• Image about Nanjing
Nightlife on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road East
Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet Images

The John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall celebrates the life of a man who was a longtime resident of Nanjing, a Siemens corporate representative in China and, in the 1930s, a member of the Nazi Party in China. But what the people of Nanjing will never forget is how Rabe used that party affiliation — which may well have been out of political necessity, not fervor — to save countless civilians in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

“Countless” lives saved is perhaps not an accurate description. The Chinese did put a number on it: more than 200,000 people were saved by Rabe. This astonishing statistic reflects his two main achievements in those dark days. He helped carve out an international safety zone, where Chinese civilians could find shelter, near what is now Nanjing University. And he personally interceded, complained and hectored the Japanese, using his status as a Nazi official, into leaving the safety zone more or less intact. When victims reported atrocities and attacks in the zone, it was Rabe who brought complaints to the Japanese military leaders and international organization. At one point he even chased Japanese soldiers out of his yard.
  • Image about Nanjing
The John Rabe house Above
Thomas Plesser

Rabe died in 1950 in Berlin, but his legacy is honored in Nanjing. At the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which is a massive and imposing museum, there is a sculpture of Rabe and significant exhibition space dedicated to him (and to Americans like Minnie Vautrin and John Magee, who also risked their lives to save Chinese and bring word of the atrocities to the outside world). But I found the quiet, leafy Rabe house an ideal spot for reflection on this painful history and on the miracle of kindness in a time of war.

Nanjing is as rich in culture as it is in history, and the city is sending a cultural ambassador of sorts to New York City this winter.

The China Jinling Dance Company of Nanjing gives me a sneak preview of The Peony Pavilion, a classic Kunqu opera interpreted through both modern and Chinese dance. The show, which features more than 50 dancers and high-wire flying, not to mention a fairly convincing demon army, is coming to the Lincoln Center in January for a four-day stay.
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A performance of The Peony Pavilion

The sets are rich, and the dancers emit both grace and power. But it’s the play’s story, written in the last days of the 16th century by a retired governor of Jiansu province, that is most moving. The Peony Pavilion is, in essence, a Romeo and Juliet for the Tang Dynasty, but with a happy ending. A teenage girl falls for a striking young scholar she meets in a dream, but she is crushed when she learns her family has already chosen someone else for her to marry. She wastes away and dies in despair, only to realize that her original love was the same person her parents had chosen for her. He, ­meanwhile, grieves but then travels to Hades to rescue her. It then gets even more supernatural from there, as he looks to live happily ever after with her even though she has died.

The real power of the production is that it has that same mix of old and new that makes Nanjing so alive. In the dancing, modern China — muscular, active, efficient — is paired with the subtler traditions of old China. Similarly, modern, moving Nanjing serves as a tremendous backdrop for those quiet corners, the lotus seeds and secret gardens that all await if you just leave the village of Shanghai behind.