Ha Jin, one of the finest chroniclers of the Chinese mind, hasn’t returned to the mainland since he left it to study American literature at Brandeis University in 1985. But, in a way, he never really left. China is the scene of his large body of fiction. In Nanjing Requiem, he pays tribute to good people in dark times while exploring a subject still taboo in his homeland. He hopes finally to put old souls to rest.

“You have to start with a place and through that place—the particularity—you can reach the universal. In other words, the universal resides in the particular,” Jin once told an interviewer. For Jin, that place is China. Nanjing Requiem presents a 1930s China with all of its complexities—missionaries, foreigners, natives—to probe one of its most controversial, and least understood, atrocities, “The Rape of Nanjing.” In December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army captured the former capital of the Republic of China and begat a six-week orgy of slaughter, mass murder, and mass rape. Hundreds of thousands of civilians perished. Tens of thousands of women, young and old alike, were raped. Some were forced to become sexual slaves under the most grisly of euphemisms—“comfort women.”

Uniquely among Chinese writers, Jin is up to the task to capturing this atrocity accurately and creatively. He knows modern China’s tragic history well because he has lived much of it. His own time in China was bookended by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which occurred when he was barely fourteen, and the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, which forced him to flee. The disturbing scenes of students being shot in the square became his inspiration and “the source of all the trouble.” “I was glued to the TV for three days,” he recalls. “I was in shock. I had served in the [People’s Liberation] Army to protect the people. Suddenly the whole thing was reversed. I just couldn’t reconcile it.”

Jin is frequently spoken of as a modern Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, a new, non-native master of the English language. He counts Nabokov’s Pnin among his five most influential books. It showed him that deliberately inaccurate and distorted English “could create a style that reflects the struggle of immigrants.” That style has now become Jin’s own. “I don’t feel I’ll ever be really at home in English,” he told Newsweek, but “the quest is how to use that to my advantage.” Jin has also said, “I don’t want to write standard American-English idioms. I want something that sounds slightly foreign and absolutely accessible.”

“Slightly foreign and absolutely accessible” is how best to understand his work. His prose is sparse and the language at times malapropistic, but the stories ring true. Jin is, above all, a master of tone and of character. Fiction must grab a reader from the first line and convey “the feeling of what’s at stake . . . so that they can continue to read,” he says. “The story must have power.” In Jin’s work, things happen because they need to; or more precisely, because they ought to. He doesn’t venture off into the lyrical or mystical. “I do care more about facts,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t think I would invent details. Something must happen somewhere so that I can have a kind of certainty about the experience.” To use the real-life horror of the 1937 atrocity effectively, he did his homework, drawing exclusively—and perhaps a bit too exhaustively—upon history, diaries, photographs, and records.

Nanjing Requiem is a departure for Jin. His first works were based upon his own experiences in the People’s Liberation Army. It is only recently that a second body of work—A Good Fall (2010), a short story collection, and A Free Life (2009)—has emerged. These new works explore the process and consider the possibility of becoming fully American. A Free Life is dedicated to the author’s wife and son, who themselves “lived this book.”

In contrast, Nanjing Requiem presents a kind of mystery. In a note accompanying the galleys, Jin explains that he wanted to tell the story of Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the Jinling Women’s College, who saved 12,000 women and children from the slaughter. For her kindness, Minnie became in the eyes of the Chinese “the Living Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy.” More broadly, Nanjing Requiem tells American readers of the “heroic role that some Westerners played” in preventing even more carnage. It was Western missionaries who built a safety zone that “helped save 200,000 civilians, and kept the documents and other material evidence later used at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.” They bore witness and carried the cross.

