Conviction and Courage: Minnie Vautrin

In the days and months leading up to the occupation of Nanjing, foreign nationals living in the capital city played a key role in resisting the Japanese assault. Those who chose to remain served both as witnesses to history and as emblems of courage.

Minnie Vautrin, one of only two foreign women who remained in Nanjing, was one such individual. She was a woman of courage and conviction. As a key member of the International Committee for the Red Cross, Vautrin directed the efforts to specifically protect women and girls from the Japanese soldiers. Born in Secor, Illinois, on September 27, 1886, Vautrin graduated from the University of Illinois with a major in education in 1912. She was commissioned by the United Christian Missionary Society to serve as high school principal in Luchowfu, then promoted to become the first chairman of the education department of Ginling College in Nanking in 1916.1

The selections chosen from Vautrin’s diary chronicle her days and weeks preceding the siege of Nanjing on December 13, 1937. They illuminate her internal struggles during these extreme circumstances and the many dilemmas she faced to survive while upholding her commitment to the work of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee:

July 2–18, 1937

For these sixteen days I have been having a holiday with friends in the seaside summer resort of Tsingtao—the city which belonged to the Germans before the Great War, then was given to Japan, and finally because of the Washington Agreement was returned to China. . . .

Word came through to us in Tsingtao that on July 7th trouble started a few miles south of Peiping [Beijing] when a Japanese soldier disappeared—how? Nobody really knows, and why? Again nobody really knows. Since then fighting has increased and what the end of it will be we dare not say. Of the Great War, Milne said “Two people were killed in Sarajevo in 1914 and the best Europe could do about it was to kill eleven million more.” And Milne did not include in this summary all the personal loss and anguish, the deaths from disease, the economic dislocation and the increased and deepened hatreds. China does not want war and knows that she is not prepared for it. I believe that the Japanese people do not want war but Japan cannot control her military machine.

July 19–20, 1937

Yesterday morning I left Tsingtao and this afternoon arrived in Nanking coming through by train. During that journey I passed five troop trains—just open cars they were, filled with soldiers and horses and equipment of war. The soldiers looked so miserable in the terrific heat and some of them were mere lads.

Today’s English paper has in it the speech of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek which he delivered to leaders at a conference in Kuling on July 9th. I hope that it appeared in American papers as that you were able to read it for it seemed to me to be sane and reasonable. He had a minimum of four points which China cannot yield and retain her national integrity. He seemed to be giving a reply to the unreasonable demands and at the same time he was explaining to his own people what the final sacrifice for them might be. He said, “Weak nation as we are we cannot neglect to uphold the integrity of our nation. It is impossible for us not to safeguard to our utmost the heritage of our forefathers, a duty which we must fulfill to the utmost. Let us realize, however, that once war has begun there is no looking backward, we must fight to the bitter end.”

July 22, 1937

Tonight after the lights went out on our campus, for more than two hours I listened to the tramp, tramp, tramp of soldiers and horses and the clanking of guns on the road outside. By day all is calm, but at night war preparations are moving forward. Can nothing stop these two nations? Truly we seem like sheep without a shepherd when the passion for war is let loose, and yet we know that in every country there are enough people opposed to war to really put a stop to it. I cannot forget the tramping of those men!

July 29–31, 1937

Japan’s reaction has come more quickly than I imagined. Word is coming through that not only has she taken the cities momentarily lost but she is driving all Chinese troops past Tientsin and Peiping. It seems that nothing has been destroyed in Peiping, but Tientsin has been bombarded by an air force, and much destruc tion has taken place. Nankai University [in Tientsin] has been totally destroyed we are told, because Japanese felt that it was a center of propaganda. Naturally the Chinese are furious and even the calmest say that China must fight even though she may be defeated. Some even say that China must herself destroy her great coastal cities and retreat to the mountain regions and from there carry on guerilla warfare until Japan is exhausted economically.

August 2, 1937

. . . Yesterday it was said that an announcement was made to officials to get their families out of the city [Nanking]. The reason was to lessen the number in Nanking and to free officials of family responsibility—but the result has been to frighten the people terribly. Trains and boats are packed and tickets have been sold for days in advance. Thousands are leaving.

August 14, 1937

11 a.m. Anna Moffet, Ronald Rees, John Magee and I spent about an hour and a half over in Anna’s office trying to see what Christians can do in a situation like the present one. Are we to stand by hopelessly and see if war comes upon the Orient or is there something that we can do—and if so, what? This morning at 5 o’clock I got up and drafted a plan for International Moral Mobilization which I believe we could at least start and no one can say how far it would go. . . . 1 p.m. Over the radio at Anna’s we learned that air raids and fighting are now going on in Shanghai.

November 17, 1937

Last night 50,000 Chinese soldiers came into the city and unfortunately they were not assigned places so they occupied empty buildings of their own choosing. . . . Searle Bates came over this afternoon to ask me two questions that the American Embassy is asking each citizen. 1. Can we leave now or do we feel needed? 2. If the city is in great danger would we be willing to go to [the] Embassy bomb-proof dugout? We agree in our answers to these. In case the situation becomes anti-foreign and our staying endangers our church co-workers, certainly we would leave, but if we can be of service to our particular groups we desire to remain with them. You cannot imagine the number of people who have come in today to ask what I am planning to do....

