Chinese History in Fiction and Nonfiction

I read two books back to back that shed some light on the vicissitudes of Chinese life and history: Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller and Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin.

Fortunate Sons is the nonfiction title, subtitled The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization. It’s about an educational experiment that took place starting in 1872 in which groups of boys from China were sent to New England to be educated in the ways of Western thinking and inventions and technology. The goal was to train leaders for China who would bring the Chinese out of their technological deficit and their impotence in the face of Western weaponry and warfare.

In spite of the fact that the boys were called home early, before most of them were able to complete their university education, many of the young men who returned to China after receiving an American education were able to serve their native country effectively and with great loyalty. Sometimes their gifts were under-appreciated and under-utilized given the chaotic state of Chinese politics in the early twentieth century. However, some of the CHinese Educational Mission graduates were given great responsibility in bringing China into the modern age in the areas of railroads, diplomacy, and warfare in particular.

Unfortunately, I had trouble remembering which boy was which as I read the book. What with American nicknames like “Jimmy” and “By-Jinks Johnnie” as well as Chinese names, such as Yung Wing and Yung Liang and Chen Duyong and Liang Dunyan, that all started to sound alike to my untrained American ears, I was confused most of the time about who was whom. A list of the boys with their Chinese names, American nicknames, and one distinguishing fact about each would have been quite helpful. Nevertheless, I do recommend the book for those who are interested in modern Chinese history.

As usual, I learned more from the fiction book that I read set in 1937-1940 China called Nanjing Requiem than I did from the nonfiction book. This novel is another one of those memoir-ish fictional treatments, based on the life and experiences of a real person, specifically the life of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the dean of Jinling Women’s College in Nanjing, China. If you’ve read anything about China and World War II, you’ve heard of the Rape of Nanjing. This story brings the Japanese occupation and pillage of Nanjing to life, but in an understated, almost documentary sort of writing style. The violence and the horror are there, and the author’s style, using a fictional Chinese narrator to tell the story of Ms. Vautrin’s courage and her eventual mental collapse, makes the barbarity of the events in the novel even more vivid because Ha Jin leaves much to the imagination. Then, there are the moral dilemmas of war and dealing with the enemy on behalf of the helpless and sometimes thankless Chinese refugees who become Ms. Vautrin’s responsibility. No one, including Minnie Vautrin, especially Ms. Vautrin, escapes the horrible repercussions of decisions made under the pressure of sometimes choosing between evil and more evil.

For those who are interested in the true story of Minnie Vautrin and the Rape of Nanjing, this video is a dramatization of material from the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, presented as a mock trial for war crimes committed during the Nanjing occupation. This video is a fictional presentation, not a real trial. The real Minnie Vautrin died in 1941.

I noticed as I read Nanjing Requiem how the characters in the novel spoke and thought about revenge on the Japanese for the atrocities they committed and how they wondered why God did not act to bring justice and vengeance down upon the Japanese army and upon the Japanese people for allowing such wickedness to proceed unchecked. I couldn’t help thinking about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years after the Rape of Nanking. Although I don’t believe that God sanctioned the bombing of those Japanese cites in retribution for the Rape of Nanjing and other Japanese war crimes, I do believe that evil begets evil. And sometimes the innocent pay for the sins of their fathers and others.

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