Examiner Contributor

When the Purple Mountain Burns
By Shouhua Qi
San Francisco: Longriver Press, 2005
Despite repeated official apologies from Japan for wartime atrocities, Japan’s Asian neighbors have been slow to accept the sincerity of those apologies. Issues that remain unresolved in the minds of the victims include Japan’s use of comfort women and Japan’s treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. One of the worst Japanese atrocities of the period occurred in December 1937 after Nanjing fell to the Japanese Imperial Army. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of civilians and surrendered soldiers were murdered. Rape, torture and looting were widespread as the occupying forces, carrying orders that rescinded recognition of a Safety Zone where non-combatants could take refuge, set about massacring what was left of the city’s population. While the issue of the massacre is still very much alive for many Chinese and has cast a long shadow over Sino-Japanese relations, what happened in the first weeks after Nanjing fell to the Imperial Army received little notice in the West until fairly recently.

Shouhua Qi, the author of a new novel about the massacre, “When the Purple Mountain Burns,” gives Iris Chang’s 1997 non-fiction book, “The Rape of Nanking,” credit for bringing the issue of the Nanjing Massacre to the attention of Americans and others outside of China. According to Qi, Iris Chang “made the world aware of what had been largely forgotten.” Still, according to Qi, there were no novels in English about the massacre, at least none that dealt with it as a central issue. So when Qi sat down to write his first novel, he knew that this was the subject he had to write about.

A native of Nanjing, Qi grew up surrounded by physical reminders of the war and the massacre. In addition, Qi had heard about the massacre from relatives who had seen the events of December 1937 first hand. Qi’s grandfather and father, then a boy of seven, had witnessed the futile attempts of POWs to escape the firing squads by jumping into the Yangtze. Fortunately, the family lived outside the city walls and across the river from the city proper and was spared.

Although his background provided him with some knowledge of the events of December 1937, Qi realized he would have to do some research before writing his novel, which is told from multiple perspectives: Chinese, Japanese and Western. By telling the story from a variety of perspectives, Qi’s goal was to “focus on the human story and to enable readers to experience what it was like living through those horrific days by probing into the souls of the victims and perpetrators alike.” Qi’s extensive research took him to such places as the special collections library at the Yale Divinity School, where he was able to read the original diaries of Minnie Vautrin, one of the foreign residents who were in Nanjing at the time. Vautrin, an American missionary and acting dean at Ginling College, saved many lives by opening up the college to refugees and offering them protection from the marauding Imperial Army. Another courageous foreign resident who saved many lives was John Rabe, a German businessman and member of the Nazi party, who used his Nazi flag and armband to impress the Japanese military and keep the Chinese who sheltered with him safe. While most of the characters in “When the Purple Mountain Burns” are fictional, Qi incorporates Vautrin and Rabe into his story, and the sections narrated by them are among the novel’s most compelling.

As Anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots in China this past April underscored, the wounds left by the war and occupation have yet to heal. Shouhua Qi himself feels no bitterness towards the Japanese: “I don’t have any anger against the Japanese themselves or feel that they are more violent than anybody else in the world. Rather, I feel sad for humanity because how can we, under whatever pretense – religious, political, or otherwise, go and wage war against fellow human beings … and commit such atrocities against them?”

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