There are a thousand ways to portray the Nanking Massacre, and dance drama is a novel approach.
Tong Ruirui, a young director of the China National Chinese Opera and Dance Drama Company, shows her perception of history with Nanking 1937. The dance drama tells the stories of Iris Chang, author of the New York Times best seller Rape of Nanking, and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who saved many lives during the massacre.
Nanking 1937 starts with Chang discovering Vautrin's diary in a labyrinth, whose walls are formed by the bodies of supporting dancers. As Vautrin's ghost guides her through the atrocities, Chang spirals into a devastating depression.
Nanking, capital of China in 1937 and known today as Nanjing, was a prosperous city until the Japanese army occupied it and staged a six-week slaughter of 300,000 people.
As she reads on, Chang sees families broken, women raped and people slain. The once splendid city is left in ruins.
Tens of thousand flee to Nanking Jinling Women's College, the international safety zone where Vautrin lives, begging her for a place to stay.
Vautrin tries to accommodate them. She fends off Japanese soldiers as they attempt kidnapping raids and even rescues young Chinese girls from the clutches of rapists.
Out of rage, Chang begins research on Nanking and writes a book on the massacre.
Although allusion is the rule in some scenes, Chang and Vautrin are actual historical figures.
Chang was born on March 28, 1968, in New Jersey, where her parents were doing postdoctoral work.
As a Chinese American, Chang had been haunted since childhood by the stories she was told about Nanking. Her maternal grandparents escaped weeks before the Japanese arrived. As a young girl, she had sought books on the subject in her school library but could not find them.
The Nanking atrocities were still abstractions to her until she attended a photographic exhibition of the massacre in 1994.
"I was suddenly in a panic that this ... reversion in human social evolution would be reduced to a footnote of history ... unless someone forced the world to remember it," she wrote after attending the exhibit.
Chang decided to force the world to remember it.
She wrote a book.
She wrote The Rape of Nanking out of a sense of fury. She did not really care if she made a cent from it, she told an interviewer.
"It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937," she said.
The Rape of Nanking was a huge success. Chang became one of only two Chinese American writers included in the New York Times Bestseller List.
It sold half a million volumes.
It was Chang who persuaded the granddaughter of John Rabe to publicize his diary, which recorded what he witnessed in Nanking as president of the international safety zone. Rabe was called the "Chinese Schindler" because he protected 250,000 Chinese during the massacre.
Chang also paid a 20-day visit to Nanjing to examine the sites of the massacre and interview survivors.
In the foreword to another book, Chang once wrote, "I felt that if anyone deserved her place in history, that person was Minnie Vautrin."
Vautrin taught at Nanking Jinling Women's College when the Japanese military carried out the holocaust.
She set up refugee camps for at least 10,000 women and children, who called her a "living goddess."
Chang found Vautrin's diary chronicling the brutalities in Yale University Library in 1995.
After the massacre, Vautrin suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the United States for psychiatric treatment.
On May 14, 1941, Vautrin committed suicide by opening the gas jet in the kitchen stove of her apartment.
On November 9, 2004, Chang shot herself in her car.
Tong said she did not conceive the theme of a fictional dialogue between Chang and Vautirn at the beginning. She actually knew very little about the historic episode until one of her friends suggested it as a topic for dance drama two years ago.
"Is that possible?" she wondered. "It must be very hard to represent the war scene on stage."
Then she went to the Memorial Hall of the massacre in Nanjing, to see what had happened there for herself.
What she saw struck her more than she had ever imagined.
"It was then that I understood the difference between war and holocaust," she said. "The latter is the collapse of humanity. I was determined to make the drama, however difficult it would be, because I felt that it was my mission."
With her impression still fresh from the visit, she sat down and pounded out the first draft.
Her first plan was to make Rabe the main character. But while researching Rabe, she discovered Chang's story. And while researching Chang, she discovered Vautrin.
"An idea jumped into my mind," she said. "What would the two women say to each other if they met in heaven?"
She thought it would make an amazing story.
"The Chinese woman is in America and the American woman is in China," Tong said. "This dialogue creates a bridge across worlds."
Tong then revised her script and began rehearsals.
She cast 26-year-old Ye Bo as Iris Chang, with 22-year-old Yang Yi as her understudy. She cast American dancer Aly Rose as Vautrin.
Rose had not heard of Vautrin before, but that did not keep her from understanding the role well.
"She is Jewish, and her family experienced the pains of war, so I believe she will do a good job," Tong said.
Rose's ideas about Chang and Vautrin's suicides break away from the conventional idea that both women gazed too long and too hard at the dark side of humanity.
Both of them committed suicide for very different reasons, she believes.
"The thing that ties them together is a sense of idealism, but Minnie Vautrin said, 'I should be better than this.' Iris said, 'everyone else should be better than this,'"
But Rose and Tong have different concepts of Vautrin.
"I really identify with Minnie Vautrin," Rose said. "She's a doer. She's not a Buddha, she's a person."
"She must have something above the average person," she said. "I think she is a sort of Buddha figure."
The two are negotiating how to represent Vautrin.
However, the entire cast agrees that this is a production all people should see.
"I hope Chinese people come out to see it, but I also hope people from other countries come to learn about Minnie Vautrin," Rose said.
"We hope that when these two women commit suicide, people stop and take notice, reflect on history, and never forget it. Only by doing this can we live a better life," Tong said.
The audience at the rehearsal is definitely reflecting.
"I think they've certainly provided a fitting tribute to those who died and those who came to help," said Cindy Vautrin, great-niece of Minnie Vautrin. She attended a rehearsal in July as a special guest.
"For those who watch this, the hope is that they'll learn about Minnie Vautrin and care," she said.
Zhu Chengshan, director of the Nanjing Memorial Hall for the victims of the Nanking Massacre, said the show was a "magnificent and truthful one, successfully portraying the catastrophic historical scene."
His friend, 46-year-old Wang Youming from an electronics company in Beijing, wept during the show.
"Although I know little about dance drama, I can fully understand what this is about," he said. "The patriotism deep in my heart swelled. I will definitely go to the show when it is officially staged."
The drama will premiere in Nanjing, August 5-6. It will then move to Guangzhou on August 13 and will be shown at the Poly Theatre in Beijing on September 7-8.
"I hope everybody will come to our show to remember history," said Yang Yi, who plays Iris Chang in the drama. "Never forget it."
(China Daily August 1, 2005)