The Fall of Nanjing as My Grandmother Lived It

The story of a desperate young woman's escape from Japan’s bloody siege.

Bettman / Hulton-Deutsch / Corbis / Getty / Thanh Do / The Atlantic

On December 13, 1937, my grandmother, a woman of barely 22 years named Wein-Shiu Liu Chou, heard the steady barrage of artillery from Imperial Japanese troops as they began their final assault on Nanjing, her hometown in China. The sound of shells exploding just outside the city walls must have made clear to those still in the city that the end was near. My grandmother would live a long life of 98 years, raise two daughters, see five grandchildren grow up, run small businesses in Taiwan and the United States, and sing in a choral group in Los Angeles, California, in her golden years. But on that cold December morning, such a future seemed impossible.

After the Imperial Japanese Army invaded what was then China’s capital, it began a campaign of terror against the populace known as the “Rape of Nanking,” in which an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 civilians were killed, with untold numbers of rapes, mass executions, and other atrocities taking place throughout the city. (The death toll is a point of controversy. Japanese accounts put the number of deaths somewhere between 20,000 and 200,000.) Iris Chang’s 1997 book The Rape of Nanking revived scholarly interest in what actually happened. Much of our understanding relies on the diaries of Westerners who stayed in the city. They include John Rabe, a Nazi doctor who helped establish a demilitarized “safety zone” inside the city, and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who turned her women’s college into a sanctuary for women and girls. They give some of the best firsthand accounts to have survived the war; my grandmother’s story adds not only a Chinese perspective, but that of a survivor.

Why she stayed in the city remains a mystery to this day. Her neighbor, Zheng Baihua, happened to be a doctor at a military hospital and had helped her get a job as a nurse, despite the fact that she had no medical training or experience. She was eager to help. Her father, stepmother, and younger brother had already moved into Shanghai’s French Concession, one of the territories ceded to foreign powers after China’s humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars. Even after the Japanese took Shanghai, these foreign concession zones remained relatively safe, and refugees flooded into them. I imagine my great-grandfather was desperate to have his daughter rejoin the family. But patriotic fervor overrode filial piety, and perhaps even her sense of self-preservation. And so she stayed in the doomed city.

Her childhood in Nanjing had been largely carefree. She often stayed at her great aunt’s house on the narrow Qinhuai River. In the mornings, peddlers in boats would sell fermented rice porridge—a local delicacy—hoisting up a bowl on a long pole to a window. On New Year’s, she would run through the city to each of her relatives’ homes, where she bowed and received that much-coveted red envelope. Most relatives would give a few coins, but her great aunt would spoil her with one full yuan. With these riches, she headed for the market stalls. While other children stuffed themselves with candied plums and oranges, she would buy piles of fireworks and set them off in the streets. Later, as a teenager, she and her friends rented boats at Xuanwu Lake, in the northeast of the city. There, they would row out among the reeds to feast on lotus seeds.

When Japanese troops first entered the city, my grandmother saw the soldiers separate women and girls from their families and carry them away. They bayoneted crying babies and shot elderly men, she recalled. Modern scholarship would describe the conquest in stark terms: “Before the occupation was a day old, civilian bodies were lying in the streets of downtown Nanjing ... The defenseless and the innocent were killed, tortured, and humiliated in an orgy of violence that continued for six horrific weeks.”

My grandmother remained cloistered in the hospital, tending to the teeming masses of wounded soldiers and civilians that spilled into the corridors. When the Japanese blasted through Nanjing’s ancient walls, the hospital staff lowered the Chinese Nationalist flag and raised the flag of the Red Cross, hoping that the international affiliation would spare those within from the harshest treatment. Japanese doctors soon took over operations at the hospital. My grandmother described many atrocities directed by the Japanese medical staff. She saw them order the Chinese staff to perform wholesale amputations, without anesthetics, where other treatments might have sufficed.

Whether because the weight of complicity with the Japanese orders was too heavy to bear, or because of patriotic ardor, my grandmother and her colleagues at the hospital decided to escape. Choosing to venture beyond the relative safety of the hospital grounds and into the violence she could hear just over the compound walls would have been a gut-wrenching decision for anyone, but especially so for a young woman in her 20s. She explained her reasoning at the time: She would rather take her fate in her own hands, even if it meant losing her life, than to become another victim of that caged city.

