The American Priest who Fought for Nanjing


History does not remember that of the Earth in 1937 favourably. A bloody civil war was raging in Spain; in the USA, during his second inaugural address, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “I see one third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, malnourished”; concentration camps in Germany were already incarcerating Jews and others; while in China, the Japanese had captured Shanghai and now had their sights on Nanjing, in moves that many scholars now argue was the true start of the Second World War.

25 yeas earlier, when John Gillespie Magee left Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, for Nanjing in 1912, his journey began, yet little did he know in which direction it would take his life. He would go on to become a hero, saving the lives of thousands; he is a man greatly honoured by the Chinese people to this day.

Reverend John Magee came from a well-to-do family, graduated from Yale University, was a member of Skull and Bones and had attended divinity school, before finding his life’s work was in sharing the teachings of God, and so he journeyed to China on an Episcopal mission, settling in the city of Nanjing.

Magee’s epic tale is worthy of much more than a Hollywood production or a number one best seller. Akin to his peers from the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee, it was on account of his immense bravery that the lives of thousands of Chinese were saved and evidence of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing in December, 1937, is available now.

As witness to the fall of the last dynasty, the rise of the Kuomintang and the country’s struggle for independence, Rev. Magee had lived amongst the Nanjing people for over 20 years, forming a deep bond with the people, before the Japanese invaded.

Disgusted by that which he witnessed after Nanjing fell to the Japanese, he risked his own safety by going out to the bloodied inferno that was the streets of Nanjing (with his Bell and Howell camera) to shoot footage of the devastation. His mission; to let the rest of the world know what was happening to the Chinese people.

As a result of his bravery, little tins of his 100ft rolls of film, that some say amounted to 105 minutes worth of footage, were smuggled to Kodak in Shanghai, where they were then duplicated and sent out of China. Copies of his footage were soon after shown to European persons who were in positions of power seeking help to stop the Japanese aggression; no action was taken. It is believed that the original film is now at the Yale Theological Seminary, while the camera was donated by one of Rev. Magee’s sons to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum in 1999.

Rev. Magee stayed with the people of Nanjing, until he returned to the United States in 1940, where his devout spiritual work continued. In 1946, he testified at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE); “It was unbelievably terrible”, “The killing began immediately in several ways… Each one [Japanese soldiers] seeming to have the power of life or death…”. His testimony resulted in the sentencing of several high ranking Japanese officers. Magee was awarded the Chinese Peace Medal by Nanjing City, while his character and story has since been featured in films such as “Don’t Cry Nanjing” and “Nanjing”.

81 years after that to which we now refer to as the Rape of Nanjing, Magee’s grandchildren and great grandchildren have returned to the city; grandson, Chris Magee, with his daughter Tao Ping, who live in Melbourne, Australia are visiting along with grandson, Rick Magee, from Austin, Texas, and his daughter, Ruby.

The Magee family yesterday visited No.12 Middle School on Zhongshan Bei Lu, which was founded in 1917 and served as the Magee family home for many years. “The Middle school was my grandparents, father and uncles’ family home. So I am always delighted to visit. The school principal and staff is very kind and always welcomes me ‘home’”, Chris Magee told The Nanjinger.

No stranger to the city, grandson Chris Magee visits Nanjing regularly to carry on his grandfather’s great legacy. “This [legacy] is a massive responsibility that I have to carefully and conscientiously serve and preserve for my daughters [and] their descendants”, said Chris. “My two China-born daughters are to attend an educational week next summer as guests of the Nanjing Memorial Hall”.

“I feel gratitude for my Grandfather. He inspires me with the selfless choices he and the others who stayed to help in December 1937 made”, Chris continued.

At the Nanjing Massacre Museum on 13 December, 2018, Chris unveiled his photo exhibition, which aims to highlight Nanjing’s present and past. “I try to educate on a personal level one on one. My exhibition opening at the Memorial Hall today will travel the world and help connect other Westerners to the Nanjing Massacre story”, Chris told The Nanjinger. “Very few people in the US or Australia are aware of what happened. I am extremely grateful for the work of the USC Shoah Foundation to include the testimony of survivors in their records of genocide and for making their film about Xia Shuqin”.

“My favourite aspects of Nanjing is its people. Because of the nature of our family connection, there are so many opportunities to connect with people, heart to heart. [Although] I associate grief with Nanjing over the massacre, I feel nonetheless love and joy at what has followed, as if in response to the hate and fear. My grandfather was an inspiration and I feel much gratitude towards him”, he said.

Also visiting Nanjing was grandson Rick Magee, who had flown in from the USA. “My cousin Chris Magee and I have wondered why our grandfather stayed in Nanjing, despite the great horrors and danger. He stayed because he was part of Nanjing and part of China. He loved Nanjing too much to be able to leave. Nanjing was my grandfather’s home”, Rick told The Nanjinger.

“I feel compelled to tell the story of what happened at the Rape of Nanjing to everyone! Sadly they [people in my country] do not [know about the Nanjing Massacre]. I feel a responsibility to change that. I am humbled by what my grandfather did, and I respect him much more now that I know more about the story. I am deeply saddened and inspired by my grandfather’s story, at the same time”, he said.

Rick Magee was, in August, 2018, invited by the Shoah Foundation to Aspen, Colorado, for a showing of the film “The Girl and the Picture”, a documentary about Madame Xia, who survived The Rape of Nanjing, which was shown at The Metropolitan Isis Theatre. Executive director of Shoah, Stephen D. Smith, and Ceci Chan, who co-produced the movie, as well as representatives from the Aspen Film Society, invited Rick Magee to be part of a panel to take questions from the audience afterwards.

“The show was sold out, and many Americans in attendance were learning about the story of The Rape of Nanjing for the first time. I told the story of what happened in Nanjing in 1937, and my grandfather’s role. Along with my panel, we emphasized that these atrocities can happen anywhere, and we must always remember that. Love must always triumph hate, and we must remember the past so that we never repeat it. The audience stayed a long time after the movie ended to ask many questions and were very interested! It was a great experience that I was glad to be part of it”, Rick told The Nanjinger.

“After being here, and taking part in the memorial, I feel connected to Nanjing. Nanjing is part of me now. My heart lives in Nanjing. I want to come back to Nanjing many times! I was able to bring my 10-year-old daughter this time, but I want to bring my 13-year-old son and partner Sarah someday as well! I want to come in the summer when it is warmer. I want to be as involved as I can, Nanjing owns a piece of my heart and soul”, Rick closed with a smile.

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Renée Gray Beaumont
As an Australian journalist living in Nanjing for many years, Renée Gray Beaumont has a background in research, print and online publishing, taking great pleasure in discovering more about Nanjing with every article. 作为在南京居住多年的澳大利亚新闻工作者,Renee Gray Beaumont 有着调研以及印刷品和线上出版物的工作背景。她总是乐于在每篇文章里发现关于南京的内容。