Remaining in Nanking and chronicling the horrors


The history of missionary work in Asia and the Pacific region has not always been exemplary, as we know from the eradication by religious zealots of entire micro-cultures in the name of Christ.

THE UNDAUNTED WOMEN OF NANKING: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-fang, edited by Hua-ling Hu and Lian-hong Zhang. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, 227 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

Minnie Vautrin, acting president of Ginling College and witness to the atrocities committed at Nanking, was known to the Chinese whom she gave shelter to as the “Goddess of Mercy,” an allusion perhaps to the Chinese figure Guanyin. She does appear by all accounts to have been a truly saintly figure, a woman dedicated to the protection and educational improvement of those under her wing, a missionary who believed, to quote from a December entry in her diary, that “war is a national crime and a sin against the creative spirit at the heart of the Universe.”

We know that in modern warfare it is civilians who pay the highest price. The statistics on Nanking may be disputed, but the documented facts are incontestable.

During indiscriminate rampages conducted by Japanese soldiers beginning in the winter of 1937, somewhere between 80,000 and 300,000 murders and acts of torture took place in the city over a period of several weeks. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial of 1946 placed the figure at 200,000.

It is impossible to determine the number of rape victims, though it is said to be in the tens of thousands. Vautrin and Tsen Shui-fang, a trained nurse, detailed atrocities committed on their campus and the suffering experienced by the women and children there.

The two women were fully aware of the risks involved in keeping records destined, whether they sensed it or not, to become historical authority. With the translation of Tsen’s diary, the two accounts have been juxtaposed to great effect.

Though both women were Christians sharing the same creed and values, the differences in reaction to the nightmare of Nanking are telling. Vautrin, though appalled by a vision of descent into extreme inhumanity, is prepared to see the events in Nanking as a ghastly aberration, asking at one point in her diary, “If only the thoughtful people in Japan could know what is happening in Nanking.”

Tsen, under extreme “stress, constant fear, persistent danger, physical exhaustion and insurmountable anger” during the recording of her diary, is consumed we sense by a desire to extract a terrible revenge on more than just the perpetrators.

The treatment of the Chinese seems plausible only by grasping the mindset of the ordinary Japanese soldier, indoctrinated to regard non-Japanese, particularly Asians, with contempt, a theme echoed by Tsen when she writes, “They simply treat the Chinese people not as human beings.”

This recalls the use of the word “logs” by Japanese scientists and military personnel to describe the live Chinese subjects they were conducting biological experiments on during the war.

By late February 1938, law and order had been nominally restored in Nanking, but the casually committed horrors were not over, as a trip Vautrin made in the company of an American pastor in March of that year corroborates.

The two traveled to the south of the city to document the case of a 48-year-old woman who had been raped 18 times, and her twice-violated 78-year-old mother. Vautrin was offered a way out of Nanking on several occasions with higher-paying positions in the United States. The mark of her dedication was that she refused all such offers of escape until 1940, when she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her ordeals.

On May 14, 1941, this brave and selfless woman took her own life, leaving a message stating that she would rather die than go insane.

There is no question that the horrors of Nanking were directly responsible for the mental anguish that led to the death of this fine woman. Although haunted no doubt by her own memories, Tsen fared better, living until the ripe old age of 94.

Nanking’s agony was to continue until the end of the war. In a final irony of supreme proportions, its liberation was only secured through the mediation of more horrors: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.