Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Minnie Vautrin - The Goddess of Mercy in Nanking

Vautrin and the memorial to her in Nanjing

It's not a well known story outside of Asia or among non-historians: the actions of a few brave foreigners trying to hold off the massacre in Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937 to 1938. One was Minnie Vautrin, an American woman who was the Principal of the Ginling Women's College. The Chinese call her the "Goddess of Mercy".

On December 13, 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanking and the ensuing six weeks became known to history as the Nanking Massacre. Estimates by the Tokyo War Crimes is that 20,000 women and girls were raped. The general consensus among historians is about 200,000 to 300,000. The rape and looting was so nightmarish that the stories that came out are worse than any horror movie. I had to study it in university and I wish I never had in some ways.

Goddess of Mercy

A group of foreigners, mainly missionaries and businessmen, created the Nanking Safety Zone. The Japanese authorities never formally recognized the Zone, but did say that they would not attack an area which was not occupied by Chinese troops. On this narrow margin of agreement, the Chinese promise to evacuate the area and the Japanese statement that they would not intentionally attack an unoccupied place, the Safety Zone was finally put through.

Central to saving thousands of people, Was Minnie Vautrin. Her biography on the Yale Divinity site tells of her bravery but sad end:

Minnie Vautrin was born in Secor, Illinois on September 27, 1886.  She worked her way through the University of Illinois with a major in education, graduating with high honors in 1912.  Vautrin was commissioned by the United Christian Missionary Society as a missionary to China, where she first served as a high school principal for a few years and then became chairman of the education department of Ginling College in Nanking when it was founded in 1916.  She served as acting president of Ginling College when President Matilda Thurston returned to America for fundraising.  
With the Japanese army pressing on Nanking, Vautrin again was called on to take charge of the College campus, as most of the faculty left Nanking for Shanghai or Chengtu, Szechwan.
Minnie Vautrin's writings provide a detailed account of the situation in Nanking under Japanese occupation. In the last entry of her diary, April 14, 1940, Minnie Vautrin wrote: "I'm about at the end of my energy.  Can no longer forge ahead and make plans for the work, for on every hand there seems to be obstacles of some kind.  I wish I could go on furlough at once, but who will do the thinking for the Exp. Course?"Two weeks later, she suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the United States.  A year to the day after she left Nanking, Vautrin ended her own life.

She was so tough: accounts of her not even backing down, even when the soldiers insisted on taking girls under her care as prostitutes. The Japanese soldiers slapped her, threatened to murder her and all the other foreigners, and to destroy the safety zone. She did not give in: only once was she fooled into letting women return home by the Japanese to disastrous results as many were killed or raped when they left her protection.

She was eventually forced after 6 weeks to give up the zone but Vautrin and the others are credited with saving approximately 250,000 people. However, I can understand why she committed suicide: what human could survive this level of insanity and be sane?

I find it amazing what she did and I think often of her amazing bravery. We like to pat ourselves in the back in Canada a lot for letting in Syrian refugees, or bitterly debate the issues over taking them in. Then I read what happened in Nanjing and what Vautrin did, and I think we have done the minimum of what our humanity demands. We have everything and she had nothing but saved 250,000 people in a war zone. Yeah, that's real sacrifice.


The best archive for Minnie Vautrin's personal letters and material is online now through the Yale University Divinity School Library's Special Collections. There are first hand accounts and photographs from Westerners who remained in Nanking after the Japanese invasion. These resources do not provide a comprehensive understanding of what occurred in Nanjing during 1937-1938, but the observations made by these men and women provide an important historical lens to complement additional research.

As well, there is a good list of sources that you can look up and read further on the actions of Vautrin and the others.

Just a huge warning: I've purposely kept a lot of horrific details out of this blog to focus more on Vautrin, but the other sources do not. Unless you have a strong stomach don't investigate too much unless you want to be crying your face off in a matter of seconds and hating humanity.

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