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Family stories of the Rape of Nanking

My wife asked her students to collect stories from their grandparents from the Rape of Nanking. Many of the student’s families had fled the city, and other simply didn’t hand anything in. The following are four accounts of what happened in Jiangsu province during the war with Japan as remembered by witnesses of the tragedies.

I’m publishing this partially in response to Yoshikazu Kato’s comments made during his visit to Nanjing, in which he stated that he wasn’t certain of the facts of the event, and that further research should be done.

All I know about that period of history is from my grandma. At that time my grandma was very young, about 7 or 8 years old. One night when the whole family was sound asleep, without any warning, the Japanese soldiers rushed into the small village. These cruel soldiers set fires, shot innocent crowds and assaulted women.

My Grandma was hidden together with her elder sister under a straw mattress. She was very afraid, but she was told “No cry, no tears, no sound.” Through a small opening, my grandma witnessed these bloody Japanese stab her friends, kill her neighbors and steal their money. After the Japanese did all of these things, they moved the bodies together and set a fire to destroy the evidence.

In my hometown, Shigang, there used to be 12 temples, but the Japanese burned them and took everything valuable. So now we can only see 2 of them.

My neighbor was a soldier, and he told me why he joined the army. In the year 1939, the enemies came again and they fired off several rounds of artillery at our town. One of them landed near the house where his aunt lived. She was 53 years old and had lived alone. When she died, her belly was ruptured and her organs were outside. It was very tragic. In addition, he witnessed a Japanese soldier kill a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach after raping her. He was furious but he couldn’t do anything then. After that he decided to drive out the aggressors.

When I was a child I noticed a deep scar on my grandmother’s arm. I wondered how she got it, and so she told me this story.

When she was my age (~20), she worked with her two girlfriends in the field. After work they returned home. On their way back, a Japanese appeared with a gun. He shouted at them. Seeing this, my grandmother and her friends ran as fast as they could. Suddenly, my grandmother heard the report of a gun. She saw one of her friends fall down, and not get back up. Then she heard a second shot. Her other friend had been hit. The girl escaped the Japanese clutches, but later died at home. My grandmother was also shot, however she made it home and recovered slowly.

Although my grandma is alive, she lost her good friends forever. My grandmother is scarred not only physically but mentally.

My grandfather was an 8-year-old boy at that time, and saw his neighbor’s house collapse with his own eyes. As everybody knew, the city was not safe anymore, so his family and him escaped from the city to the rural area to seek shelter.

During the days in the country, grandfather witnessed a moving scene. The Japanese captured a man in a gray coat (it seemed like the clothes of a Chinese soldier) and believed him to be a Chinese soldier. Many people knew that he was a soldier, so they dare not help him. The moment before he was beheaded, a young country woman stepped out of the crowd and cried, “He is not a soldier but my husband. How could you kill him? Our son is still at home waiting for his father!” She hugged him tightly with tears. Then, the Japanese set him free.

The Japanese were still in the city and they always did theft and arson. In case of being raped, many girls went to the Nanking Safety Zone. So did grandpa’s sisters and female cousins. even in there, they still felt terrified, so these poor girls used coal to darken their faces and cut their hair. These “girls” are greatly thankful to these kind-hearted, civic-minded and conscientious foreigners to this day.

Lessons from the Rape of Nanking

Today marked the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, and as I wrote last year, it is a day that for me is inescapable (you should read that post because I won’t be rehashing much of it). I am surrounded by the history of that dark time, but am also buoyed by the memories of those who risked their lives for the common people of China. Today I’d like to share a few lesser known facts from those six weeks.

One of the most important things to understand about the Nanjing International Safety Zone, is that the foreigners involved with it never lost their faith in the rule of law. Time and again they brought cases directly to the Japanese embassy and Japanese military command, and demanded that the soldiers involved be punished for their actions.

This led to mixed results. Often consular police would find a tiny detail in a witness’ story that was incorrect, like the placement of a lamp in a room, and discount their entire testimony. At other times they would publicly scold soldiers, which seemed to serve as a very mild warning to other soldiers. While this deeply disappointed the foreigners in the Safety Zone, they continued to bring daily reports to the consulate.

