This is fiction, but fiction that draws heavily on the historical record and in which many of the characters actually lived the events described. The narrator, Anling, a middle-aged Chinese woman, may be Ha Jin’s invention, but she serves as assistant to a well-documented real-life character, Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary from Illinois who served as acting head of Jinling College. Vautrin also figures in Iris Chang’s best-selling account, “The Rape of Nanking,” one of the inspirations for Ha Jin’s portrait of the doomed city.
When Chiang Kai-shek abandoned Nanjing to the Japanese, a few Western nationals chose to remain. The Americans who stayed were mostly missionaries, among them the formidable Minnie Vautrin. Also present was John Rabe, the German representative of Siemens in Nanjing, a member of the Nazi party who led the extraordinary effort to set up the safety zone in which Jinling College and similar institutions became refugee camps, tenuously protected by the presence and personal courage of a tiny group of foreigners. It is to them that we largely owe the documentation of the rape, pillage, arson and murder that followed.
As a novelist, Ha Jin brings a cool, spare documentary approach to this rich trove of material. His narrative centers on Jinling, an attractively landscaped campus in the heart of the city. The college itself becomes a character, the early hope of its founders that it would be a premier seat of learning as much despoiled by the war as are the lives of those who love and labor within it. The college represents humanity and civilization, repeatedly violated and nearly destroyed.