In Nanjing Requiem, Ha Jin, the award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash returns to his homeland in a searing new novel that unfurls during one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century: the Rape of Nanjing. At once epic and intimate, Nanjing Requiem is the story of an American missionary who bravely takes a stand against the horror and injustice that surrounds her. In this month’s Armchair Adventurer, we explore Nanjing’s complex relationship with the past and its rich cultural fabric in order to provide historical and modern context for the book.
Located in the Lower Yangtze Valley, Nanjing is the capital of the China’s Jiangsu Province. The city has been named as the capital several times, most notably in 1368 under the Ming Dynasty and in 1927, when Chiang Kai-Shek established it as the capital of the Republic of China. In December of 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japan invaded and occupied the city. In the six weeks that followed the invasion, Japanese troops killed, raped, and tortured thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians; this event came to be known as the Nanjing Massacre, or the Rape of Nanjing. According to the BBC, “between 250,000 and 300,000 people were killed, many of them women and children.” Westerners who lived in the city did their best to shield civilians from attacks, creating a “safety zone.” Minnie Vautrin, Nanjing Requiem’s protagonist, was one of those a real-life heroes, “credited with saving the lives of over 10,000 Chinese women and children.”
Today, visitors to Nanjing can honor those whose lives were lost with a visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. The memorial is divided into three parts: outdoor exhibits, including statues and sculptures commemorating the massacre; a museum that features historical artifacts from the occupation period; and a coffin-shaped hall that serves as a final resting place for the remains of some of the victims. While the well-traveled writers of Fodors.com warn that this “is not for the squeamish,” visitors can choose to confine their time to the museum or outdoor exhibits.
The ancient history of Nanjing can be explored at the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum (or Ming Tomb). The tomb was constructed from 1381 to 1405 and Hong Wu, founder of the Ming Dynasty, is interred there. Animal statues line the paths around the mausoleum, and Fodors.com notes that these paths “make the Ming Tomb area a rewarding place to explore, but as in all Chinese tombs the entrance is hidden to foil looters.” Those interested in the Ming Dynasty may also wish to visit the Gate of China (or Zhonghua Gate), originally “built as the linchpin of the city’s defenses” and now a well-preserved example of Ming defensive architecture.
The Ming Dynasty left such a lasting imprint on Nanjing that when the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum was planned, the architect designed a “Ming-style tomb.” Built between 1926-1929 to honor the political leader who founded the Republic of China, the Mausoleum is located on a mountain, and the entrance is “at the top of an enormous stone stairway—a breathless 392 steps.” A crypt inside the tomb features a tablet inscribed with Dr. Sun’s “Three Principles of the People”: nationalism, democracy, and government for the people.
Despite the city’s tragic past, the city of Nanjing is an excellent destination with an extraordinary landscape that allows visitors to experience modern China alongside historic monuments and poignant memorials. For even more on Nanjing’s attractions and sites, click to visit Fodors.com’s List of Things to do in Nanjing.
Click to read an excerpt from Nanjing Requiem and to download our reading group guide.