But the missionaries couldn’t save all who came to their doors, or even inside them. In one real-life incident, which becomes a focal point of Jin’s book, Japanese soldiers raid the women’s college, shamelessly demanding prostitutes for their conquering armies. Minnie reluctantly agrees—so long as the prostitutes agree. But the Japanese had already had their pick, carting off twenty-one women, many of them actually young girls. Minnie prays that the girls will somehow be returned to Jinling safely, but as Jin knows all too well, sometimes it’s best that prayers go unanswered. In his fictionalized account, six eventually return. One, pregnant with a Japanese soldier’s baby, kills herself. Another, Yulan, has been gang-raped and driven insane. In her frequent mania, she blames Minnie for having sold her. Minnie takes to her bed in grief, unable to forgive herself for what she has done and not done. Then, upon her return to America, she kills herself. “She suffered and ruined herself by helping others, but she became a legend,” Jin writes in the letter accompanying the galleys. In remembering her compassion and humanity, he hopes he might “put her soul at peace.” But suicide is the unpardonable sin and hangs over all of Nanjing. Iris Chang, upon whose work Jin relied, shot herself with a revolver.

Jin’s trim, orderly prose doesn’t embellish, which is mostly to his credit. The most macabre moments—like the discovery of a mass grave or beheadings—are told starkly, borrowed sometimes nearly verbatim from the historical record and dutifully chronicled by Anling Gao, Jin’s invented first-person narrator and Minnie’s loyal assistant. She relates how many bodies they found, but not the shock of finding them. Her description of the gang-rape of a grandmother is particularly disturbing not only in its detail but also for its lack of emotion:

She [the grandmother] told them she must be as old as their grandmothers; all the same, they knocked her down, raped her, and stomped on her bound feet. She limped back to Jinling the next day, still shaken, and couldn’t stop her tears. Some of the women, shocked and humiliated, wouldn’t speak to anyone after they were back in our camp.

Anling is Jin’s first attempt at writing from a woman’s perspective, and unfortunately it shows. He doesn’t quite get the tone correct. Yes, Anling shows sadness at the death of her son and when her daughter miscarries, but these are muted emotions. She is “shocked” and “upset” a little too often. Perhaps Anling is simply too numb or too exhausted, but Jin doesn’t evoke how she must be feeling. After Auschwitz, there was famously no poetry. Perhaps after Nanjing, Jin—who began his writing life as a poet—is being deliberately silent to let the facts speak for themselves.

This notable shortcoming can be forgiven because Anling is not his focus; the missionaries are. Through them, the book poses one of the most bedeviling questions of the modern age: How do you keep your soul in the midst of evil? Jin decides that tragically, one cannot. Even those with the best of intentions must suffer. John Rabe, the Nazi businessmen who opened his home to refugees, is summoned home to die a pauper; Minnie commits suicide. Other missionaries, real or imagined, return to their home countries, mere vestiges of themselves.

As God is absent, so too are men, gone to either fight a war or, as the real Minnie Vautrin tells it in her diary, to a mass grave, the victim of “occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street,” which “make us realize the sad fate of some man—very probably not a soldier.”

“Men can be more vicious than beasts of prey if they’re put in the extreme situation of war. No rules will be followed, and all kinds of evil will be unleashed,” Anling says matter-of-factly. And yet, these rules exist in spite of the war’s perversity. Women and children must endure until the rules reassert themselves. Minnie hopes a just God will intervene, but then, why would a just God have allowed something like the massacre to have occurred in the first place?

Anling wonders as much. “I wonder why God let this happen to us Chinese . . . What did we do to deserve this? Why doesn’t God punish those heartless men?” She becomes a kind of everywoman, forced to suffer and— like other Jin characters—to wait until forces outside of her control relent. She waits with her husband, Yaoping, for her son-in-law to return from the Nationalist Army, for God’s grace after her daughter Liya loses her baby, and for her son, Haowen, a medical student in Tokyo, to return. He does, but in the uniform of the enemy. God has a funny way of answering prayers, especially in Nanjing.

Anling’s short sentences convey her understanding of the human psyche. “Most people are good at forgetting,” Anling tells us. Another: “Most things can’t stop changing once they are changed.” The one real major rise of emotion we get out of her is at a mass grave: “The Japanese are savages!” How trifling that exclamation seems.