Ultimately these reports, along with testimony given by the Safety Zone members, led to the convictions of those directly responsible for many of the atrocities at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Even six weeks after the Japanese occupation had begun, it was not safe to leave the zone (six weeks is the length commonly cited for the duration of the Rape of Nanking). Families were ordered to return to their homes by Febuary 4th, but this order came as news of robberies, rapes, and murders continued to be reported. In many cases, the only thing that was powerful enough to stop Japanese soldiers was the presence of foreign faces.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 31st, Dr. Robert Wilson reported that just the day before, Mr. Rabe had actually lifted a soldier off a woman in the street not far from the hospital, and that on the 29th a truck had been seen abducting women. The women of Nanjing at that point were well aware of the dangers of Japanese troops. Letters available here and here (pdf)

Dr. Wilson’s other letters provide dozens of accounts of the atrocities that were committed on a daily basis during the months that followed the initial invasion. He refers to his own location as the “so-called Safety Zone” due to the number of incidents that occurred within its boundaries. The soldiers made no distinction between young and old, and murdered indiscriminately. Dr. Wilson alone attended to hundreds of cases in just the first few days, and it clearly took a toll on him and the other volunteers. Sadly, one year after the invasion, Minnie Vautrin ended her life regretting that she had not been able to do more to protect the women who had sought refuge behind her walls.

In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today). Even the doctors who work in Wilson’s hospital know little of his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. My co-workers today went so far as to complain about the noise of the air-raid siren meant to remind us of the tragedy. One said, “It was too noisy, I couldn’t work at all for thirty-minutes.” To which the other replied, “It’s OK, we just have to do this once a year.”

“But online, we are free”

My co-worker and I took guests through the Nanjing Massacre Memorial yesterday, which we do several times each year. It is a place where the past serves a distinct political purpose for the present. Groups of Chinese tourists are shepherded through by guides who make sure they don’t miss a single grisly detail, murals depicting slaughter on an inhuman scale stretch over open graves filled with ten-thousand bodies, and signs remind visitors that this is an important place for political education. The memorial is essentially a monument to the Party’s narrative of history. Even though I have visited the site several times, I still find something new each time in the massive complex.

This, however, was the first time that I had accompanied one of my co-workers through the memorial. “It’s because of this my friends don’t buy anything from Japan,” she told me as we passed by a depiction of experiments being done on Chinese prisoners. I braced myself for what I expected to come next, something like “Those Japanese Devils still want to destroy China.” Instead, she whispered, “People from Hunan don’t really feel the same way, we didn’t have a massacre.”

“You know though, Japan left many things out of their textbooks,” she said a few moments later. “China and America have left many things out too,” I added, which doesn’t excuse Japan, but I think it gives some perspective. To my surprise she said, “Mao killed many people, but we still don’t talk about it.” I  nodded and glanced around to make sure no one else had heard her. She didn’t seem to care and pointed to a poster of Chiang Kai-shek celebrating the victory over Japan, “Every year the government talks about democracy but it never comes. They always say later, later.”

“You know,” I replied, “whenever I talk with Chinese people one on one, they often complain about how bad the government is. But when I talk with two Chinese people, they will never say anything bad about the government, even if they think exactly the same way. Many of your co-workers have told me the same thing.”

“I could never tell my co-workers, I would never say these things at work,” she said before leaning in to whisper, “But online, we are free.” I knew that wasn’t completely true, but if she was finding people to discuss democracy and free media with, even in the censored Chinese cyberspace, it meant that perhaps there were even more people like her than I had ever imagined. “What about Fenqing (literally “angry youth”, but refers to nationalists) and Wumaodang (people supposedly paid by the government to “guide” online discussions)?” I asked.

She giggled, “We would say ‘你知道太多了'(Ni zhidao tai duo le), you know too much.”

We walked a little further and the conversation changed with the exhibits, the particular section we passed always bothers me. It presents foreign involvement in the war as peripheral, and if you knew nothing beyond it’s description, you would think that it was solely through Chinese efforts that the war ended.

As we continued to the next building that housed one of the open graves I told her that the last group of foreigners I had brought to the museum felt that it was wrong to leave these people without a proper burial. “In China, a person must be buried,” she said, “the government only cares about politics, not people.”

I wish that when it came to the Rape of Nanking I could say that this wasn’t true, but unfortunately I know otherwise. According to accounts given in the diaries of people like John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, bodies were buried in many parts of the city, but those places have no signs marking the tragedies that happened there, and the graves have been desecrated in the rush to modernize (I know this has also happened with several graveyards throughout the country).

