and where exactly responsibility should be assigned. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal investigated this question, and despite a famous dissenting opinion by Indian judge Radhabinod Pal, the fact that a vast atrocity took place is not in dispute. Sparked in part by Iris Chang’s (somewhat sensationalized) bestseller The Rape of  Nanking (1998), there has recently been a spate of books about the subject, including the publication of the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, who is the subject of Ha Jin’s new novel, Nanjing Requiem — arguably the most daring and difficult book he’s undertaken in his illustrious career.

Vautrin, a missionary from Illinois, was acting president of Jinling Women’s College of Arts and Sciences, where she had been working for twenty years, having introduced such innovations as industrial training for poor women and developed a benevolent relationship with the larger community. Just before the Japanese onslaught on Nanjing, Westerners, including Vautrin, set up a neutral Nanking Safety Zone (NSZ) under the auspices of the International Committee, to provide shelter for refugees. At its peak, Jinling College took in 10,000 refugees, particularly women in fear of being raped. The Chinese government later secretly awarded Vautrin the Star of the Jade, and she was idolized as the Goddess of Mercy among Nanjing’s inhabitants.

How can a novelist enter this well-covered territory to say something fresh? How can he shed new light on a character that has been the subject of both hagiographic and objective biographical interest? The temptation would be to enumerate the atrocities and let them carry the heavy work of the narrative, while encouraging implicit and familiar judgments on the protagonists. The task is all the more difficult because Jin hews closely to historical events and personages, except for some notable divergences.

But it is precisely in these divergent details that his narrative skill is most manifest. Vautrin’s diaries — also available online at the Yale Divinity School website — reveal a generally bottled-up, orderly, conscientious, moralistic persona, able to subdue her grief during the peak of the atrocity. Yet we know that shortly afterward she suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide upon her return to the U.S. Jin sharpens the inner moral conflict revealed in the diaries, in part by inventing (or elaborating on) a few central episodes: Vautrin’s surrender of a number of alleged “prostitutes” to Japanese soldiers (an event that later comes back to haunt her); her obsession with a mentally ill girl named Yulan; her interactions with the fictionalized new president of Jinling College, the bureaucratic Miss Dennison (in real life, it was a Matilda Thurston); and above all her sustained interactions with her fictive sidekick, Anling Gao, who adores and supports Vautrin yet is constrained by her difficult position and Japanese connections.

In the sections relating Anling’s domestic dilemmas — her only son, Haowen, is a lowly physician in the Japanese army and is married to a Japanese girl — we enter territory more familiar from Jin’s earlier fiction about China. Anling’s own troubles become more prominent later in the book, as the tenor changes from pure darkness to relative light — if such a thing is possible in a book dealing with brutalities of the magnitude Jin relates.

Herein lies Jin’s accomplishment in the novel: the deeper the reader delves into the book, the greater the sense of illumination. The early part of Nanjing Requiem is an almost relentless telling of the daily atrocities Vautrin had to endure, as is always true of the thick of war, but the later part allows for the reflection and second-guessing of aftermath — on the part of Vautrin and Anling, as well as on the part of the reader. Dualisms such as resistance versus collaboration, peace versus war, benevolence versus imperialism, virtue versus selfishness — in short, good versus evil — are all brought into question.

The novel’s contest of philosophical ideas keeps escalating. What role is there for Christian charity in a divided nation with disputed leadership? While Miss Dennison argues, “I guess this city was destroyed time and again in history, so people here must be accustomed to all sorts of devastations,” this is something the compassionate Vautrin could never accept at face value. Anling, as the middle-aged first-person narrator of the book, is the ideal protagonist to keep hacking at the question: Is the worst life better than the best death?

In taking on these daring themes without descending into mawkishness or violence for their own sake, especially in the immediate wake of the relative hopefulness of A Free Life (2007) and A Good Fall (2009) — his best novel and story collection to date, in my opinion — Jin again shows himself to be one of our most humane writers, maintaining an honesty that just can’t be faked.