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.