Usually I leave the museum feeling somewhat hopeless, that without a clear view of the past, China is doomed to return to the kind of nationalism that led to WWII. Yesterday though, I felt a sense of relief. Despite spending millions each year on propaganda and censorship, the Party seems to be further than ever from the people’s hearts.

The army is everywhere

Nearly 9 months ago I wrote a post that emphasized the fact that the gov’t rarely intrudes in the private lives of most citizens. Which for the most part is still true, unless you are an outspoken artist, or are trying to actually run for office. To the casual visitor to China, it might seem that the army also stays out of the way since they are harder to spot. Yet at times the military seems omnipresent.

I say this for several reasons. Partially because yesterday morning, on what was supposed to be a holiday, I witnessed nearly a hundred students, dressed in army fatigues, marching around the center of campus. The campus literally echoes with the sound of their drills. “Army training” is mandatory for all college students, and seems to have started very shortly after the Tian’anmen Square protests as a way to instill a sense of nationalism.

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Before my American readers panic, “army training” pretty much consists of marching around campus for anywhere from two weeks to a month, listening to stories from soldiers, and a healthy dose of communist propaganda. However for my students in Longzhou, which is near Vietnam, it also included an afternoon of learning how to fire AK-47’s, which was seen as necessary given the unstable relationship between the two countries.

This month of marching isn’t completely useless though, it helps form student minds inline with Party orthodoxy. One of my dear friends told me that he was deeply ashamed of how brainwashed he had become during this “army training”. Even though he is now one of my more critical friends when it comes to issues related to the Communist Party, he had taken to the streets in rage after the imperialist Americans had bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade. When the protests became about something larger than the specific incident, it was all quickly shut down. He was disgusted when he realized that he had simply been a tool used by the gov’t to apply pressure abroad. So it isn’t surprising that the Anti-Japanese protests in Chengdu last year consisted almost entirely of college aged people (rebellion in line with party thought is the only acceptable kind).

My second reason for being aware of the military presence, is that on my way to work I pass nearly half a dozen military zones (军事区), and see a handful of military cars every day.

Upon learning even a handful of characters, one starts to realize just how many urban buildings are actually military offices. In Nanjing this seems to be especially true because it is the headquarters for 1 of China’s 7 military regions. There seem to be hundreds of offices around Nanjing to support the 250,000 soldiers active in the region. Chengdu also had several large army bases downtown (within the first ring road).

While I was researching the Rape of Nanjing, I began hunting for old buildings that were once consulates and sanctuaries for refugees. I saw that almost all of the old embassy buildings were now surrounded with high fences which demarcated military property (however the old American consulate is a pre-school, and the former Dutch consulate is owned by a Japanese hotel). An elderly woman explained that after the civil war, the PLA had taken many of the foreign buildings for their own use, in her words it was a kind of “Army first” policy.

Note: I began to map these to demonstrate the density of military offices, but decided that might be misinterpreted.

I believe that this feeling of the army being everywhere is not simply by coincidence, after all the People’s Liberation Army loyalty does not actually lie with the people or the country, but the Party itself. Their exhibition of might is not just a way to keep nearby Asian countries in line, but serves as a reminder to activists of who is really in charge. In the wake of the Egyptian uprising, where the army backed the people over Mubarak, General Li Jinai said in an article entitled No nationalization of military in China, “We must resolutely reject these false political ideas (of separating from Party control) and unswervingly listen to and follow the Party.”

OK American readers (and Chinese activists), now you can take a moment to panic.

The Lasting Effects of Mission in China

Last week we looked at many of the misunderstandings about Christianity in China (1, 2,3, 4), so today I thought we would wrap up by looking at mission in China just before the fall of the last emperor.

The era we will be looking at though is not the start of Christianity in China, which first arrived around the 8th century. The following dynasties seemed to fluctuate between banning the practices, embracing them, or just flat out ignoring them.

Matteo Ricci was the most successful of the early missionaries to China. In 1601 he was the first westerner to ever enter the Forbidden City, but it was the scientific knowledge he possessed that most interested the court. His efforts to understand Chinese culture, and adapt Christianity to it, as well as compiling the first Chinese-European dictionary (I’m not sure which European language), contributed considerably to later mission efforts.

By the mid 1800’s missionaries were eager to reach China, because it offered the largest concentration of possible converts. They started by learning Chinese (probably Cantonese) and spreading the gospel around Guangzhou and Macao along with the few other port cities that were open to foreigners (most of China remained off limits to them).

These limits were removed by the unequal treaties that were signed after China’s defeats in the Opium Wars. For the first time missionaries were given full access to the entirety of China, and thousands left for the mission field.

