Minnie Vautrin: Staring Down Death


“The city is strangely silent—after all the bombing and shelling. Three dangers are past—that of looting [Chinese] soldiers, bombing from aeroplanes and shelling from big guns, but the fourth is still before us—our fate at the hands of a victorious army. People are very anxious tonight and do not know what to expect . . . Tonight [13th] Nanking has no lights, no water, no telephone, no telegraph, no city paper, no radio.” December 13, 1937, The Diary of Minnie Vautrin

You would never know the woman writing this was American-born in small-town Illinois. Minnie Vautrin was born on September 27, 1886. Her mother died in childbirth when she was 7 and Minnie spent three years in foster care before she was returned to her father. This inauspicious beginning did not herald the accomplishments she would become known for.
She was an education major at the University of Illinois, graduating with honors in 1912, when she was approached by a missionary organization. The United Christian Missionary Society was scouting for a replacement principal for their high school in China which would close if they could not find a suitable teacher.They convinced her she was the only person qualified to take the position, which she held for four years.
In 1916 another school had an urgent need that again, only she could meet, so Minnie served Ginling Girls College in Nanking as faculty member, dean of education, and as president for two years. Five mission boards pledged funds and support to make the college a sustainable reality. Ginling College boasted the distinction of being the first baccalaureate institution for women in China. In 1919 the first women in China to graduate with bachelor’s degrees were Ginling College students.
Minnie was a formidable, dependable, energetic woman who helped Ginling College succeed at a time when the education of women was a fairly new concept and possibility. She had a year’s worth of language learning and a few more years of experience teaching, including math, Bible, and gymnastics. She was even called upon to plan and construct a new campus and move the college to the new location, as well as being heavily involved in the financial decisions and negotiating required to buy the land for Ginling.


While Minnie was immersed in the education and advancement of Chinese women, the Japanese Imperial Army had been devising a strategy to take over China, whose wealth and economic resources, like food and labor, they wanted for themselves. The residents of Nanking had been dreading the sacking of Shanghai because it meant they would be next. In December, 1937 the Japanese invaded the city in what has become known as “The Rape of Nanking.”

Minnie Vautrin, diary on Dec. 15: The Japanese have looted widely yesterday and today, have destroyed schools, have killed citizens, and raped women. One thousand disarmed Chinese soldiers, whom the International Committee hoped to save, were taken from them and by this time are probably shot or bayoneted.

Minnie was on vacation when she heard the news about the imminent attack by the Japanese. She cut her trip short, returned to Nanking, and under the continuous threat of Japanese air raids, proceeded to organize and direct the digging of trenches and air raid drills, ensuring every person had a place to go when the air strikes occurred.She helped found an organization called the Nanking Christian War Relief Committee which helped with medical needs, getting ambulances and other vehicles to bombing sites to rescue the wounded and visiting the various hospitals offering whatever assistance they could.
December 16, 1937: “There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from the language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes…Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out ‘Ging ming! Ging ming!’—save our lives…Oh, God, control the cruel beastliness of the soldiers in Nanking.”
Minnie and a number of other foreigners in the city attempted to create a Safety Zone for civilians and even though the Japanese refused to honor this repeated request, Ginling College became a haven for women and children while the Japanese ravaged the city. The college was originally built to hold 200-300 students and at the peak of the invasion was protecting nearly 10,000 women from the atrocities being committed mere feet from their gates.
Minnie was emboldened by the desperation she witnessed, ensuring that the American flag was visible at all times, and was known to physically place herself between bayonets and women who were targeted by soldiers. The brutality inflicted by the Japanese army during this incursion is almost too horrible to speak about above a whisper. No one was safe, not the elderly, nuns, women, or children. In fact, the most horrific war crimes were committed against women and children.Being informed that two Japanese soldiers had entered the college she ran to the building but was too late and walked in on a young girl being raped.



Even as the Japanese army brought destruction and devastation to Nanking, she kept the gates open, welcoming the wounded, the ransacked, the destitute, and the desolate. Soon the walls and grounds of the college were overcrowded with nearly 10,000 people. But she never closed the gates. And she never left them unguarded. She would leap up from her meals or out of her bed when she was told of possible infiltration.

“The most significant duty they performed was to get to a railway station, taking care of hundreds of wounded Chinese soldiers who had been recently evacuated from the front.” ~ Suping Lu


Hua-Ling Hu, author of American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking writes:

When the Japanese soldiers ordered Vautrin to leave the campus, she replied: ‘This is my home. I cannot leave.’ Facing down the blood-stained bayonets constantly waved in her face, Vautrin shielded the desperate Chinese who sought asylum behind the gates of the college. Vautrin exhausted herself defying the Japanese army and caring for the refugees after the siege ended in March 1938. She even helped the women locate husbands and sons who had been taken away by the Japanese soldiers. She taught destitute widows the skills required to make a meager living and provided the best education her limited sources would allow to the children in desecrated Nanking.

When Japanese soldiers tried to ransack the university, Minnie refused to let them enter. When soldiers tried to abduct refugees under her care, she bravely stood in between them. And when the Japanese finally completed their hellish masterpiece with over three hundred thousand people butchered, Minnie started the hard work of caring for the city’s wounded.

Minnie Vautrin is credited with saving up to ten thousand Chinese women and children at the risk of her own life. She saw her responsibility to those around her, and answered that call unswervingly. Her actions during one of the century’s greatest crimes should be an inspiration to all of us who desire to make a difference in the lives of those who suffer around us.

It is believed that between 20,000 to 80,000 women and girls were savagely raped by the Japanese army. There is no official death toll for the people of Nanking, but it is estimated that between 200,000 to 300,000 citizens were massacred. Bodies covered the streets for months as their city burned. General Matsui and his lieutenant Tani Hisao, were tried and convicted for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and were executed in December of 1948. 
In the throes of mayhem and danger, when seventy-five percent of the city’s population abandoned the city, Minnie provided for her refugees in every way possible and was a source of strength and comfort to those who came to her for safety. Twice Minnie Vautrin was called on to do something only she could do, reminiscent of Esther who saved the lives of her people because God set her apart for a “time such as this.” Minnie was set apart for a time and place, for a people and a purpose, and remains an incredible example of eshet chayil, a woman of valor.



American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin by Hua-Ling Hu

Nanking: produced, written, and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman

City of Life and Death: directed by Chuan Lu

Tammy Perlmutter
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7 thoughts on “Minnie Vautrin: Staring Down Death

  1. Extraordinarily well written, Tammy. Thank you for bringing to light the courage of Minnie Vautrin. Especially now as the civil liberties over which wars have been waged are under assault from within free states.

  2. Oh gosh. It makes you stop still to consider all the cruelty and naked evil that went on in Nanking. I love your link to Esther – for such a time as this. I will be pondering that, thank you.

  3. This is an important story, Tammy. I know how it’s changed you, who knows how it will impact others? We all need to be reminded there is work set aside that only we can do. The people of Nanking need to be given voice and Minnie, honored for her courage and willingness to answer God’s call on her life. Thank you.

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