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A look back at the lives of China's 'comfort women'

08-22 14:23 TimeOut Beijing
The wartime enslavement of ‘comfort women’ remains one of the least recognised war crimes in human history and understanding what happened to these women has become an international controversy.

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For the first time, a new book gives China’s former ‘comfort women’ the chance to tell their stories to an English-speaking audience. Here, Time Out publishes an exclusive extract from one of the survivors

Introduction from Peipei Qiu, co-author

During the Asia-Pacific War (1941-1945), Japanese imperial forces coerced hundreds of thousands of women across Asia into military ‘comfort stations’ and subjected them to repeated rapes. Seventy years later, the wartime enslavement of ‘comfort women’ remains one of the least recognised war crimes in human history and understanding what happened to these women has become an international controversy.

I first encountered the subject over a decade ago when a student of mine wrote her senior thesis on the ‘comfort women’ redress movement in South Korea and Japan. Chinese women received brutal treatment at the bottom of the hierarchically structured military system of sexual slavery. Working with her on her research, I noticed the utter lack of information in English about Chinese women’s enslavement.

My collaboration with Professors Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei at Shanghai Normal University resulted in the publication of the first English book on the subject, Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. It gives the historical accounts of twelve survivors in their own words, supported by archival records and witness testimonies. While memories do have limitations and inconsistencies, the historical accuracy has been carefully verified.

The story of Zhou Fenying

My parents were natives of Wenchi, a small village across from Yangjiayuan [in Rugao county, Jiangsu province], where I live now. My father’s name was Zhou Fusheng. My mother didn’t have a formal name. People called her the ‘Sixth Girl’. My parents owned no land, so the family depended on my father working as a farmhand.

I was born in the Lunar Fifth Month (1917). My parents already had four sons when I was born, and the family was often starving. Seeing no way to provide for another child, my parents thought I might be able to survive if they could give me away.

However, it was not easy to find a family to take me. In rural places at that time boys were wanted because they were seen as able to do the farm work when they grew up. Girls were unwanted and were called ‘money-losing goods’ since they would serve another family when they were married and their parents had to spend a fortune to pay for the dowry. When I turned five I was sold to the Ni family in nearby Yangjiayuan to be a ‘child-daughter-in-law’ as was commonly done at the time. [A child daughter-in-law would be treated as an adopted child first and then become the wife of their son when she reached adulthood.]

I was so young that I no longer remember anything else about my family of birth.

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My father-in-law was called Ni Er and the villagers called my mother-in-law Ni Er’s. They had two sons: the older son was called Ni Jincheng, and the younger one Ni Gui. I was Ni Jincheng’s child-bride-to-be. We weren’t married until 1936, when he was twenty-four and I was nineteen. People said that I was an exceptionally pretty girl for I was fair-skinned and of slight build. [Local people told the interviewers during their trip that Zhou "china-comfort-women"Fenying had been a famous beauty in the area. She was already ninety and had lost her eyesight at the time of the interview, but she still dressed neatly, wearing a straw hat that protected her face from the sunlight.]

Jincheng and I grew up together and we loved each other very much. He protected me as if he were an older brother. We ‘separated out’ from my in-laws’ house after we were married.

I say ‘separated out,’ but we didn’t really have our own house to move to. We just added a small room to my in-laws’ straw-thatched cottage and built our own cooking stove. This little thatched addition with mud walls became our bridal chamber.

The Japanese army occupied Rugao about two years after we were married. I clearly remember the day when the Japanese troops came into our village. It was in the spring of 1938 and that day was my cousin Wu Qun’s birthday. She was about my age and also good-looking. My husband was away working in the fields. We heard that the Japanese troops accompanied by local traitors had come to kidnap girls.

All the women in the village ran, desperately trying to escape. My cousin and I ran for our lives. We crossed a little river and hid ourselves behind a millstone in a villager’s courtyard, but the Japanese troops chased after us and found us. Later we learned that the Japanese troops had been looking for good-looking girls to put in their comfort station. Because my cousin and I were known for our good looks, we had been targeted.