November 18, 1937

Conditions seem slightly improved today although the trek out of the city continues. Almost all who can go are going. . . . At our informal publicity meeting today we heard reports on the plan for a “Zone of Safety.” It is remarkable how much has been accomplished. The idea was only mentioned two days ago. An influential committee was formed yesterday and tomorrow morning will interview the Mayor of Nanking. The American Embassy is willing to help them get through to the Japanese authorities later. A vast amount of organization must be done if it goes through....

November 21, 1937

Last night Mrs. Twinem brought us back home about midnight. Never in all my life will I forget that experience. We found the wounded soldiers scattered rather thickly at the railway station. Perhaps there were 200 there, I do not know. There were no doctors or nurses present and some of the men were in great agony....I wish that all who last July and August felt war a necessity could first have seen that mass of suffering mutilated men of last night. I feel sure they would admit with me that war is a crime when it produces such results. The soldiers were just ordinary looking men and boys such as we see in our neighborhood. They looked untrained and unequipped for modern warfare....

December 1, 19372

At 10 a.m. was called to Embassy for a conference with leaders of other mission institutions. Mr. Paxton, Secretary in U.S. Embassy, divided us into three groups—those who can and should get away today on a commercial boat; those who must stay on for time being and will out at the last minute on the U.S.S. Panay—going down over city wall by rope if necessary; and those who expect to stay through.... At 11:50 the Emergency Committee met and appointed Mr. Li to organize six men servants into a police squad, to drill them and prepare arm bands for them; also asked Miss Hsueh, Neighborhood School teacher, to organize her pupils and older children on the campus into a Service Group for refugees to train them and prepare badges for them....Took about $2000, Mrs. Thurston’s wedding silver and receipts of college deeds to American Embassy for safe keeping. We had decided to leave vault open. As for me and mine, I think I shall not pack a thing. At Press Conference tonight, the Safety Zone was definitely announced and four Commissions named to look after Food, Housing, Finance and Sanitation. City has given rice and $20,000.

December 3, 1937

...Last call from Embassy today. We had to choose one of the three alternatives and sign our names. (1) Go now, (2) Expect to go later (3) Under no conditions leaving. I signed under 3, although if my Chinese colleagues felt I was endangering them, surely I would go....

December 10, 1937

Refugees continue to come in this morning....This afternoon F. Chen and I went to our west boundary to help put up Safety Zone flags....While we were out, there were severe air raid and several bombs were dropped west of the Seminary. For the first time I heard the whirr of a dropping bomb, and saw the flash from the anti-aircraft guns....The Japanese are said to be very near Gwang Hwa Gate. Fires have been seen around the city a good part of the day, and tonight the sky to the west is aflame—the destruction of the houses of the poor just outside the city wall.... At the Press Conference tonight the question was raised of the poor when the city is turned over. Who will take care of them during coming months?

December 13, 1937

(Have heard that Japanese entered Gwang “[Hwa]” Gate at 4 a.m.).

...4 p.m. The report came to me that there were Japanese soldiers on the hill west of us. I went up to South Hill Residence, and sure enough our West Hill had a number on it....7:30 p.m. The men managing the rice kitchen report that Japanese soldiers are occupying the house opposite our gate in which the rice is stored....Tonight Nanking has no lights, no water, no telephone, no city paper, no radio. We are indeed separated from all of you by an impenetrable zone. So far Ginling, people and buildings, has come through safely—but we are not sure of the coming days. We are all fearfully tired.3

Chinese citizens, and American and British visitors, evacuate Nanjing in preparation for an attack by the Japanese.


  • 1 : The Nanking Massacre Project, Yale University Divinity School Library, accessed February 11, 2013, . Note: Luchowfu is near Hefei, roughly 180 km (112 miles) from Nanjing.
  • 2 : On this day Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanjing to move into the Safety Zone. Many, including the mayor, fled the city by December 7, leaving the international committee to take over as the de facto government in Nanjing.
  • 3 : Yale University Divinity School Library, Ibid.

Connection Questions

  1. Create an identity chart for Minnie Vautrin. What words describe her family background, education or professional life? What characteristics describe other aspects of her identity and what kind of person she was? How do you believe her identity influenced the choices she faced? What other factors might have influenced her decision?

  2. Minnie Vautrin faced many difficult decisions leading up to the Japanese Imperial Army’s siege of the city, but the decision to simply stay was perhaps the most critical. How does she explain her decision to stay? What priorities did she consider? What fears did she express? What dilemmas arose in choosing to stay and do what she could to save the Chinese who were unable to leave?

  3. According to Minnie Vautrin, why was the Nanjing Safety Zone created? What was its’ mission?

  4. Which diary entry did you find the most compelling? Why? If you were to ask Minnie Vautrin one question about this entry, what would you ask?

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