Beginning in the late 1990s, with “Ocean of Words’’ and “Under the Red Flag,’’ tales of the Red Guard sweeping through villages in his native northeast China, Ha Jin’s short stories, poems, and novels have offered American readers an essential chronicle of contemporary China.
The son of a military officer, Jin joined the Peoples Liberation Army at age 14, amid the Cultural Revolution. He came to Brandeis University for graduate study in 1985. Disillusioned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, he remained in the United States and began to write in English. He often addresses subjects that would undoubtedly run afoul of China’s censors: the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, Tiananmen Square.
In his bleak, precisely rendered, and elegiac sixth novel, he takes on the Nanjing massacre, still a flashpoint in Sino-Japanese relations, more than 70 years after the taking of the ancient walled city.
“Nanjing Requiem’’ begins with a drum roll of horrors.
On Dec. 13, 1937, the day Japan’s Imperial Army invades Nanjing, then the capital of China, soldiers abduct Ban, a 15-year-old Chinese messenger, and force him to work as their slave. Ban witnesses Japanese soldiers turning machine guns on a crowd of Chinese women, children, and surrendering soldiers. They bayonet the survivors. He watches in fear as an officer beheads another Chinese worker with his sword. He sees women naked from the waist down, stabbed to death after being raped, and so many bodies thrown into streams, ponds, and wells, that the water runs red with blood.
By some miracle Ban survives, and returns to his employers at Jinling Women’s College to describe the appalling carnage.
After this grim prelude, Jin backtracks to late November 1937, in the weeks before the Japanese army reaches Nanjing.
Minnie Vautrin, a courageous character based on an actual American missionary (many of the characters are drawn from real life), has been left in charge of Jinling Women’s College. Her job: to protect the city’s women and children in a refugee camp set up on the sprawling campus within the international civilian safety zone. The novel’s narrator, a fictional Chinese character named Anling, is at her side as cultural interpreter, assistant, and confidante.
Jin creates a chilling and ironic counterpoint between scenes of the well-meaning Western missionaries, diplomats, and businessmen as they put precautions in place to safeguard civilians and valuables, and the realities of the coming invasion. When a German businessman tries to negotiate a last-ditch cease-fire on behalf of the Chinese, the Japanese general in charge says he intends to “soak Nanjing in a bloodbath’’ to prove Chiang Kai-Shek an incompetent leader.
And so begins the daily procession of monstrosities as the massacre unfolds.
Minnie documents body counts, men imprisoned, and rapes of women under her care. Credited later for her valiant efforts, she is tormented by the memories of those she is powerless to save, including dozens of young women forced into army-run brothels.
Jin follows the harsh aftermath of battle. As soldiers move on, the refugees are released, and a bureaucratic infrastructure is put into place. He sketches the outlines expertly - the puppet government, the occupation forces, the distortions of propaganda and memory - against a background of postwar deprivation.
At Jinling, Minnie, the interim leader, is replaced by Mrs. Dennison, the founding president, who believes a newspaper article published by Japan’s occupation government, which identifies Westerners - including Minnie - as the “real criminals’’ in Nanjing.
“History should be recorded as it happened, so it can be remembered with little room for doubt and controversy,’’ notes Minnie early in the novel. Her comment could be a touchstone for Jin, as he focuses on the repercussions of war. The battle ends, and the lies begin. As many as 300,000 Chinese were killed and tens of thousands of women raped in the region in the six weeks after the city fell; many of the facts and figures are disputed to this day. Jin’s notes indicate he drew upon Minnie Vautrin’s diaries and other eyewitness accounts (as did Iris Chang, whose 1997 nonfiction book, “The Rape of Nanjing,’’ first brought the massacre to popular attention); he also consulted dozens of documents in English, Japanese, and Chinese, transcripts from the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, photographs, and documentary film footage. This may account for his reportorial tone and occasional overload of detail.
His gift for exploring the extremes of human nature is evident in his many careful portraits of dozens of damaged individuals, from Ban and Anling, whose own family is decimated by the war, to Minnie, whose courage is dimmed as her life comes to a tragic end.
“Nanjing Requiem’’ is both plainspoken and revelatory, the saddest of Ha Jin’s novels. After this past decade of armed conflict, which has put millions of civilians at risk, his reminder of the human costs of war is also, unfortunately, timely.
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.