Wrestling with the Reality of War: Tsen Shui-Fang

While most Chinese with a higher social standing chose to leave Nanjing, there were a handful of Chinese nationals who chose to remain and help. Some were well educated and helped manage and serve as translators while others helped prepare and distribute food, helped with sanitation, or served as police. Professor Zhang Lianhong said of these Chinese:

Chinese rescue workers in the Safety Zone labored frequently under tremendous difficulty and stress. For unlike Westerners, if they did not handle matters with extreme discretion, they would easily be singled out by Japanese soldiers and killed. Therefore, not only did they have to work very hard, they had to be on constant alert for possible Japanese cruelties. After witnessing the Japanese atrocities, seeing how fellow Chinese were brutalized and slaughtered, the only thing the Zone workers could do was to hide the hatred in their hearts and endure the disgrace as well as the insults in order to complete the tasks at hand. In short, the Chinese workers were important components of the rescue undertakings; nothing could have been accomplished in the Safety Zone without their strenuous efforts.1

Tsen Shui-Fang was one such Chinese national working within the Safety Zone. The tremendous amount of coordination and details to administer often fell in her hands as she remained Minnie Vautrin’s most trusted assistant. Because Tsen was a Chinese national and a woman, she was particularly vulnerable to the wrath of the Japanese soldiers. For many years she served as the guardian for the dormitories at Ginling College in Nanjing. Along with several other Chinese men and women, Tsen chose to remain in Nanjing throughout the occupation and served many essential roles, including protecting the very vulnerable and providing information and supplies for the thousands living within the zone’s borders.

Tsen Shui-Fang kept a daily diary documenting her experiences during the occupation of her homeland. As her written words convey strength and courage, she also shares the shame and humiliation she feels living under occupation. As we read her entries, how does she share insights about her nationality? What particular challenges does she write about and face as a Chinese woman surviving under occupation?

Wednesday, December 8th

The Safety Zone was established two months ago. Because Japan denied the need for establishing a safety zone [in Nanjing], it delayed its response. . . . Later, Japan replied that it might or might not recognize [the neutrality of] the Safety Zone. Two months ago, the International Committee decided to establish the Safety Zone with or without Japan’s recognition but did not raise its flags at the boundaries of the zone until today. . . .

According to the International Committee’s regulations, all the private residences [in the zone] should be available for borrowing or renting. The public buildings have yet to be opened [to receive refugees]. The city’s south and Hsia Kwan are all on fire. Some fires were set by our army for the sake of strategy; some started by the Japanese troops from outside of the city. . . . We have decided only to receive women and children, but not men. Currently we plan to receive 2,700 people. . . . This is our plan. However, we have no idea how many will eventually come.

Saturday, December 11th

There is no law and order on the streets. Our soldiers are about to flee shortly, nor are there any policeman. Some foot soldiers looted the North Gate Bridge areas and so did the civilians. A few military policemen who maintain order have shot several looters.

Sunday, December 12th

Now, the artilleries are shelling continuously. Our soldiers are probably going to retreat. We heard they say that the Japanese army is approaching Wuhu and will probably surround the army. No one is on the street, nor are any goods for sale. Only refugees fleeing for their lives.

Monday, December 13th

Last night, our troops retreated, and no artillery sound could be heard this morning. This afternoon at 2:00 p.m., the Japanese soldiers entered the city from Shuihsi Gate. When our [campus] policeman Huang spotted Japanese soldiers on Canon Road from the South Hill, he ran, taking off his police uniform. After he reached #400 Building, he was so scared that he fell down, his face becoming pale. He was really a coward. We, at once, went to the South Hill to observe and saw more than ten soldiers standing behind Old Shao’s house. All the workers were frightened. . . .

I feel so sad. Nanking has not had peace since four months ago and fell only after three days’ fighting. It is really pathetic. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Today, two more poor babies were born.

Tuesday, December 14th

Many more refugees came [to the college] today. All fled to here from the Safety Zone because the Japanese soldiers came to their homes to demand money and to rape. Quite a few people were bayoneted to death on the streets. The situation in the Safety Zone is [terrible] like this and it is even worse outside the Zone. Nobody dares to go out of the Safety Zone. Most of the dead were young men.

Friday, December 17th

Now it is midnight. I am sitting here to write this diary and cannot go to sleep because tonight I have experienced the taste of being a slave of a toppled country. . . . This kind of slavery life is very difficult to endure. If I were not struggling for the survival of our Chinese race, I would commit suicide. . . .

These several days, I have been frustrated to death, having no idea what’s going on with the war, no communication with the outside world. Embassies have no Westerners left. Not many Americans are here, and they are helpless. The refugees come here to seek shelter and insist on coming in. It really made me angry to death. It’s better not to let them in than see them being dragged from here; it is better not to see what happens to them outside. Each night, outside, every place is burning. . . . Why must Chinese people suffer like this? Today, several times soldiers went to the South Hill. I do not want to write any more. When thinking about the Chinese people, I cannot help but feel heartbroken. Another boy was born today.

Sunday, December 19th

Today at noon, Riggs came. He intended to ask married women with husbands to go home so the Japanese soldiers would not come [to Ginling] to find [women] so often. Because they have all run into refugees camps, no women are left outside. What [Riggs] meant was that it is okay for women with husbands to return home, but not for maidens. If a husband stays home alone, Japanese soldiers would accuse him of being a [Chinese] soldier because he has no family. Although there is nothing wrong with this reasoning, yet, as soon as I heard it, I cried. I thought that my own country is not strong, so it suffers this kind of humiliation. When can we shed the shame?

Tuesday, December 21st

The [Japanese] soldiers dispatched here last night were for protection in name only. They came to change shift. Vautrin thought that the officer was so nice to send people to protect [us]. In fact, he is resentful of losing face because no matter how [we] receive girls from [the] outside, the soldiers still come to take them away, day and night. I told Vautrin, “You should not forget that we are their enemies. You should not believe their sweet words.” What they say is not what they believe in their hearts. Now, they [the Westerners] all see every inhuman deed and empty words sweet words which the Japanese engaged in. Sometimes, when Vautrin went to the Japanese consulate to report their troops’ bad deeds, I said to her that the more you report, the more harm they would do. Fortunately, there are still two Germans here. Not adequate to have only Americans. Now, the several Americans are also helpless, deadly tired too. But, on the other hand, if there were not several Americans here, the Chinese would only face a death road. . . . [Vautrin’s] days are simply unbearable; sometimes at mealtime, the Japanese soldiers came and everybody left, but Vautrin had to face them. They come several times a day. And we have no idea what they will do. It really makes people tremble. Last night again, two soldiers came and took [raped] two girls on the ground. It’s really heart-rending. In the past, I heard people say that they [the Japanese soldiers] were inhuman. Now, it has indeed become a reality.2

Minnie Vautrin (front, third from left), Tsen Shui-fang (front, fourth from left) and others from the Committee that organized religious work for refugee women and girls stand in front of Ginling College. The Safety Zone was a demilitarized zone for Chinese civilians set up on the eve of the Japanese breakthrough in the Battle of Nanking (December 13, 1937). Following the example of Jesuit Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange in Shanghai, the foreigners in Nanking created the Nanking Safety Zone, managed by the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone led by German businessman and Nazi party member, John Rabe. The zone and the activities of the International Committee were responsible for saving the lives of many thousands of Chinese civilians during the Nanking Massacre.

Refugee children at Ginling College during the war in Nanjing.


  1. Citations

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