Few Westerners think of China and Japan when asked to name atrocities in World War II. Yet the rape of Nanjing by the Japanese is a horrible and brutal event from that war that rivals atrocities in the west. During the war, Japanese forces entered the city of Nanjing and, though the exact scale is hard to determine, perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered and tens of thousands of women were raped. Only a tendency to focus on Western problems keeps us from fully realizing this catastrophe.
Flowers of War was originally written by Geling Yan in Chinese with the title 13 Flowers of Nanjing; it has since been translated into English and turned into a big-budget film starring Keanu Reeves. Although it is not well known in the rest of the world, it was a huge success in China. I saw the film and was interested enough to purchase and read the book afterward.
The book follows an American priest and his Chinese staff trying to protect a group of Chinese Catholic school girls from the Japanese after Nanjing has fallen. The Japanese army was well known for specifically targeting women for use as ‘comfort women’ – sex slaves – for their army. Early in the novel, a group of prostitutes from a local brothel take shelter in the church. They are reluctantly admitted by the priest, Father Englemann. Later on, they are joined by a pair of wounded Chinese soldiers. The primary lens through which we see these events is Shujuan, one of the schoolgirls at the church.
One might expect that a story set in a church during a time of brutality might focus (or at least create a prominent subplot) around the characters struggling with the traditional Western neurosis of wondering how God can exist when the world is so cruel, but this story is focused on the impromptu community formed by the diverse individuals gathered at the church. Father Englemann is aloof; at least until the end of the story. His staff admire and respect him, even as they find it easier to interact with their countrymen. The naive and childishly cruel schoolgirls are alternately fascinated and repulsed by the prostitutes. The prostitutes alternately provide comic relief, tragic figures, and in the end a noble and heroic sacrifice. The Chinese soldiers are men of courage as well as weak and wounded men who bond with the prostitutes but find the priest to be enigmatic.
In the chilling climax, the Japanese figure out that girls are being sheltered at the church. Virgin girls are highly prized by the army, and the prospect of a group of unspoiled thirteen year old girls is too much to resist. They mask their request by pretending they’d like the girls to sing Christmas carols for them, but Father Englemann quickly understands their sinister purpose.
Father manages to get a few hours to prepare. While he prays and tries to think of a way to ask the prostitutes (who have not been detected by the Japanese) to take the place of the girls, the prostitutes approach him and volunteer. Initially Father is relieved – but as they are being taken away, something changes within him. He chases the truck, and says to one of the prostitutes, ‘Give me a hand, my child…’ intending to get on board.
As for the end – you’ll have to read (or watch) yourself. The film makes some significant changes (notably swapping the priest for an American mortician who poses as a priest and complicating the climax somewhat) and amps up the brutality, including graphic depictions of things only told about in the novel. It is not for the faint of heart.
This was not an easy novel to read, and as with any other novel describing historical brutalities, a trite ‘I enjoyed it’ seems inappropriate. It was well written and engaging, though casually brutal at times. The book does not go out of its way to furnish graphic detail, but it is not always an easy read nonetheless.
Religious themes dot the novel, though mostly beneath the surface. The role of faith and places of worship as shelter and standard against the vices of humanity, the challenge of missionary work and the difficulty of bonding with members of another culture when sharing faith, staying true to one’s vocation when pleasure pulls and unfamiliarity pushes… Perhaps most pronounced is Father Englemann’s struggle as he tries to push others out to protect the girls and staff of his church, only reluctantly protecting others in need, until that momentous climax where (we may imagine, since we are not told) he remembers Jesus’ response to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’
At slow points in the action, we are often given a vignette of one of the character’s back stories. This reinforces the fact that this book is about the characters, not the setting. We are challenged to reassess and get to know each of the characters, in the end discovering something worth loving about even the least admirable of them. Still, at times, such as the moment with Father Englemann chasing the truck, I wished that the author had given us some sort of insight into what they were thinking and why they acted that way.
The story, though set in a Catholic parish, is actually inspired by the work of a Protestant missionary named Minnie Vautrin. The sacrifice at the end of the novel, by the prostitutes, is based on a real event that she recorded in her biography. Mrs. Vautrin actually makes a cameo on the novel. Knowing that the most emotionally wrenching and impactful event in the novel is historical gives it an extra poignancy.
Well written, engaging
Historically interesting setting
Religious themes worth reflecting on
Can be brutal in places