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  • Who Is Jacquinot? Securing His Name in History
  • Yu Shen (bio)
Marcia R. Ristaino. The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. xiii, 224 pp. Hardcover $9.95, isbn 978-0-8047-5793-5.

Marcia Ristaino’s book is relatively a thin volume—155 pages—about a man who is mostly forgotten, but whose legacy the author feels impelled to revive. Her subject is Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange (known in China as 张家驹) and his remarkable humanitarian work—in particular, his work with Chinese war refugees in Shanghai during the 1930s. His concept of safe zones, and his success in implementing this system in China, is the epitome of his life’s work, which would be ultimately incorporated in the Geneva Convention of 1949, as the Jacquinot Zone. This inclusion represents a great tribute to and recognition of Father Jacquinot’s efforts to save civilians in war zones. However, Ristaino was astonished to discover that despite his outstanding contributions to relief and refugee work in China, which had a much wider impact as attested by its inclusion in the international document, Father Jacquinot was almost entirely unknown both in America and in China, and little known within the Jesuit order. With this book, Ristaino resurrects this important piece of history and adds it to the general narrative of the war against Japan, which has a tendency to overlook civilian rescues.

Trying to avoid drifting into hagiography, the author, nonetheless, organizes her first three chapters in a chronological order. She recounts Jacquinot’s early life, his training as a Jesuit priest, his arrival in China, and his discovering relief work as his call. Chapter 1 follows Father Jacquinot’s early life and education and describes him as a man with superior training in the Jesuit order. However, despite nineteen years of instruction—three years beyond the usual required time—Father [End Page 361] Jacquinot turned out to be less a philosopher than a man of action, bringing about concrete results under difficult circumstances. In 1913, he took the final vows, having completed all spiritual, religious, intellectual, and service exposure and formation. In the same year, he was sent to China.

Chapter 2 finds Father Jacquinot in Shanghai, first learning Chinese in a language school and then as a professor of English language and literature at the highly respected, Jesuit-run Aurora University (震旦大学). However, life in China for a Jesuit priest was not all that peaceful and pleasant. Jacquinot would very soon realize that as a Westerner and as a member of the Catholic Church—whose power and wealth were obtained at the expense of the Chinese through unequal treaties—he would find himself in the middle of some of the most violent aspects of rising nationalism in China during the 1920s. Against this chaotic and violent background in China, Father Jacquinot found his most significant role in China—rescuing refugees who were caught up in civil wars, natural disasters, and foreign invasions in a country where the government was both incompetent and indifferent. His first rescue effort took place in 1927 when rival forces engaged in bombardment threatened the safety of a convent. He managed to secure a passage to the convent while the fighting raged, and he successfully evacuated hundreds of nuns and their charges, including 150 children, to safety. Without offering much detail as to how he negotiated his way through the war zone, the author informs the reader that “Because of his well-publicized success in planning and carrying out the rescue of the nuns and children in 1927, Father Jacquinot began to acquire a reputation as a superb organizer and a man of action” (p. 30). His involvement in the relief effort during the 1931 great flood, which ravaged a large part of southern China, reinforced his reputation as a person qualified for, capable of, and dedicated to helping the helpless.

Chapter 3 opens with the Japanese attack of Shanghai in 1932. The atrocity of war would provide Father Jacquinot with a great challenge as well as an opportunity to develop and implement the idea of establishing safe zones for helpless and destitute refugees caught in the fire of war. In...