Jin knows that just as the Japanese are not savages, so too are the foreigners not gods. “I hate to see them confuse humanity with divinity,” Minnie repeatedly tells the Chinese who thank her and pray to her. But as Anling notes, the “Chinese cannot think of divinity divorced from humanity. Indeed, for them anyone could grow good and better and eventually into a god or goddess.” While Minnie protests becoming an idol, Anling knows that “God’s spirit is embodied in humans.” Holly, another missionary who loses her house when the Japanese burn it, looks for God in the world and in her heart. In times of war, “the true Christian position should be standing between humanity and the unregarding force,” the Reverend M. Searle Bates explains. Minnie, try as she may, fails to guard against it. The divine is a part of the humane. And, to Jin, anyone can grow wicked enough to unleash the devil within.

Even as he describes the Rape of Nanjing, Jin avoids the common Communist Chinese trope—alive still—of blaming the Japanese for every calamity committed in the emperor’s name. A Japanese lieutenant and a Christian delivers soap, towels, and biscuits to the refugees. Some enemy soldiers even show remorse or offer an explanation, as Anling recounts:

Some of the men admitted to us that the war was a mistake—China was too enormous for Japan to occupy. They had all learned about this country in history textbooks—about its big apples and pears, its vast soybean fields, its rich minerals, and its pretty girls, but they had not imagined that it was such an immense land and it was much poorer than they’d thought. Many of them had believed that once Nanjing was captured, the war would be over and they could go home; that was why they fought with such blind vengeance.

In such scenes, Jin shows his deep humanity. In recognizing that oppressors, too, have a viewpoint, he uses his art to get to the essentially humane in the most inhumane of situations. Jin has written that he believes, as Nabokov did, that the writer’s nationality is of “secondary importance” and that his “art is ‘his real passport.’” Nabokov, though a naturalized American citizen, wandered—from the Soviet Union to Berlin to America to Switzerland. Ha Jin became an American citizen in 1997 and has stayed put, venturing to China only in his mind or memory.

There is something about his American experience that Jin must have found seductive. It is hard to imagine his story, of the exile as bard, anywhere else than in America. Though forced to study English by his state-run university in China—it was the last thing he wanted as his major—he grew to love the language by studying America’s finest writers, “Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, and Malamud”—all banned until 1980. Jin fell in love. “I was fascinated by their fiction: their literary subject matter was not confined to politics and social movements, as it was in China, and the techniques they used—such as stream of consciousness and multiple narrative points of view—were unheard of to me,” he writes. American writers, unlike Chinese ones, had the freedom to avoid politics and concentrate on the thoughts of the individual, where freedom finally resides.

The freedom to not be political is one that Jin is denied in China, where his books offend the authorities and are banned. “I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics,” he explained to the Paris Review. “[I]t is impossible to avoid politics, especially in China. And of course, the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view.” For that reason, Jin has signed Charter 08, a manifesto proposing the very sorts of economic and political freedoms his own characters are denied. Its author, Liu Xiaobo, has won the Nobel Prize, only to be imprisoned for eleven years (and counting). Even today, the Chinese government spends more time policing its citizen’s minds and thoughts ($95 billion a year) than it does on its ever-growing military ($91 billion). Jin rightly asks how wealthy a country can really be when its “rigid censorship” forces its citizens to be “less imaginative and less inventive”:

Rigid censorship not only chokes artistic talent but also weakens the Chinese populace, who are forced to be less imaginative and less inventive. The crisis in education has been a hot topic in China for years. Why are so many Chinese students good at taking tests but poor at analytical thinking? . . . Why are many Chinese college graduates less creative and innovative than college graduates in the West? Besides the commercialization of education, the absence of a free, tolerant environment has stunted the intellectual growth of students and teachers. People often ask how many great original thinkers and artists modern China has contributed to the world, and how many original products China has created on its own. Very few, considering that the country has 1.3 billion people. True, China is richer than before, but its wealth relies on duplicating and emulating foreign products. Such wealth is temporary and will dwindle away. Without its own original cultural and material products, a country can never stay rich and strong. In other words, the real wealth a country has is the talent of its people. In the case of China, the way to nurture that talent is to lift the yoke of censorship.

Only then will the Chinese be able to enjoy what Jin came to America to find: a “quest for a meaningful existence.” Nanjing Requiem, though worthy and powerful, doesn’t quite find its footing on that quest, but Jin has not wandered too far from his original path.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 7, on page 77
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