Nanjing Requiem

by Ha Jin


Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Nanjing Requiem Nanjing Requiem, set during the horrific "Rape of Nanjing" by the Japanese army in 1937, tells the story of an American woman, Minne Vautrin, the dean of the city's Jinling Women's College. During the month of December, it became obvious the battered Chinese army would not be able to keep the Japanese invaders from occupying Nanjing, then China's capital city. Its residents, and the refugees pouring in from the countryside, looked to the College as a sanctuary. The staff cleared furniture to make more room and calculated they could accept "twenty-seven hundred people maximum, figured on the basis of sixteen square feet per person (two by eight), but we'd feel more comfortable with two thousand." Ultimately, they took in as many as ten thousand desperate women and children, and a few men.

The narrator is a fictional Chinese woman, Anling, who becomes Minnie's personal assistant, but the novel sticks close to Minnie's factual story. The real Minnie Vautrin kept a diary of her experiences in 1937-1940, from which many of the novel's incidents are drawn. Over and over, Minnie risked herself to save others. She did not always succeed. A dry, reportorial style adds to the novel's authentic tone, but distances readers from the story. This makes the atrocities less difficult to read about, but also makes the novel less gripping.

Gradually, readers gain a deeper understanding of the two reserved women at the story's center. Minnie is deeply embarrassed when the Chinese call her "Goddess of Mercy." Anling feels this is only natural. "Many Chinese cannot think of divinity divorced from humanity. Indeed, for them, anyone could grow good and better and eventually into a god or goddess." Nanjing Requiem reveals the tragedy of a city and of a woman who, rejecting the label of goddess, expected herself to achieve miracles and ultimately could not live with herself because she sometimes failed. (2011; 320 pages, including an Author's Note discussing sources)

More about Nanjing Requiem at Powell's Books or Amazon.com


Other novels about China during the Japanese invasion:

Nanjing 1937: A Love Story by Ye Zhaoyan (2003), about an unhappily married alcoholic university professor who declares his love for a woman he glimpses on her wedding day and pursues her until they begin an affair on the day Japan invades Nanjing. More info

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell (2001), about the daughter of a Chinese-born son of missionaries who sends her and her mother to safety in the U.S. while he remains in his beloved Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. More info

Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm (2010; previously published as Silent Lies), about a Hungarian Jew who flees to Shanghai after becoming involved in an international scheme that is more risky than it first appears. See review or more info at Powell's Books


Nonfiction about the Japanese invasion of Nanjing:

The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-fang, edited by Hua-ling Hu and Lian-hong Zhang (2010). More info

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997). More info

The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame by Katsuichi Honda (1998). More info


Online:

The Nanking Massacre Project, a short biographical sketch of Minnie Vautrin and a link to her 1937-1940 diary at the Yale Library website


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