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The story of The Flowers of War unfolds against an event that, though remarkably little known in the West, remains one of the most cautionary examples in all history of the price civilian populations can pay in times of war.
Though precisely what unfolded in 1937 Nanjing today remains full of controversy and emotion for both the Chinese and Japanese people, historians agree on one thing: the result decimated the city, with hundreds of thousands of civilians of all ages killed and thousands of women and children suffering from rape and trauma.
But with The Flowers of War, director Zhang Yimou turns the spotlight away from the causes and many-sided prejudices of war back to the quiet heroes of the city, people of all backgrounds who continued to live, love and help one another even while they were bombarded. The Nanjing Massacre took place in December of 1937, at the start of what became known as the Sino-Japanese War, the largest Asian war of the 20th Century.
China and Japan had been engaged in territorial conflicts for many years when in the summer of 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of Shanghai. The Japanese Imperial Army troops met with fierce resistance in Shanghai, taking heavy losses, and by the time the troops moved on in late autumn to the capital in Nanjing, the atmosphere that descended on the city was calamitous.
The ensuing six weeks came to be known as “The Rape of Nanking” in reference to the widespread eyewitness reports of door-to-door gang rapes, civilian executions and mass graves. The American surgeon Robert O. Wilson, then working in Nanjing, summed up what many experienced in those days in a letter to his family: “The slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief.”
Yet, even as all semblance of normal life evaporated from Nanjing, there were many unsung heroes who stood up for the people of the city against all the odds. As civilians tried to flee, a handful of the city’s Westerners who been working there as missionaries, businessmen and journalists stayed behind to establish makeshift refugee camps and, in some cases, to document the truth of what was really going on.
One American, the missionary John Magee, took part in rescuing as many as 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians at great personal risk and also smuggled twelve hand-shot 16mm movies of the massacre to the West, revealing the atrocities taking place.
Miner Searle Bates, an American working as a professor in Nanjing who helped many of the city’s poorest citizens get to safety, was said to have personally pulled soldiers off of women who were about to be raped. Another American missionary, Minnie Vautrin, risked her life to protect thousands of female students in grave peril.
In 1938, when the Nanjing refugee camps closed, local cooperation between Westerners and civilians was credited with having rescued as many as 300,000 lives that might otherwise have been lost.
Today in Nanjing, the landscape has transformed completely from the world seen in The Flowers of War. In 2011, the city is a fast-moving modern metropolis with a thriving population of 5 million, known for its focus on scientific innovation and high-tech industry. Yet in the bustling streets that blossomed out of the ruins of 1937, there remains the haunting sensation of a living past — of those who did what they could to keep the future of their city alive.
Image Courtesy of http://www.theflowersofwarthemovie.com