An American in China
By Ha Jin
Pantheon, October 2011
Chinese-born author Ha Jin’s ambitions have long been expansive. In the preface to his first collection of poems, Between Silences, published in 1990, Jin positioned himself as a champion of all “downtrodden Chinese.” He wrote:
As a fortunate one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it. … If not every one of these people, who were never perfect, is worthy of our love, at least their fate deserves our attention and our memory. They should talk and be talked about.
The span of three decades, however, changes one’s perspective. In his 2008 essay, “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” Jin disowned his statement of thirty-years prior as naïve, baseless, and sincere to a fault. His work now shies from contemporary China: a symptom, perhaps, of his prolonged estrangement from his native land. Yet, more expressly, Jin’s historical focus stands as a way to distance himself from—or, in his words, “to negate”—his once envisioned role as spokesman. Tiananmen Square is as close to present-day China as Jin’s fiction ventures: his writing nurses a temporal lag of forty to sixty years, with Mao and his aftermath absorbing the majority of his authorial attentions.
Jin’s latest novel, Nanjing Requiem, delves further back into Chinese history, taking the Rape of Nanjing, the six weeks of terror that followed the Japanese capture of China’s then-capital in December 1937, as its subject. The story is told through the eyes of Anling Gao, a fictional administrator at Jinling Women’s College. Its true protagonist, however, is the historical figure Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary known as the “Goddess of Mercy” by the countless Chinese whom she protected. Dean of Jinling on the eve of Japanese invasion, Minnie demurs evacuation and, in the absence of most of the college’s faculty and staff, becomes acting head of the institution. Jinling falls within the Nanjing Safety Zone, a neutral district established by some two dozen foreigners who remained behind, their embassies’ urgings to the contrary. The college, once envisioned as the “Wellesley of China,” transforms overnight into a refugee camp for women and children, with Minnie at its helm.
Jin’s prose has been described as a “Chinese-flavored English,” befitting of a writer who adopted the idiom as his creative language in the mid-80s. Evocations of soy sauce packets and greased takeout cartons aside, Jin’s style reads as more neutral than Chinese. Stripped of cultural allusion, literary reference, and irony, Jin’s is a sort of international English, whose Chinese influence emerges in the occasional awkward construction and stilted exchange. Sparse and unadorned, his prose refuses to call attention to itself. Jin’s angles are rarely oblique, and his economy of words feels almost utilitarian: his is a concern with precision, honesty, and direct description. This predilection for confronting the facts head-on, no matter how macabre, inflects Jin’s writing with a bluntness that borders on brutality. Neither Jin nor his characters are prone to romanticize, and their worlds afford scant space for sentiment. Over the course of four months, the body count in Nanjing accrues to such an extent that it can only be rendered through statistics: 32,104 interred in mass graves; 60,000 more surrounding the city and its suburbs.
Jin’s lapidary style befits his narrator. Fifty years old and with a family of her own, Anling is a restrained, pragmatic woman. Trained as a nurse in a missionary hospital, she lives with her husband, Yaoping, a local professor of history, and her daughter, Liya, whose husband is on the front with the Nationalist Army. Comprised mainly of observation and dialogue, Anling’s account reads like that of a reporter: a record of things seen and events transpired, sans editorial comment. Her level temperament yields an appropriately flat emotional vocabulary, limited to adjectives like “upset,” “devastated,” and “shocked” whose succinctness comes across as deadpan. Even the most novel’s most disturbing episodes fail to tip Anling’s balanced mien into disequilibrium. One such incident, when she and Minnie discover a mass execution site just outside Jinling’s gates, is worth quoting at length:
We entered a small valley, where we came upon a pond two acres in size, around which were many bodies. The water was still pinkish in spite of the recent rain and a creek feeding the marshy pond. More than a dozen corpses floated in it, puffed like logs. I realized this was an execution site.
Most of the dead were men, though there were some women and children too, all with bullet or bayonet wounds. Many of them men had their pants stripped down and their hands bound with wire; a few had their necks slashed. One woman, still wearing suede boots wrinkled at the ankles, had a breast cut off, and was stuck a cartridge case in her nostrils. A small boy, stabbed in the tummy and his head smashed in from the side, still held a squashed bamboo basket. Behind him lay a middle-aged man, perhaps his father, shot in the face and his hands tied with gaiters; his right hand had a sixth finger.
