‘The Flowers of War’ by Geling Yan


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2012. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

Geling Yan’s The Flowers of War is set during the Nanking Massacre — sometimes known as the Rape of Nanking — in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed when Japanese forces captured the Chinese city in December 1937.

An American church offers shelter

In this fictionalised account, a group of 16 terrified schoolgirls find safety in the attic of an American church. St Mary Magdalene is protected by a high wall and regarded as neutral territory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is run by Father Engelmann, an American who has lived in China for 30 years, with the help of Deacon Fabio Adornato, another Westerner who was born to Italian-American parents and raised in Yangzhou.

But a day after the girls have been taken in, a group of women clamber over the wall demanding equal protection. They are prostitutes from the nearby Qin Huai River brothels and they do not want to be taken by the Japanese soldiers as “comfort women”. Father Engelmann tries to turn them away, claiming he does not have enough food, water or shelter, but he eventually agrees they can stay in the cellar — for two days.

To make matters worse, two wounded Chinese soldiers secretly enter the compound. They have survived a shocking massacre and have nowhere else to go. Again, Father Engelmann tries to turn them away but relents and they are housed in the cellar with the prostitutes.

Tension between those seeking refuge

The story basically shows how these four divergent group of people — the religious men, the prostitutes, the schoolgirls from privileged backgrounds and the soldiers — must live together under extraordinary circumstances, where prejudice and tension abounds, food and water is in short supply, and fear of Japanese evasion is ever present.

I had expected The Flowers of War to be dark and very moving, but apart from the odd moment of horror, the story generally falls flat. Part of the problem is the lack of a central character with which to identify, so an emotional connection cannot be made. And Engelmann, Fabio and the schoolgirl Shujuan feel too distant — and cold-hearted — to really care about.

The prose, which occasionally shimmers, largely seems all tell and not much show. It’s not exactly pedestrian, but it does feel as if you’re reading the bones of a story which is in need of a bit more meat.

Prejudiced attitudes

And, if I am honest, I found it difficult to believe that a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shujuan, could be so prejudiced against the prostitutes. She is fascinated by their antics and often spies on them through a hole in the floor, but she is also so vehemently opposed to them, I couldn’t help but wonder where that kind of hateful attitude had sprung from? Were privately educated schoolgirls in 1930s China taught that prostitutes were the lowest form of life? Or was it something she learned from her rich parents?

It didn’t seem to add up to me — and nor did the epilogue, which felt tacked on and clumsy. Here, nine years after the massacre, Shujuan is just coming to realise how these women may have saved her life and is trying to track them down, because “if she didn’t remember them, who would?”

It’s a great shame that The Flowers of War was so dull, because this is an important — and dramatic — story needing to be told. Perhaps the film adaptation, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, is better. It wouldn’t be hard.

14 thoughts on “‘The Flowers of War’ by Geling Yan

  1. This is the first review of a book written by a Chinese *woman* that I’ve come across.
    As you will know from my review of Three Sisters, I have a theory that Chinese male writers are even worse at depicting the female POV than their western counterparts, because the One-child Policy and the resulting abortion rates for female foetuses means that there are not so many women around for them to interact with and understand enough to represent. The male chinese writers lionised in the western Press probably have no sisters, few female cousins, few female work colleagues etc etc. If they have only limited contact with women and girls, how can they write about them?
    (BTW I mean Chinese-Chinese, not Chinese that have fled and gone to live in other countries and been influenced by western values).
    Most reviews that I see are so intent on the anti-government themes that Chinese dissidents tend to write about that they overlook the misogyny or the unrealistic female POV. Fair enough, I suppose, when there is a real battle on for human rights for both sexes, but I yearn to read something that is more inclusive.
    So it’s a real pity that this isn’t very good, by the sound of it …


  2. It’s a shame that this book wasn’t better because the setting is little known, and is a terrible episode that shouldn’t be forgotten.


  3. I’m a fan of Zhang Yimou films, so I decided to read this as a prep for the film. I couldn’t finish it, but to be fair, it’s out of the way of my usual picks.


  4. I was aware you had read Three Sisters, but I haven’t read your review because I note you have a spoiler warning on it — when I eventually get around to reading the book I’ll be sure to revisit your review.
    It’s an interesting theory: re Chinese writers being unable to depict the female point of view. I hadn’t thought of it like that all. I note that Ma Jian, who is one of those exiled writers now living in the UK, is unable to do this, also. Indeed, I thought his non-fiction book was terribly misogynistic.
    But re: one child policy. When I was in China I was told (by our Chinese guide) that it’s not upheld consistently across the country — and generally, if you are rich enough, you can simply pay the fine and have as many children as you want. In some rural areas it’s not policed at all…


  5. There is one short section of the book that follows the two male soldiers and explains what happened to them: it is spine-chilling. They were basically rounded up like cattle and told they were being taken somewhere to be fed and watered, but instead they were forced into a trap from which they couldn’t escape and brutally mowed down by gun fire.


  6. I like Zhang Yimou, too, although I watched a trailer for this film and it looks a bit sappy and cliched. I might just wait for the DVD release.
    Oh, and relieved to know I’m not the only one who struggled with this book.


  7. I’d put this on my wishlist as I’m planning to see the film (I’m a huge fan of Zhang Yimou!). It’s a shame you struggled with the book – do you think it has to do with the translation?


  8. It might be a translation problem, but I wouldn’t know as I don’t speak Chinese (although I’d love to learn). It flowed nicely enough and didn’t feel clunky. The narrative, and the characters, just felt too distant.


  9. Yes, I know that’s true about variations in enforcement for the one-child policy, but there are 120 males to every 100 females and that translates to 35 million more males than females (that’s more than the total population of Australia). See http://timeinmoments.wordpress.com/2009/04/12/sex-ratio-in-china-as-boys-outnumber-girls-by-35-million/
    That sort of imbalance is caused by female infanticide and abortion rates, and that’s symptomatic of the mysogynistic attitudes that show up in the books we’ve read.
    As China becomes more dominant in world affairs, that’s not a future looking good for women…


  10. Good point.
    I imagine the situation/problem will be complicated further by many women of the current generation not wanting to get married (as per my young tour guide who said she was sick of her mother going on about it).
    In one park we visited there was a “love garden” with personals (written mainly by men) seeking marriage partners pegged up on trees and fences. See this pic: http://kimbofo.smugmug.com/Travel/China/China-highlights/15166094_QdhVpH#!i=1135117049&k=YTCpg


  11. I wanted to read this but you changed my mind. We’ll see, I’m intrigued now. I also wanted to watch Christian Slater in this movie, esp one directed by Zhang Yi Mou.


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