The escape was timed for March 1938. By then, the frenzy of rape and violence by Japanese troops had subsided and some semblance of normalcy had begun to return. The city gates were opened during the day for farmers from the countryside to bring in their goods. The hopes of the hospital workers rested with this trickle of country folk.

My grandmother’s former neighbor, Zheng Baihua, would lead one group of escapees, while a second group would chance it a day later. She left with the first wave. To blend in with the people of Nanjing, they wore ragged clothes and shoes. To disguise her cherubic, youthful appearance from the Japanese patrols and gate sentries, she smeared ash over her face; her raven-black hair, she tied up in a dirty rag. She bent over as she walked and carried a walking stick, playing the elderly vagabond. She slipped out of the hospital compound, shuffling slowly toward the city’s southwestern gate and carrying nothing but a clean change of clothes bundled up in rags over one shoulder. The escapees dared not travel together, so they staggered their movements. If one of them was caught, there was nothing the others could do.

The morning of the escape, a pair of Japanese guards stood sentry on each side of a bridge at Shuixi Gate, watching for ex-soldiers and smugglers. My grandmother’s heart must have been pounding in her ears as she made the 50-yard walk past the guards. If a sentry searched her and found her change of clothes, or discovered a young woman’s face beneath the ash, all hope would have been lost. But her luck that day held, and she slowly made it out of the city and into the muddy brown countryside beyond.

The group had agreed to meet at a teahouse down the road, beyond the immediate sight of Japanese forces. When she arrived, she picked at a dry breakfast pastry and sipped tea, casting sidelong glances each time the door opened. The companions sat separately, eyes acknowledging each other as the next one entered. After the group had reassembled, they left one-by-one, heading further west toward safety. Only once they had made it past enemy lines did they gather, change clothes, and move as a group toward Wuhan, where the Nationalist government had decamped. Once they made it to Chinese-controlled territory, they celebrated by taking a group portrait in a small photography studio. Inscribed on the photograph was the date March 17, 1938, along with a spare caption: “Upon escaping danger in Nanjing, a group portrait.” Their good cheer would be short-lived: They soon learned that the second group from the hospital had been caught. The guards had been alerted once it was discovered that some of the staff had disappeared overnight.

Upon reaching Wuhan, my grandmother found work as a financial administrator at a government-run school for orphans. She wrote to her father in Shanghai to tell him that she had made it out of the city, and he immediately telegrammed an old classmate, a bank manager in Wuhan, to book her passage to Shanghai. She begrudgingly complied and steamed back down the mighty Yangtze River, passing Nanjing.

Once she had reached the French Concession, however, she could not tolerate waiting out the war. Against her father’s wishes, she booked a one-way voyage from Shanghai to Hanoi, Vietnam. From there, she made her way back into China, intent on reaching Chongqing, the new wartime capital. She was a young woman, traveling alone on foreign roads through treacherous terrain, relying on the most tenuous of acquaintances to help her move from Hanoi to Kunming to Guiyang, then by army transport up winding mountain roads to Chongqing. Still in her early 20s, she had passed through Japanese lines a third time, slipping out of occupied Shanghai, and taking a sea route to reach her mountain destination. In Chongqing, she worked as an administrator for the government-run orphanages that were overfilling with abandoned children. In the commemorative notebooks she kept, her friends, colleagues, and students hailed her as an “Iron Mulan” and a “savior of the children.”

When news broke that the atomic bombs had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it came as a great shock to my grandmother and her new husband, Zhou Qigang, a high official in the Nationalist government. With the war over, they moved with the government back to Nanjing for a short time. She could not settle back into her hometown for long, however, as the Chinese Communist revolution would eventually drive them to Taiwan.

In 1999, my grandmother and I visited Nanjing’s Confucius Temple district, where her extended family once lived. It had been 50 years since she had been back. In her eyes I saw a wistful yearning that something might remain of what she remembered. We stopped where her family’s stately compound once stood; she called the place Liu Hou Fu, or “the Estate of the Marquis of Liu.” (One of her ancestors may have been titled nobility in the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1636 to 1912, and was brought to an end by China’s democratic revolution.) Alas, the estate was no more. What she left behind could only be summoned through imperfect recollection. Nanjing, a capital city of grand boulevards lined by ancient ginkgo trees and the emerging modernity of a fledgling republic, was replaced with horror and atrocity. A grand past and a hopeful vision for China's future had seemingly forever vanished.

Yet, in the life my grandmother built day by day after her escape from occupied Nanjing, 80 years ago today, she embodied the perseverance and spirit of a generation that endured and would not be conquered.