Anling prefers surface details to psychic interiors; her words trace rather than probe. She relates the size of the pond, the color of its water, and the appearance of the bodies it contains in exacting detail, yet refrains from any emotional response. A physical oddity of one of the executed men—the fact that his right hand has an extra finger—ranks higher in Anling’s narrative hierarchy than affect. The only insight into Anling’s interior state that the reader gains comes from her ensuing exclamation: “The Japanese are savages!” Far from retreat into her own mind, Anling helps Minnie count the corpses. Statistics prevail over all things subjective, and Anling concludes: “In total, we found 142 bodies, among them 38 women and 12 children.”
Nanjing Requiem departs twice from Anling’s narration. The first-person account of Ban, a Chinese messenger boy abducted by the Japanese en route to relay news from Jinling to a nearby refugee camp, opens the novel, while the imagined diary of Alice Thompson, an English teacher at Jinling who accompanies a debilitated Minnie on her return to the States, furnishes its epilogue. Yet, even on these intermissions from Anling’s voice, her concrete, realist tone does not relent. As Ban recalls:
An officer came over and barked out some orders, but the soldiers at the heavy machine guns did nothing and just looked at one another. The officer got furious, drew his sword, and hit a soldier with the back of the sword. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Then his eyes fell on us Chinese coolies squatting close by. He raised his sword, gave a loud cry, charged at the tallest one among us, and slashed off his head. Two squirts of blood shot into the air more than three feet high and the man fell over without a whimper. We all dropped to our knees and banged our heads on the ground, begging for mercy. I peed my pants.
Ban represents the beheading through a succession of pithy phrases, equal parts dispassionate and declarative in style. Here, as in Anling’s depiction of the execution site, quantifiable details—“the tallest one,” “two squirts,” “three feet”—supplant subjective commentary. The dissonance between Ban’s ordinary narration and the extraordinary nature of the event rendered heightens the scene’s drama, while the substitution of an external, physical act—“I peed my pants”—for an interior reaction avoids literariness. Nanjing Requiem’s concrete, realist tone does not relent.
Massacres on this scale seem to demand a grand verbal gesture. Measured against this imperative, Jin’s direct style feels somewhat lacking. Yet, Nanjing Requiem’s restraint is deliberate, and its narrative simplicity proves not a fault, but an achievement. In Jin’s understanding, only a detached, objective tone was suitable for the project at hand: that of translating history into fiction. When asked if he considers himself a realist, Jin replied: “Really, I don’t care. But, yes, I do care more about facts. For example, I don’t think I would invent details. Something must happen somewhere so that I can have a kind of certainty about the experience.” Jin went on to define the primary difficulty of writing Nanjing Requiem as his inability to ascribe invented happenings to Minnie’s life. His struggle was how to “stretch, expand, and unify” factual details, not how to compose blindly. The transparency of Anling’s account thus bolsters Jin’s aims, allowing the reader to see through the words on the page to the objects, events, and people portrayed. Content comes to the fore, while aesthetic concerns recede to the background. Free of stylistic capture, the verisimilitude of Anling’s descriptions becomes difficult to divorce from historical truths. Factor in Jin’s exhaustive bibliography, and the line between fictional story and strict reportage further blurs.
True to Jin’s words, many, if not most, of the events depicted in Nanjing Requiem are factual in nature. Minnie left behind a detailed diary and correspondence, on which Jin has copiously drawn. Nearly all the foreigners who people the novel can be found in the historical record: Searle Bates, a history professor at Nanjing University; Lewis Smythe, a sociologist from Chicago and secretary of the Safety Zone Committee; Eduard Sperling, a German businessman who abortively attempts to negotiate a ceasefire with the Japanese; Robert Wilson, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and one of the only surgeons to remain in Nanjing during its occupation; and John Rabe, a leader of the Nazi party in Nanjing and head of the International Safety Zone. These figures, each worthy of a novel of their own, weave in and out of the narrative, mentioned mainly in passing to provide a sense of the Safety Zone’s international context. Nanjing Requiem’s focus remains, unwaveringly, on Minnie.
