Geling Yan: The Flowers of War – Jingling Shisan Chai (2006) Literature and War Readalong February 2013

The Flowers of War

Geling Yan’s novel  The Flowers of War – Jingling Chisan Chai is set in Nanking in 1937 during The Rape of Nanking or The Nanking Massacre, when the city was occupied by Japanese troops. The story which is inspired by true events takes place in the compound of an American church. Father Engelmann hides a group of school girls and when some prostitutes from the nearby brothels climb over the wall, he hides those as well. Later, three Chinese soldiers, two of which are badly wounded will also come and seek refuge. Their presence endangers the others greatly.

The Rape of Nanking is one of those horrific events which are hard to imagine and I was very curious to see how the author would handle this. I must say she’s written an amazingly powerful and beautiful book which gives us a good impression of what has happened without dragging the reader down too much. Still, especially due to the very sad ending, we never doubt for one minute how atrocious this must have been, notably for women.

Having a group of beautiful and very seductive prostitutes hide in the compound also leads to comical moments. The girls are still very young and pious and hate “those women” with a vengeance. The prostitutes on the other hand love to provoke and shock the priests and the girls.

In the beginning of the novel nobody expects that the Japanese occupation will turn into such a nightmare and Father Engelmann frequently says that he knows the Japanese to be very polite and expects that they will stay civilized and follow the Geneva Convention. When rumours of rapes and executions are spread he learns that he was wrong.

Because the church is neutral territory, Engelmann lives under the assumption that they are all safe inside of the compound. Safe but hungry because there is hardly any food left in Nanking. However Engelmann is wrong and the end of the story is harrowing. The Japanese don’t only enter the compound because they are looking for food but also because they are looking for women. It is known that the Japanese took female prisoners and used them as so-called “comfort women” and turned them into prostitutes or rather sex slaves.

I didn’t expect to love this book so much but I did. Geling Yan tried to show that war brings out the worst in people but also the best. It explores different moral choices and questions what is really good and what is bad. In the end, the prostitutes who are seen as bad, are the ones who prove to be capable of the greatest kindness and compassion.

The characters are very well-developed. We learn the back story of almost all of the characters and truly care for them by the end. There are numerous moments in which two people are listening and caring for each other and manage to share true beauty despite of the mayhem that is raging outside.

It occurred to Fabio that he might stop drinking if he had someone to tell his troubles to. A listening face like hers was intoxicating enough.

I thought this was one of the most subtle books on war I’ve read so far. It’s written in a very simple, straightforward and engaging way and tells a story of beauty, humour, sacrifice, compassion and hope without ever letting us forget the horrors or minimizing them. The biggest strength were the many characters which came alive in a few sentences.

When I choose a book for the readalong I tend to focus on the war aspect but ultimately The Flowers of War has a lot to say about the precarious condition of women.  The stories of the prostitutes are heartbreaking. It’s also well shown how conditioning makes other women, in this case the girls, hate them because of their trade. They are treated like the scum of the earth although they are good-hearted and kind and in most cases had no other choice. Many come from poor families and have been sold to brothels at a very young age.

One of the core messages of the book is captured in this quote in which Father Engelmann speaks to one of the Chinese soldiers who hides in the compound

“God used him to give me inspiration. He wanted me to save myself by saving others. God wants people to help each other especially when they are injured or weak. I hope you will trust in God. It is God you should trust, not weapons, when you are powerless to control your fate, as you are now.”

I’m looking forward to read what others thought of this novel. I liked it a great deal.

Other reviews


Anna – Diary of an Eccentric

Danielle – A Work in Progress

JoV’s Book Pyramid


The Flowers of War – Novia (Polychrome Interest)

Book and Movie

Kevin (The War Movie Buff)


The Flowers of War was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is The Heat of the Day by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. Discussion starts on Thursday 28 March, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

42 thoughts on “Geling Yan: The Flowers of War – Jingling Shisan Chai (2006) Literature and War Readalong February 2013

  1. This does sound good and I’m sorry the library didn’t have a copy. And you’ve reminded me to get down to the library soon so I can join this month’s readalong. I do miss my Boston library.

  2. The set-up reminds me very much of The Siege of Krishnapur. Similarly in that book, those trapped don’t fully understand their predicament and have what seem to readers to be ludicrously optimistic expectations of their enemies’ objectives and behaviour.

    Very interesting, especially as “war” books tend to ignore the situation of women except when they are being sentimentalised.

    • i will have to look into that, I think I put it on a wish list a few years ago.
      I think she managed not to fall into the trap of being sentimental. It’s a very difficul topic and there were so many moments where she could have gone wrong.

  3. thank you for the link, Caroline 🙂 I link this later when I have time to turn on my PC

    Too bad the movie has no funny moments like you mentioned in your review. I wonder if the story ended the same with the movie.

