Skip to main content

News From Nanking

June 2024
3min read

In early 1937 I arrived in Nanking (as it was then called), China. I was twenty-four years old and knew no one, but I was armed with letters of introduction. My purpose: adventure. I wanted a Pearl Buck’s-eye-view of China and believed that actually living there was the way to get it. I hoped to find a modest secretarial job to keep me going.

Smith College had a campus in Nanking, and my letters introduced me to members of the faculty there (some called them missionaries), an elite group of families among whom Pearl Buck had lived.

At teas to which I was invited, I met women whose husbands were seeking office help, and a job turned up that exceeded my wildest dreams. The Chinese government’s Ministry of Railways, looking for Western investors, was publishing a magazine, The Quarterly Review of Chinese Railways , to showcase its achievements. I was hired to edit the manuscripts submitted by Chinese writers. I worked at the ministry among English-speaking Chinese without another foreigner in sight.

In July the Japanese invaded; they came in at the Marco Polo Bridge in the north and began to seize the railways. The ministry evacuated Nanking for Shanghai. My job ended. But not my adventure. Under wartime conditions I married H. J. Timperley, an Australian who had lived in Peking for many years and was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian . We proceeded to set up housekeeping in Shanghai. Heady stuff. He was in constant touch with the Chinese and the British as he sent his dispatches to the Guardian . At Thanksgiving I had dinner with Edgar Snow and his wife while Tim was in Hong Kong.

Since my husband was now traveling so much and conditions were so uncertain (in August, Shanghai was inadvertently bombed by its own Chinese planes), it was decided that I would go home as soon as a ship was available. In February 1938 I boarded the Empress of Russia en route to Vancouver.

The next part of the story I described in a letter to my parents written aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway as I headed for Des Moines, Iowa:

“Now I come to what should probably have come first since it is by all odds the most startling part of this letter, namely the enclosures. You can talk about the letters as much as you please, but do be careful that nothing goes down in black and white. The same thing has already been sent to men who will handle the publication if any publishing is to be done. While the Japanese are ruling with such an arbitrary hand in Nanking, it is not safe to have the record appear in black and white that these men are letting out these true but damaging tales about them. It’s to Japan’s best interest that no such word escape, and no one believes that the military would hesitate at putting the whole group of foreigners ‘out of the way’ if necessary since it could be so conveniently laid to a Chinese plot and there would be no one to gainsay them. In other words, you are protecting the men in Nanking.”

I went on to explain that these were copies I had made of letters that had been written in Nanking and given to a fellow passenger aboard the Empress to mail in the United States. Her missionary friends had urged her to open and read the letters, since they were intended for a wide audience. “In this way,” I wrote my parents, “you are getting the lowdown straight from the lion’s mouth as it were. The manuscript without any heading was written by George Fitch, the YMCA representative in Nanking, and the other by Bob Wilson, who is one of the foreign doctors in the mission hospital there. I know both of these men, and all of this can be believed implicitly. It is a ghastly tale.”

Today we know it as the Rape of Nanking.

I no longer have copies of the letters I was carrying, but in her recent book on the incident ( The Rape of Nanking , Basic Books, 1997), Iris Chang quotes George Fitch and Dr. Robert Wilson repeatedly as she gives this grim chronology:

December 14

“It was now all too obvious what they were going to do. The men were lined up and roped to- gather in groups of about 100 by soldiers with bayonets fixed; those who had hats had them roughly torn off and thrown to the ground—and then by the lights of our headlights we watched them marched away to their doom.”— George Fitch .

December 18

“Today marks the 6th day of modern Dante’s Inferno, written in huge letters with blood and rape. Murder by the wholesale and rape by the thousands of cases. There seems to be no stop to the ferocity, lust, and atavism of the brutes. At first I tried to be pleasant to them to avoid arousing their ire, but the smile has gradually worn off and my stare is fully as cool and fishy as theirs.”— Dr. Robert Wilson

December 24

“Complete anarchy has reigned for ten days—it has been hell on earth … to have to stand by while even the very poor are having their last possession taken from them- their last coin, their last bit of bedding (and it is freezing weather), the poor ricksha man his ricksha; while thousands of disarmed soldiers who had sought sanctuary with you together with many hundreds of innocent civilians are taken out before your eyes to be shot or used for bayonet practice and you have to listen to the sounds of the guns that are killing them; while a thousand women kneel before you crying hysterically, begging you to save them from the beasts who are preying on them; to stand by and do nothing while your flag is taken down and insulted, not once but a dozen times, and your home is being looted, and then to watch the city you have come to love and the institution to which you have planned to devote your best deliberately and systematically burned by fire—this is a hell I had never before envisaged.”— George Fitch

I can only surmise these accounts are the ones I helped bring out of China.

Readers are invited to submit their personal “brushes with history, ” for which our regular rates will be paid on publication. Unfortunately, we cannot correspond about or return submissions.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.