“Trapped” is accurate descriptor for the majority of Jin’s protagonists, and both Anling and Minnie prove no exception. Midway through Nanjing Requiem, we learn that Anling’s son, Haowen, a medical student in Tokyo, has married a Japanese woman and been coerced into service for Japan. Unable to desert for fear of retribution, Haowen is torn between two families and two countries. His betrayal of China, however inadvertent, proves devastating for Anling. Even Minnie, a paragon of loyalty to China and its people, unwittingly betrays those whom she strives so zealously to protect. When a Japanese colonel breaches Jinling’s gates and demands the seizure of all “prostitutes and streetwalkers” among the refugees, citing his desire to start a legitimate “entertainment business” in occupied Nanjing, Minnie tentatively acquiesces. Though her assent proves inconsequential—the colonel’s soldiers have already seized twenty-one women—Minnie’s guilt surrounding the abduction precipitates her gradual psychic collapse.
Yulan, developed from a sentence in Minnie’s diary, is among the twenty-one victims. A young woman native to Nanjing, she personifies Minnie’s inability to safeguard every refugee under her trust: a result that, though seemingly inevitable, causes Minnie tremendous emotional pain. In mid-September, Yulan surfaces at a local orphanage, where she greets Minnie and Anling with a slew of derogation: to her, the two are “missionary bastards,” “foreign devils,” and “liars” who sold her to the Japanese for 200 yuan. Despite Yulan’s hostility, Minnie takes pity on the deranged woman and enrolls her at the Homecraft School, an educational program established at Jinling for the college’s remaining refugees. Back in the Safety Zone, Yulan becomes a liability and directs her antagonism at Ban, whom she brands a “brazen pimp” and a “little Jap.” Minnie, however, refuses to let Yulan out of her care, despite Anling’s insistence that she be institutionalized. When Yulan again escapes from Jinling—this time, by her own volition—Minnie cannot forgive herself. She becomes obsessed with the idea of saving Yulan, even if it means risking her own life to do so. Minnie’s agony over Yulan’s misfortune epitomizes both her genuine empathy and her conception of Nanjing as a second home. Like the Chinese refugees she shelters, Minnie too is a casualty of war.
Though his subject of choice is deeply disquieting, Jin does not set out to shock. Shying from bombast and hyperbole, his syntax relishes the minimal and leaves few words out of place. The power of his prose lies not in any self-indulgent flourish, but in its far-reaching resonance. Anling’s observations have a suggestiveness that extends in varied directions, affecting the reader without enabling him to discern precisely why or how. Her insights as she walks with Minnie through downtown Nanjing on the first anniversary of the city’s fall find the author at his best:
It was a sullen, wintry day, the gray clouds threatening snow. The sycamore and oak tress along the street were swaying and whistling as gusts of wind swept through them. A rusty sheet of corrugated iron tumbled across the street and fell into a roadside ditch. Here and there scummy puddles, like giant festering sores, were encrusted with ice on the edges.
Here, Jin’s roots as a poet are evident: his writing performs its affective work through rhythm, indirection, and lucid imagery. A literary naturalist at heart, Jin weights factual description with feeling. Such spare, emotive language stands in pointed contrast with the propagandistic rhetoric of Nanjing’s newly installed puppet government, which Jin mocks simply by relating it.
Twentieth-century China provides the stage for much of Jin’s writing. His fiction returns incessantly to the conflict between the public and the private in a country where politics stands as an inescapable frame: a topic for modern China if there ever was one. Jin’s first collection of short stories, Ocean of Words, published in 1996, takes place in a Chinese military encampment on the Sino-Soviet border. His following three works—In the Pond, Waiting, and The Crazed—limn the repressions of communist China, where surveillance is total and observations are almost always cruel. Not until his fourth novel, War Trash, did Jin broach a setting outside mainland China: the Koje and Cheju islands skirting the coast of South Korea, where thousands of Chinese were held as POWs during the Korean War. Jin’s ensuing novel, A Free Life, released in 2007, was his first to be set in America, recording the travails of a Chinese emigrant and aspiring poet who settles with his family in suburban Atlanta. With A Good Fall, a series of vignettes of the Chinese community in Flushing, New York, Jin seemed to complete his authorial migration stateside. Yet two years later, Jin has returned to the mainland: this time, to chronicle one of the darkest periods in modern Chinese history.
Born in 1956 in northeast China, Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army at the age of fourteen, four years into Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution. With schools closed and youth set on a crusade against everything bourgeois, Jin opted for the relative calm of the Sino-Soviet border, where he worked as a telegrapher and read in his spare time. After Mao’s death, Jin was admitted to a university north of his hometown to study English, despite ranking the subject last on his list of preferred majors. Having earned his masters degree, he journeyed stateside to study American literature at Brandeis, with every intention of returning to mainland China, PhD in hand. Yet, in 1989, with the violence of the Communist state laid bare at Tiananmen Square, Jin resolved to remain in the States and try his hand at writing in English. Today, few contemporary Chinese authors can boast an acclaim comparable to Jin’s—which, to date, includes a PEN/Hemingway Award, a National Book Award, and a spot on the Pulitzer shortlist. A naturalized American, he has yet to return to his native land, where nearly all of his work is banned.
