People do stupid things. We seem incapable from learning from our mistakes. I’m writing this in light of the recent Paris and San Bernadino terrorist attacks. We say we should learn from our past so that it wouldn’t be repeated in the future. Yet, time and time again we hear of massacres and beheadings that are occur more often. These atrocities are occurring so much that we have become almost numb to them.
Do we really want to learn from our past? Better yet, do we really want to prevent the next massacre or beheading?
While I was doing my research for this book I was reminded of a true humanitarian’s efforts to get a world leader to learn from the past. After leaving Nanjing in February of 1938, John Rabe asked Adolf Hitler to convince the Japanese to stop the atrocities in China. Hitler, however, had other ideas. He ordered Rabe to never speak about the Nanjing atrocities and had Rabe arrested. The result was that six million Jews lost their lives.
I was also faced with another soul searching question. What would I have done? As an American of Chinese ancestry I know that had I been born in another time in another country I would have been raped and perhaps killed by the Japanese.
But what if I were a Caucasian American in Nanjing in 1937? What would I have done? Would I have stayed? Or would I have evacuated with the majority of westerners in that city?
What would I have done if I were in Paris or in San Bernadino? What would I have done if terrorism were to come to Hawaii?
I use to live in Nanjing. I lived there from 1995 to 1998. During my first year in Nanjing I was as an international student studying Chinese. I lived in Nanshan Hotel which also served as a dormitory for international students. The hotel is located smack in the middle of the former safety zone on the campus of Nanjing Normal University. It is located up the hill from a bust of American Minnie Vautrin, dean of Ginling Women’s College, now a part of Nanjing Normal University. Like Rabe, Vautrin stayed behind fighting off Japanese soldiers who were hell bent on raping and killing women. She was so revered that people called her the Goddess of Mercy.
Every time I set foot inside the former safety zone especially within my university. I felt as if I were walking on sacred ground. The safety zone was spared from large scale attacks by the Japanese due to an agreement with the International Safety Zone Committee headed by Rabe and included Dr. Robert Wilson, an American surgeon in Gulou Hospital, Dr. Lewis Smythe, an American professor at Nanjing University, The Reverend George Fitch and The Reverend John Magee, missionaries to China, and Eduard Sperling, a German businessman with Shanghai Insurance Company.
However, even this agreement could not prevent soldiers from sneaking in to the safety zone and committing atrocities. The frequently broke into the women’s dormitory of Ginling Women’s College and raped and killed women. I was reminded of that one December night as I was preparing for a night out of town with some friends. We were listening to singers in the lobby singing Silent Night.
“Just sixty years ago there were different voices in this city,” my friend reminded me.
I have never forgotten.
I have also paid several visits to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and Museum. On my last visit back in 2010 I tried to locate anyone surnamed Tan on the wall containing the names of the 300,000 victims killed in the massacre. I could not find any but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t victims in Nanjing with that name.
My character Tan Ling was born from that visit. I tried to see things from her perspective because in many ways she is me. What does she see? What does she experience? Even more important, what is to become of her and her family?
This is my way of remembering the Nanjing massacre victims. This is my way to learning from the past and, by telling this story, I hope that this will be a way to prevent future atrocities from ever happening.
Jada Tan Rufo
December 7, 2015