A group of starving young students from Manchuria assembled during mid-morning on Legation Street in Beijing only four days after my husband and I arrived for our vacation. They sat quietly and in an orderly fashion. They had sent a representative to petition the mayor for provisions of food. We had front row seats to the event as our compound was across the way from the mayor’s residence. The students looked no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. They had no weapons. They just sat on the street waiting for their spokesman to return from the mayor’s mansion. The group politely moved aside to make room for me when I went out to shop for antiques that afternoon. Mort and I happened to return from our respective errands at the same time.
We were about to enter the compound just as Charlotte Horstman was walking down Legation Street with Frank Donaldson, an American friend. They stopped to chat with us as we stood at the gate. The students were still sitting quietly and patiently, despite the fact that the Nationalist Army had brought a huge armored tank to the street. It was outfitted with a large gun aimed directly at them. The Nationalists were losing the civil war and army morale was low. All four of us voiced apprehensions about the potential for violence by dispirited soldiers under the command of disgruntled, low-ranking officers.
We had been invited to dine at the home of Ted Lake, an official at the British Consulate, and were about to bathe and dress. We said good-bye to our friends and went inside the gate. I had taken off my dress and just started to fill the tub when I heard eardrum-shattering noises. I quickly ran from the bathroom in my slip, and dragged a chair over to one of the high windows of the bedroom. I tried to hoist myself to see what was happening. Mort had been slowly unbuttoning his shirt, but he instantly lunged at me and pulled me down.
“Are you crazy? What do you think you’re doing?”
“I want to see what’s happening.”
“And get your head blown off? The bullets are ricocheting off the walls!”
“I’m perfectly safe.”
By the time I uttered the last word the street was as quiet as a ghost town. When we went out to fetch a pedicab, the pools of blood on the pavement outside the compound shocked us more than anything we had ever seen. The Nationalist soldiers had removed the bodies, but had not yet washed the street clean. Mort ran back into our bedroom, grabbed his camera and took a dozen or so photographs. He engaged a pedicab driver to take us to Ted’s house and asked the driver to return for us at eleven-thirty.
We relayed the events of the day to our friend. He agreed the military’s action was atrocious, but not surprising. We proceeded to other topics and after a congenial evening of good food, wine and conversation we went out expecting the driver to be waiting for us. It was pitch black outside. We could not see anything and the driver was nowhere to be found. Ted went back to his house to get a flashlight. He said it was too late to call a taxi and suggested we walk until we found a rickshaw or a pedicab. He was holding the flashlight in his hand as we made our way along the dark hutung. We were suddenly blinded by the blaze of flashlights in our eyes. As soon as the pupils of our eyes adjusted to the glare, we saw that we were surrounded by Nationalist soldiers holding rifles with bayonets attached, aimed directly at us.
If I had taken one minute to assess the situation realistically I would have died of fright. Fortunately for all three of us, I was not aware of the fear I was feeling. The civil war had nothing to do with me and I had nothing to do with it. Besides, I was not just another American; I worked for the United States government and had identification to prove it. My youth and inexperience prompted me to speak with arrogance. They did not have to understand my words; they could hear the impertinence in the tone of my voice.
I believed at the age of twenty-four that I was never going to die, definitely not by mistake, and certainly not on foreign soil by a foreign soldier’s weapon. My every thought was completely irrational. I still believe that my response in the face of sudden, and very possibly fatal confrontation, saved our lives. I asked Mort and Ted, both fluent in Mandarin, to tell the officer in charge that I was an official attached to the American Consulate.
“I demand the use of their telephone to call the American Consul. Tell him that!”
The officer censured us in harsh tones and told us there was an emergency nine-o’clock curfew. We had broken the law by being out late. He relented after he harangued us for ten minutes or so and let me use the phone. I described our situation to the Vice Consul and asked him to put his chauffeur on the line. One of the young noncommissioned officers explained to him where to pick us up. The telephone was in a wooden kiosk; I asked the officer in charge to let me sit on the wooden bench while we waited and he gave a curt signal of assent.
When the Vice Consul finally arrived in his limousine, the instructions to the driver were very specific: do not drive faster than ten miles an hour, lower all the windows of the car, stop at each checkpoint, and do not resist soldiers who want to take a look inside the car. Ted, shaken by the experience, pretended composure and walked back to his house. After we climbed into the limousine, I noticed the Vice Consul’s pajama-clad legs under the hem of his raincoat. He seemed thoroughly displeased, mostly with the Nationalist Government’s habit of sudden and arbitrary decisions to enforce laws they made up on the spur of the moment. He was clearly annoyed with our escapade, which forced him to wake and leave his bed. He maintained a polite if reserved countenance.
The chauffeur drove at the specified speed. Soldiers stopped us at five-minute intervals. They plunged bayonets through the open windows of the limousine, yelled belligerently at the driver, then let us continue to the next checkpoint. If memory serves me right we were stopped three or four times. We thanked the Vice Consul for his help as soon as we were let off at the gate of the compound and wished him a good night’s sleep. He said he was glad to have been of help.
We read an account of the student demonstration in the English newspaper the next day and did not recognize the events we had witnessed as described in the article. The reporter claimed the students had been armed and the soldiers had no choice in the face of danger but to protect themselves. Charlotte and Frank came by to tell us that six of the students had been killed. All four of us had seen the unarmed children, heard the shots, and even photographed the spilled blood of the slaughtered victims. We were sickened by the distortions in the report of the incident and concerned about the fate of our Chinese friends if the Chinese government could violently turn on its own citizens with impunity.
The atrocity I witnessed occurred in July 1948, during our stay in China in the city of Beijing. Since then and in my long life this atrocity has become an emblem and reflection of endless ceaseless atrocities around the world. We cannot claim ignorance. We must do better to have a more decent world.
*This essay was part of a Memoir, “Strange Lands and People,” published in C/Oasis magazine in 2000.