Jin’s current subject remains tendentious in both China and Japan. Public awareness of the Rape of Nanjing has increased dramatically since the late ‘90s, in large part due to Iris Chang’s eponymous book, which topped the New York Times’ bestseller list for ten weeks. Yet, for more than five decades, the crimes of the Japanese went largely unheralded and unatoned. Chang’s book constructs a linear, though oft-disputed, narrative. Two war crimes tribunals established in 1946—one held in Nanjing, the other in Tokyo—failed to dispense mass justice or result in reparations for those who suffered. With the rise of the Soviet Union and the descent of China behind a “bamboo curtain,” the United States set aside its enmities of two years prior. Japan became one of America’s most strategic allies, while the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lent salience to a revisionist history painting Japan as a victim, rather than an aggressor, of world war. Such a confluence of circumstances, Chang claims, excused Japan from confronting its imperialist past to the same extent as its former ally, Germany. This inadequate historical reckoning explains the continued denials of the massacre in Japan’s mainstream media, or so Chang contends. Only in 1995 did the Japanese Prime Minister issue an official apology to China for his country’s ruthless expansionism. As recently as June 2007, however, 100 members of Japan’s conservative party decried the Rape of Nanjing as a “political advertisement” perpetuated by Beijing.
Such political realities make Nanjing Requiem’s task of bearing witness all the more important. The “requiem” of the novel’s title comes most obviously for the Chinese victims of the massacre, placed at 260,000 by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial: a statistic that fails to include the estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women who were raped. It comes, too, for those foreigners whose heroic efforts have escaped the Western imagination, enjoying none of the posthumous recognition of their counterparts in the Holocaust, such as Oskar Schindler and Miep Gies. Jinling, at the height of its capacity, housed more than 10,000 women and children, while the Safety Zone at large sheltered between 200,000 and 300,000 refugees—nearly half the Chinese population that remained in Nanjing. The other half was killed, whether by bayonet, bullet, or more brutal means: an eruption of violence that Nanjing Requiem unflinchingly recounts. Ultimately, the documentation provided by these foreigners—photographs, film reels, medical records, and eyewitness testimonies—furnished the bulk of the evidence used to convict suspected war criminals at the Tokyo Trials, which began in May 1946 and ended two and a half years later.
Not surprisingly, the legacy of Minnie and fellow members of the Safety Zone Committee fell prey to politics. Hoping to consolidate power and seize foreign assets, puppet officials in Nanjing excoriated the Committee in the press. Several of its members, Minnie included, were singled out as “major collaborators,” accused of disarming the Chinese and “handing them over” to the Imperial Army. Confronted with the pleas of desperate Chinese soldiers, abandoned by their generals in the midst of battle, Committee members did encourage them to discard their weapons, don civilian clothes, and enter the neutral area, with the understanding that the Japanese would honor recognized laws of war and treat these former combatants with clemency. Little did they know that the Imperial Army would act with impunity, repeatedly storming the refugee camps and branding all able-bodied males as deserters. Even Jinling, which housed only women and smattering of male workers, was not spared such constant intrusions: often, under the pretext of defiling Chinese women.
In the novel’s epilogue, Minnie laments in a fictionalized diary entry: “I built a wrong home in a wrong place—a home that was shattered easily. I should have known that a home doesn’t have to be a physical entity.” In a 2008 essay, Jin reflected on the notion of “homeland” and reached a similar conclusion. Here, the author envisioned “homeland” as a psychological construct, rather than a geographic location. “Returning home” was not primarily a concrete action, but an internal negotiation: a matter of how an individual understood his past and incorporated it with his present. As Jin wrote: “Only through literature is a genuine return possible for the exiled writer. In truth, other than slaking the writer’s nostalgia, the writer’s physical return to his native land has little meaning.” With Nanjing Requiem, one of two of Jin’s books available in mainland China, the author appears to have accomplished just that: a “genuine return” of sorts, enacted through a eulogy to an American missionary who devoted her life to China.
Courtney Fiske Courtney Fiske is a writer based in New York. She is currently an editorial intern at Artforum and Bookforum magazines.