Note: the Opium wars were fought to allow British opium to be sold in China, a terrible thing. The treaties are still very much a sore spot for the Chinese. I do not mean these unequal treaties were good for China, but simply that they opened China to foreigners.

Many of them arrived in China completely unprepared for their new lives, but felt called to the work.

In the late 1800’s this work included a variety of mission activities that might be labelled as “social justice” today. Missionaries fought to end foot-binding and built schools for the education of women (which was considered scandalous at the time). They built dozens of hospitals throughout China, and began medical training programs. Many of these hospitals are still functioning today, serving millions of patients each year. Their goal was not only to convert Chinese peasants, but to help develop a more equitable country.

The aim of much of this work was not to colonize China, as it is sometimes portrayed in Chinese history books, but to create institutions for the benefit of the Chinese people. This is evident in the fact that many of the schools and hospitals were under Chinese leadership by the late 1920’s.

Many institutions came under foreign leadership again in the 1930’s when the Japanese began their invasion of China. Many of the missionaries who stayed behind sacrificed greatly to protect the people they had come to serve.

During the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) 22 foreigners stayed behind to establish the Nanking International Safety Zone, which ultimately saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese. The majority of these foreigners were missionaries working at the hospital or nearby universities.

By the time foreigners were forced out of China in the early 1950’s the missionaries, working alongside Chinese Christians, had already established a strong base of believers. So when religion was effectively banned during the cultural revolution, the faithful continued believing in secret, despite the persecution of their leaders.

In the 1970’s when churches were once again allowed to open their doors, Christians came flooding back.

It is estimated that there are more than 50 million Christians today in China (including members of unregistered churches), and that number is steadily growing due not only to the actions of foreign missionaries, but also because of strong Chinese Christians.

One of my Chinese friends likes to point out that in the US churches will claim 500 members and have 200 people in church on Sunday morning, while in China a church will claim 500 members and have 2,000 in church.

Remembering the Rape of Nanking

Today at 10am an alarm sounded to remind us of the invasion by the Japanese 73 years ago. In the weeks following the invasion 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered.

I was in my office when I heard the alarm, it caused an awful, uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. My bus ride to work takes me past many of the homes and universities that served as refugee camps. I’ve been in the home where the missionaries would gather to pray for peace during that time. I have seen the mass graves that serve as the undeniable evidence of the atrocities committed.

The International Safety Zone was created by the foreigners who chose to stay behind in Nanjing to protect the people. The area was only about 2 square miles, but housed 90% of the city’s population at the time. By that time all of the rich and middle class had fled further inland, this included most of the Chinese staff of the only hospital. This left only the very poorest people behind in Nanjing. Of the 25 foreigners in Nanjing at that time, 6 of them were missionaries from my denomination.

One of the missionaries from my church, who served in a hospital, wrote of that day, Dec. 13th, 1937,

“the stream of wounded were still coming to our door. Trim and part of the time Bob stood at the back gate and dressed them. They all got on their way but six. By the next morning four of those were gone. One lay dead at the gate, the other at the corner of Tientsin Road. The other dead of their wounds or an additional bullet, no one will ever know.

The night was horrible. The wounded civilians poured in by the dozens. More than we could possibly take in. We took in what we could and the rest were dressed and giving comforts to sleep in the dispensary. There were probably forty of them left there. We opened up fourth floor.”

A few days later, on the 17th she wrote,

“Reports began to reach us of the violation of women. Lewis said they had 166 authentic reports to make. How many more that one never heard of will never be known.

Reports of men being carried off and shot. Men being pressed into service. Every one was utterly frightened and afraid to go on the street. Mei-o, Emily and I go back and forth together. Would not think of letting either one of the girls on the street without me or Trim.

It is not convenient to use the back gate because of the dead there. It hurts too badly.”

After the 6 weeks, one of the missionaries who had seen every kind of horror imaginable committed by the Japanese troops wrote this in a letter home, he has more strength than I could ever pray for,

“Do I hate the Japanese, no. I dislike very much their policy, and I dislike very much the way they are mistreating the common people of China. But, if I am ever given the opportunity to do the same for the Japanese, as we have done here for the Chinese men, women and children, I would do the same right over again.”

Without the International Safety Zone, thousands more would have been killed. Today in this season of Advent, I pray for peace more than I ever have before.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about the rape of Nanking, this is an excellent film