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...


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