The Japanese soldiers tied our feet with ropes so that we could not run away. Then they had us loaded into a wheelbarrow where they tied us tightly with more ropes. They forced some villagers to push the wheelbarrow to the Town of Baipu. The ropes and the jolting of the wheelbarrow hurt our bodies like hell all the way.

At Baipu we were unloaded at Zhongxing Hotel. The owner of the hotel had fled before the Japanese army came, and the Japanese troops made the hotel their comfort station. We were scared to death and couldn’t even cry. When I looked around, I saw about twenty girls were already there. The barracks held about fifty Japanese troops, who kidnapped dozens of young women from nearby villages to be their comfort women.

Each of the girls in the station was given a number. The number was printed in red on a piece of white cloth, which was about three cun long and two cun wide. People said that the numbers were given based on the looks of the girls; I was made number one.

We were not allowed to step out of the station. There were two or three elderly women from the town of Baipu who cleaned, delivered food and so on. There was also an old woman, a Chinese lady, who supervised the women and collected fees.

This old woman gave us a yuan or so every month to buy daily necessities, but this money was far from enough. Because we were only given two coarse meals a day we were always hungry. I had to save that money and ask people to buy me some food when I was starving. At mealtimes we were taken to a large room with six or eight big tables. Each of us had a small room with a bed, a small table, and a little stool. There was also a basin in my room. All the women had to share towels and one big tub of water for bathing. I wore my own clothes all the time I was in the station, and, as time went on, I had to ask my in-laws to send me a change of clothing.

I was extremely frightened when I was forced to service the Japanese troops. I had heard that Japanese soldiers would stab every Chinese man and rape every Chinese woman they found. On the first day I could not stop crying and my mind fell into a trance, so one of the cleaning women stayed in my room with me until a soldier came in. The soldier became very angry when he saw me crying. He pushed his bayonet against my chest, snarling in a low voice. I thought he was going to kill me and I almost passed out. The Japanese soldier then raped me.

The Japanese troops came to the station about every seven days, and we were made to do other jobs when the soldiers didn’t come. Many of the soldiers had two or three stripes on their epaulettes, so I guessed they were officers. They paid the old woman with military money to buy tickets before coming to pick girls. Quite a few of them would pick me, and some came to my room regularly. I cried every day, hoping that my husband could free me from this place. However, the place was closely guarded by the soldiers and there was no way for him to rescue me.

The Japanese officers made me follow their orders. If I obeyed they sometimes gave me a small gift, but if I showed even the slightest unhappiness they would yell at me. I was forced to do whatever they told me to. I remember that a Japanese person wearing white clothing came to check our bodies, including our private places. I didn’t understand what he was doing at the time, but I was very scared and my whole body shook when he checked me.The Japanese doctor also came to check me when I fell sick. The old woman gave us some small rubber caps and told us to put one on the soldier’s penis when he arrived.

I was kept in the comfort station for about three months. In the seventh month that year [1938], Mr Yang, a clerk who was working in the puppet town government, helped free me. People said that Mr Yang had an interest in me because of my good looks, so he paid a ransom and used his connections to get me released. Mr Yang wanted me to be his concubine, but I refused. I told him that I had a husband and I wanted to go home.

When I was released my mother-in-law did not want me to return home. She could not take the widespread gossip in the village, where people were saying that I had been defiled by the Japanese troops. However, my husband, Jincheng, accepted me. He said, ‘Fenying was kidnapped by the Japanese troops, but this was not her fault.’ He brought me home despite what the villagers and my mother-in-law said.

Zhou Fenying died on 6 July 2008 at her home in Yangjiayuan, Jiangsu province. Extract taken from Chinese Comfort Women by Peipei Qiu with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei. All rights reserved by the Publisher, University of British Columbia Press.

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