    The movie received low rating on Rotten Tomatoes…but RT never been my excuse to watch or not watch a movie.

    • I would still like to watch it. It had a few quite funny moments, not laugh out loud funny but amusing. Those prostitutes were a handfull. The ending is harrowing, it saddened me a lot.

  4. Thanks for the mention and thanks for hosting the event. I agree with you the book was surprisingly good. So much is conveyed in a short book like that. All very subtle and poetic.

    • I was afraid it would be either too sugary or too gruesome but I think she managed to stay in the middle and it was even quite entertaining. The writing could have been a bit more elaborate but that was a minor flaw.

  5. Sounds superb. During the actual atrocities there were several refuges set up in churches and other outposts run by Europeans where some of the local population found safety. The stories of these safety zones are amazing in their own right.

    • I saw a movie on one of those a while ago. I think the guy was German, John Rabe. He was a businessman. What he did to help was quite impressive. I have another Chinese movie on the massacre. I’m dreading to watch it.

      • Rabe was a fascinating character. He was a member of the NAZI party yet he heroically saved thousands in Nanking. If I recall his story, after the war he and his family were living in terrible destitution in the ruins of Germany. When word of his plight reached Nanking, the citizens banded together and raised money to assist him.

        • I can’t remember the movie so well anymore or when it ended but he certainly was couragous and heroic. There are always people who show amazing altruism.

  6. The character Father Engelmann whom you describe sounds remarkable far from the character in the movie, who is not even a priest. Maybe with a name like Engelmann he is not even American?

    I might watch the end of the movie now to see how it turns out. It didn’t seem like it was going to be tragic, though you can never tell with these things.

    • Engelmann, especially with the double nn, struck me as German too.
      In any case, those who saw the movie and read the book (JoV and Kevin) , didn’t like the movie all that much.

  7. Really good review, Caroline

    I liked the book. This was surprising because I had it pre-rated as a one star read. Yan writes well and although she was not strong on similes, the writing flows smoothly and I did not find myself going back like I have had to do on several other selections. I cared about the characters. The only aspect that I was not thrilled about was the ending solution to the dilemma. However, it was appropriate, if predictable and implausible (all the whores agree to go?).

    1. The dynamics between the girls and the prostitutes rang true.
    2. The back-stories were interesting and spaced well.
    3. Some of the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. The timing of Shijuan’s first period, the segregation of the females in the attic and cellar.
    4. I find it very hard to believe that the Japanese dropped leaflets via helicopters in 1937 Nanking.
    5. The best part of the book was the story of Sgt. Li surviving the massacre of the PWs. However, I do find it hard to believe a person could get bayonetted in the leg and remain stoical.
    6. Having lived in Japan for three years, I can empathize with Father Engelmann’s difficulty in reconciling the stereotypical Japanese people with the beasts in Nanking. In WWII, Japan was like a country on drugs (PCP?)
    7. My favorite character was Father Engelmann. He evolves effectively. “He was able to freeze-frame familiarity so that it neither matured nor died.” After the Japanese came the second time, “His hunched shoulders expressed resignation”. I found it refreshing that he did not sugarcoat things, even with the girls.
    8. I can imagine many Americans reading the book in today’s current climate saying “it would have never happened that way if that naïve, gun-hating padre had not taken Dai’s gun away”.
    9. As much as we are supposed to hate the Japanese officer, he is correct when he says “In war there are always many people killed in error.” He adds that the Japanese authorities will say the atrocities were the uncontrolled actions of individuals and promise to investigate and punish, but of course that never happens.

    Thanks for the link to my Book/Movie Review.

    • Thanks, Kevin and for joining, as usual.
      You’re so bad. Pre-rating a book… I’m not going to ask why.
      I thought she did a great job although the writing is very simplistic but in the case, I think more would have turned the story into fluff.
      I liked Engelmann as well although my favourite charcater was Yumo.
      The ending, yes, it seems the whole story is based on true events and that is how it happened. I don’t think it is impluasible at all. After all, they had nothing to lose. They would have died together. Maybe they thought, being versed and cunning, they would have a chance to escape. I have another novel on the topic of “comfort women”. I should get to it soon.
      I really liked that she wrote about Engelmann’s astonishment and how he could not belive the Japanese would do a thing like this.
      Overall, I’m glad I chose the book.

      • As far as the “prerating”, at the beginning of the Readalong, I go to Amazon and get a feel for whether I will like the book. It doesn’t effect my opinion of the book. I still read it, didn’t I? Just for you. I’m glad you chose it. You don’t want to know the prerating of the next one.

