Zhang Kaiyuan, Eyewitness to Massacre: American Missionaries Bear Witness to Japanese Atrocities in Nanjing

We live in a world where the media conveys to us powerful
scenes of human suffering. The appalling injustices of the Interahamwe
genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda or Israeli army incursions into a Palestinian refugee
camp in Jenine are witnessed on our television screens or brought into daily conversation
through skilful written imagery in periodicals and newspapers. We cannot say that
we did not know of these events, even though we do not see what has not been recorded
by an enterprising journalist.

Eyewitness to Massacre, a series of American missionary
testimonies of the massacre that swept through the city of Nanking during the
early stages of the Japanese occupation (1937-1945), skilfully portrays the scale
and brutality of an event which had become just another historical marker. Unlike
the regular incursions into our living-rooms of televised violence, this massacre
slept on the backburner of history during the Cold War and has only just recently
been revived by an interesting array of concerned authors. Iris Cheng’s eloquent,
best-selling account appeared in 1997 and was quickly countered by Takemoto
Tadao and Ohara Yasuo’s alternative version of the “alleged” massacre((1).
Joshua Fogel’s more recent edited volume of the history and historiography
of the event brings a sense of perspective to the polemic. He reminds us that
the Nanking Massacre is also a phenomenon of the Chinese diaspora, a means to
seize and reformulate a history that has been severely misshapen by Cold War propaganda;
the event provides an “unassailable and irreproachable” sense of identity
that links the diaspora in victimhood((2).

The editor of Eyewitness to Massacre, Zhang Kaiyuan,
brings this period back to life with chilling accuracy. Zhang’s volume
is unusual in that he lets the American witnesses to this massacre speak in their
own voices. Rather than the anguished cries of Chinese survivors, or the cool
analysis of an American academic, we read the diary entries and letters home of
American missionaries who knew Nanking as well as their Chinese counterparts;
this was their city and they testify to the daily, almost banal brutality of bored
Japanese troops who systematically terrorised the civilian population for a period
of several months beginning in December 1937. Nine Americans, some of them born
in China, convey in an almost monotonous fashion the daily strains of the total
breakdown of Nanking society under the occupation.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is the re-creation
of a world that no longer exists. As a Yale-China fellow in the 1980s, I spent
hours pouring over the Yale-China archives before leaving for a two-year stint
in the PRC. The same tone is present in these letters and diaries housed in the
Yale Divinity School Library next door. A sense of duty pervades each page, a
sense that these nine Americans were fighting against unbelievable odds for the
survival of what they would have termed “Christian decency”. Their accounts
are painstakingly accurate, demonstrating a stubborn belief that “the Truth”
would prevail. In his frequent letters to the Japanese Embassy in Nanking during
the early weeks of the massacre, for example, Miner Serle Bates systematically
enumerates the specific acts committed on his own campus (University of Nanking):
“While I was with you in the Embassy today, my own house was looted for the
fourth time. Seven other University houses have been looted today, and many have
been entered several times.” (December 21st, p. 9). The tone is so methodical
that Bates mentions in the same breath in a December 27th letter the Japanese
soldiers’ disrespect for the American flag and their raping of three girls,
one of whom was 11 (p. 11).

The close links between Chinese Christians and the American
missionary community is evident in the many accounts in this book. Minnie Vautrin,
who was serving as acting president of Ginling Women’s College at the time
of the Japanese invasion, records the names and family members of all her Chinese
staff in her diary and demonstrates how tightly the Christian faith came to bind
those living through the Massacre: “Words cannot express the value these
(prayer) meetings have had in strengthening and binding us together and giving
us power to meet the difficult problems of each day” (p. 340). The daily
encounters with death and terror through the beginning of the war were too much
for Vautrin, however; she left China in 1940 after suffering a nervous breakdown
and committed suicide one year later. Perhaps she was still reproaching herself,
as she did in her December 1937 review of events for the Ginling College Board
of Directors: “I think now that I might have saved those girls but at the
time it did not seem possible” (p. 336).

Editor Zhang Kaiyuan formed very close links with what he
calls this “new generation” of missionary educators. “Regarding
their wide vision and rich knowledge, they were far better qualified than those
earlier missionaries and their wives from mid-western America.” (p. xxiii).
Zhang’s generation of the Chinese diaspora is able to sharply criticise earlier
Western imperialism towards China while clearly identifying with their role models
from the West. Miner Serle Bates was Zhang’s history teacher and Eyewitness
to Massacre
is a posthumous tribute to the honesty and courage of this new
kind of missionary. The eulogistical nature of this volume, however, is not only
a strength, but also a weakness. Since the editor refrained from intervening in
these personal testimonies, the reader is often weighed down by the sheer wealth
of monotonous detail which is harvested but not processed by the editor.

This volume is of extraordinary use to scholars of the period
since it provides edited access to nine first-hand accounts of the massacre as
witnessed from the relatively privileged position of foreign missionaries. But
while the tone of the accounts is very even-handed, this is not an unbiased version
of events. The author takes a firm stand on a several controversial issues, including
the number of victims. Zhang is unapologetically partial in qualifying his book
as “the record of the Nanking Massacre, the brutal crime committed by the
Japanese invading army, written with the hearts, blood, and tears of this small
group of foreign residents.” (p. xxvii). The value of this volume lies in
the fact that it focuses on the lived aspect of the massacre. Perhaps the sudden
interest in this period on the part of the Chinese diaspora and mainland scholars
will allow the full record to enter the public domain. By placing the Nanking
Massacre in its specific context, we may better explain why this event has become
what journalist Ian Buruma terms the emblem of contemporary Chinese identity((3).
Only then will an event which has marked the Chinese psyche be discussed with
anything less than passion.

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