Reviews / June 2012 (Issue 17)

The High and the Low: Geling Yan's The Flowers of War

by Glen Jennings

Geling Yan, trans. Nicky Harman, The Flowers of War, Harvill Secker, 2012. 250 pgs.

In Geling Yan's novel The Flowers of War, sixteen school girls and an almost equal number of prostitutes are housed in the compound of a Christian mission in Nanking. An invasion rages outside, threatening them with annihilation if their own desires and disputes do not destroy them first. The virgin girls reside in the attic, the whores dwell in the cellar. Separating them—but also guiding, protecting and even tempting them at times—are the foreign priests of St. Mary Magdalene Mission, a few local servants and three wounded Chinese soldiers. The three soldiers, a brave young Major, a sceptical old Sergeant and a boy conscript from the countryside, have breached the church's neutrality to seek refuge from the Imperial Japanese Army that stormed into Nanking in December 1937. Japanese soldiers have overrun the capital of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China, and the notorious Rape of Nanking has commenced. In Yan's novel, virgins and prostitutes, foreigners and Chinese, the rich and the poor, and the physically wounded and emotionally damaged are thrown together to experience life and death, up close and in extremes.

The setting of The Flowers of War may seem contrived, but it is not as artificial as it may first appear. Many of its events and characters are familiar from wartime documents such as the diaries kept by Minnie Vautrin and John Rabe and from subsequent histories, including the work of Honda Katsuichi and Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Historical records show that prostitutes from Nanking's infamous entertainment quarter took refuge among the city's female students, for example at the Ginling Girls College run by the American missionary Miss Minnie Vautrin. Disarmed and wounded Chinese soldiers also sought refuge wherever they could find, demand or beg for it, including in the International Safety Zone, set up for the protection of Nanking's civilians and in the private compounds of foreign business people and missionaries. A small number of foreigners, among them religious figures who had devoted their lives to China, remained in Nanking throughout the battle and subsequent massacre and often took great personal risks to protect local people. In what some may see as a particular irony of history—and something that would be hard to "get away with" in a work of fiction—the Chairman of Nanking's International Safety Zone was a senior Nazi, John Rabe. Rabe worked tirelessly to provide food, clothing and care to Nanking's terrorised community. He also personally stared down Japanese soldiers guilty of looting, beating and killing, and chased off the Japanese rapists who were attacking Chinese women.

Geling Yan has rich historical material to work with in her story about what it felt like to be vulnerable and terrified, but still alive, during the Nanking massacre. Through her various characters—especially in the experiences of the young student Shujuan, the prostitutes Yumo, Doukou and Hongling, the wounded soldiers Dai, Li and Wang and the foreign priests Engelmann and Fabio—Yan explores what it meant to gain awareness of oneself and of others under extraordinary circumstances. Yumo, speaking of prostitutes, says, "we've got no face to lose ... when we're alive, we're less than human, and when we die, we're less than demons ... we can be beaten and humiliated at will" but her words could equally apply to the victims of a military occupation or those subjected to a conqueror's strict social hierarchy and theories of ethnic superiority.

In her own estimation, Flowers is not Geling Yan's finest work, but it is a book that she felt compelled to write. It is a significant historical novel, one that characterises a period of great cruelty and enormous compassion. Yan balances the domestic circumstances of the individuals trapped within the mission with the broader narrative of Japanese invasion and excess. The Japanese characters in Yan's novel are neither subtle nor developed, and her judgement of Japanese military behaviour is, understandably, unequivocal and damning. But with her Chinese characters, Yan explores prejudice, emotion and the nuances of relationships, writing at one point that "the one who was cruel and the one who was the victim of cruelty frequently swapped places," a statement which applies to schoolyard friendships, to relations between women and men, to foreigners and Chinese and to soldiers on the battlefield.

Nicky Harman, whose excellent translation work has been featured before in Cha (Issue 14), makes substantial and effective choices in the way she presents the narrative voice and the structure of The Flowers of War. She dispenses completely with Yan's plot device from the original Chinese novel (金陵十三钗 [13 Flowers of Nanking]) of using the narrator's adult aunt to look back on events as a source of historical information and reflection on character and intent. Instead, Harman keeps attention focused tightly on the action as it unfolds, especially with the thirteen-year-old school girl Shujuan as she experiences war from the threatened church compound. Harman's decision to concentrate on the moment of initial experience renders the narrative voice immediate and engaging. We sense the visceral fear and horror of the Nanking massacre as it wounds or destroys the individuals we come to know. But we also experience the petty jealousies of boarding school and the daily frustrations of life surrounded by strangers and interlopers. In a world degraded by thirst, hunger and fear, people from vastly different backgrounds come into conflict. When focusing on Shujuan, who has been left at boarding school when her younger sister and parents went to America, The Flowers of War seethes with the overwhelming resentment of a young girl feeling abandoned and trapped.

Significantly, in translation, Harman also changes the order of some material in the original Chinese novel, moving the prologue to an epilogue and excising or resituating certain narrative interpolations that otherwise let the reader know in advance the fate of certain characters. At its heart, this is a war story that requires tension and suspense to be effective. Harman's intelligent reordering of the text maintains a sense of fear and uncertainty. Who will live and who will die? What will happen to Shujuan and the other school girls? Will the prostitutes hiding out in the Church cellar be raped and massacred by Japanese invaders? Or forced to become their "comfort women"? Can the wounded Chinese soldiers avoid the fate of their comrades who were tied up, shot and dumped in the river? Will the foreign missionaries be martyred in defence of the innocent sinners?

In February 2012, the mayor of the Japanese City of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, used the occasion of a welcome meeting with a delegation from Nanking to declare that the Nanking Massacre of 1937–1938 is a myth. He argued that the Imperial Japanese Army did not slaughter prisoners of war or rape and murder civilians. The deaths that did occur, he maintained, were ordinary casualties of war in the battle to take the walled city. Kawamura's narrative fits the ultranationalist sentiment of certain obdurate Japanese politicians and reflects a wider lack of historical knowledge and accountability among parts of the Japanese population. Despite the brave work of some Japanese academics, journalists and former soldiers who have revealed the truth about the Nanking Massacre, the country has never come to terms with its wartime responsibility in the same way that Germany has faced the legacy of Nazism. Indeed in the decades since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has grown a sense among many ordinary citizens that the Japanese were the victims of war, not the perpetrators of wartime atrocities. But overwhelming evidence exists that Japanese looting, rape and massacre terrorised and decimated the people of Nanking for months after the capture of the city. Victims numbered not in the hundreds or in the thousands but in the hundreds of thousands.

Although Geling Yan's work is fiction, there is more truth in The Flowers of War than in the words of many contemporary politicians. It is hoped that The Flowers of War as a novel, and in the movie version filmed recently by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, will help deepen historical knowledge and awaken human empathy.

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