        I would be shocked to find that the ending was based on fact. Come on. The exact same number of girls to whores? All of the whores agree to go? I have no problems with it. It’s a novel. But it is not plausible!

        • As far as I have seen, the pre-rating of the next is done by one perosn who thougth it will be a crime novel.
          Bowen is possibly one of the gratest English novelists, right up there with Virginia Woolf. Not an easy writer but extremely skilled.

          • The “pre-rating” is simply my impression of whether I will like the book based on the plot summary. I don’t read the reviews because I want to form my own opinion. “The Heat of the Day” sounds like a love triangle/mystery set in war. Plus, I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but OMG. That doesn’t mean people should not read it! You know you can count on me (provided the library can get it).

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! It is a wonderful choice for the ‘War and Literature’ readalong too, because it is about a horrific incident in modern history which doesn’t get the coverage that it deserves. Your comment – ‘the prostitutes who are seen as bad, are the ones who prove to be capable of the greatest kindness and compassion’ – made me think of Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Boule de Suif’. Father Engelmann’s assumption that the Japanese are polite and so they wouldn’t cross the line is quite interesting because from what I know, Japanese are very polite but they also did some horrific things in the 1930s and 40s. It is a paradox and a contradiction, but I guess this paradox is true for people from most other countries too. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      I think you’d like thos book, if you ever choose to read about this event.
      I found it wonderful how balanced it was and that she focussed on such different people, school girls, soldiers, prostitutes.
      The writing is very effective, it’s more and more like watch a movie after a while that’s why I’m disappointd that those who watched the film as well didn’t like it so much.

  9. Lovely review Caroline. I really did like the book and when I first finished it I was very impressed by it all. I think my ambivalence was due to the fact I started reading other reviews about it and some were rather critical–either the language was too plain (which I thought it wasn’t–sometimes simplicity is the best way to tell a story), or the motivations of the characters were called into question, or readers thought it was not perhaps explicit enough for the events that occurred–it all made me begin second guessing myself. So I am glad to read your post which highlights the strengths of the book, of which really there are many. The movie is waiting for me at the public library and I will pick it up tomorrow. Also I have requested two more of her books (I think you have read at least one of her other books?) and they are waiting for me, too. Istn’t it awful when you tamp down your enthusiasm for something for fear you are ‘reading a book wrong’? I try not to read reviews before reading a book or writing my own, but sometimes you just can’t help it. Anyway–it was most certainly a very good read.

    • Sorry–am still thinking about this and I think you are right that it’s subtlety is a strength, that despite the horrific events/backdrop it doesn’t necessarily need to have a story that is overly explicit–subtle doesn’t always mean slight.

      • I wasn’t aware at te beginning how short it is. They have blow up my edition. It’s hard back and around 250 pages but there are huge spaces between the lines, all in all it’s not more that 180 pages, so it’s gone in a jiffy. I think seeing how thinck it felt but how quickly it read tricked me into thinking it was a light weight at first too.
        I would love to watch the movie but since we have no Netflix here. Maybe it’s on UK TV.

    • Thanks, Danielle. I know what you eman about being afraid of reading a book wrong. I hadn’t read any other review with the exception of JoV’s and she liked it very much as well.
      I was wondering at times whether the language wasn’t too spare but I think that’s what made this books so good in the end, it’s never tacky or corny which it could have easily been with a more flowery style.
      I have never read anything else by her but i was thinking of getting other books. I’d really like to know she writes about other topics.
      When I read Kevins review, I was surprised to see that he found it quite explicit and I had to think again, and agree.

  10. I, too, thought of Boule de Suif when I was reading your review. Everything I’ve read about the Japanese in WW2 seems to insist on how utterly barbaric they were, and how the atrocities they committed were among the worst in the war, only less has been written about them than the other worst offenders – Nazis and the Russians. I’m very glad you enjoyed this one, if that’s the right verb. I learn a great deal about these books without having to tackle them myself!

    • This is one you could read. I agree, there is far less written about the Japanese although it seems what they did was abominable. I’m not sure why. For one they don’t seem to write so extensively about it as the Germans do and it was somewhat hidden “in their corner of the world”. We Europeans and Americans tend to be far more interested in what’s happening here.

  11. Pingback: The Flowers of War – 金陵十三钗 (Jīnlíng Shísān Chāi) | Polychrome Interest

  12. I’m still trying to put my thoughts together into a review, and when I do, I will give you the link.

    Subtle is the perfect word for this book. I really was expecting it to be brutal and hard to read, but it wasn’t, aside from the very end. I actually was surprised by how moved I was after finishing it. Just thinking about what those women endured brought tears to my eyes. It was so short, but there were so many layers to this story that go deeper than the war.

  13. Pingback: Review: The Flowers of War by Geling Yan | Diary of an Eccentric

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