Robert Jacquinot de Besange is the stuff of legends. He was born in 1878 into the French aristocracy. The young Jacquinot lost his right arm in a chemistry explosion. Undeterred, he went on to become a Jesuit.
At the age of 25, he arrived in Shanghai. His assignment was to serve the Portuguese congregation at the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hongkou. He lived in Shanghai for 26 years. Twice, he saw war ravage his parish.
On January 29, 1932, the Japanese bombed the district of Zhabei. They followed with a full-scale invasion of the Chinese parts of Shanghai, including Hongkou. The clash became known as the First Battle of Shanghai though China and Japan were not officially at war.
The one-armed priest sallied forth in his long black cassock. He negotiated a 4 hour truce to allow civilians and the wounded to evacuate. He served as president of the China International Famine Relief Commission. Jacquinot did what he could but it wasn’t enough.
This is what Edgar Snow saw in Zhabei during the First Battle of Shanghai:
Bodies of civilians lie clustered in alleys and scattered on the streets where the marines have advanced. I see a mother with her child, both of whom appear to have been pierced by a single thrust of a bayonet. In an old rice-shop with an open front I come suddenly upon an improvised crematorium. Bodies of Chinese civilians are piled four deep inside this shop, and ronin, preparatory to setting fire to it, are dragging new corpses to the threshold. Seeing me, they glare menacingly. Three marines come up and with bared bayonets order me to move on.
Quoted from John Gittings, Reportings from Shanghai since the 1930s, A brief survey written in Shanghai, April 2003.
jacquinot safe zone
In 1937, the Japanese attacked again. The 2nd Battle of Shanghai lasted about as long as the first: a little over 2 months. This time around, Jacquinot would do more.
Wen-Hsin Yeh writes:
Acting as a nongovernmental third-party national, Jacquinot negotiated with Chinese and Japanese military and civilian officials and secured the terms for the “Jacquinot Safe Zone” that would lie outside the foreign concessions. The Japanese field command agreed not to attack the zone. Chinese authorities, for their part, pledged not to use it to mount resistance (known as terrorist acts) nor to shelter arms or troops.
This quote comes from a review of The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai by Marcia Ristaino. The book centers on the actions of Jacquinot in creating the demilitarized zone named after him.
This map shows how the neutral area nudges up against the French Concession. China Daily says that the area covered a 1-million-square-meter space. That would have included the Temple of the City God, Yuyuan Gardens and the Great Bazaar.
From 1937 to 1940, approximately 300,000 refugees sheltered inside the Jacquinot Safe Zone. Every day, steamed buns and bread were handed out. Jacquinot raised money from the Chinese and Japanese governments as well as international donors.
the kindness of neighbors
Why were there so many refugees in Shanghai? The Chinese believed that the foreign concessions were safe. Both natives and foreigners were convinced that the Japanese would never risk bringing another country into the conflict with China. Until Pearl Harbor, that thinking was right.
But the foreign concessions were not so eager to absorb the masses.
After the war broke out in Shanghai, many refugees first sought shelter in the French Concession and the International Settlement, but those areas soon imposed stricter entrance policies that September, as more than 100,000 refugees tried to enter.
Emily Hahn was in China from 1935 to 1938 writing for The New Yorker. Her life was far removed from the exigencies of the Jacquinot Safe Zone. Moving Day in Shanghai, published on 9 October 1937, is one good example.
The barbed wire and the sandbags and things had blocked so many streets that we had to drive way downtown to get across. It worried us, because our gasoline was getting low, and one of those rumors had frightened the dealers into closing down, or at least demanding cash. My cash was dwindling, and so was the gasoline. The streets were all ragged with groups of Chinese refugees sitting, or standing with babies in their arms, looking at the sky. There weren’t as many foreign women as usual, so the British soldiers and sailors, and the American Marines, looked hopefully at every skirt that came by. Most foreign men were swaggering in khaki, saying to each other, “This is going to be bigger than 1932.”
a fictional priest
The parallels between 1932 and 1937 are legion. The same belligerents fighting over a heavily populated urban area. A native population trapped in between. A foreign community oblivious to the dangers ahead and the suffering underfoot.
Edgar Snow savages the way the foreign community responded to the Second Battle of Shanghai.
People stood on their apartment roofs and watched Japanese dive bombers, right before their eyes, emptying tons of bombs on the Chinese. […] Guests at the swank Park Hotel, on the security of Bubbling Well Road, could gaze out through the spacious glass facade of its top-storey dining-room, while contentedly sipping their demitasse, and check up on the marksmanship of the Japanese batteries.
I’ve taken these eyewitness accounts to incorporate into my own fiction. Father Jacquinot’s going to make a cameo appearance in the final volume of my Shanghai Quartet. But The Smell of Opium won’t be set in wartime. We’ll meet the one-armed priest at an event much more common in 1930s China: a bank run. When the cash runs out, a mob will form and the customary cry will ring in the streets. Kill all the foreigners! Then, just as in real life, Father Jacquinot will step in to save the day.
the stuff of legends
And why not? The Jacquinot Safe Zone lives on. It’s mentioned in the 1958 commentary to the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It’s an example of what’s possible, even in war.
Father Jacquinot is also experiencing a revival of sorts in his former hometown. In 2015, a local museum unveiled his statue to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII. In 2017, immediately following the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanjing, Jacquinot was honored a second time. A stone plaque now hangs at the south entrance to the Temple of the City God in Shanghai though it’s dedicated to a man named Rao Jiahua. It’s the Chinese name Jacquinot took
to show his love for China as his second hometown.