“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

A Christmas Day Tale – The Conscience of the Converted General

Posted: December 25th, 2009 | 4 Comments »

It’s Christmas Day and a good time for a story. When I was a kid we usually got a ghost story – anything from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to something from an old book my dad had picked up somewhere called Ghost Stories of the Norfolk Broads (sounds pretty boring but the stories were actually quite good). So I had a dig around for something a bit scary and a bit Chinese to fit in with the theme of this blog and remembered Anthony Abbot’s The Conscience of the Converted General from his 1940s collection These are Strange Tales.

Anthony Abbot was a pseudonym for Charles Fulton Oursler, a prolific editor and novelist who regularly hired my old hero Carl Crow to write for his magazines and spent time staying with him on several occasions in Shanghai. The “Baptist” General Ging, Abbot mentions is, I assume, the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang (1882-1948), the “Christian General” – at least he’s the only major warlord I know of who converted to the Baptists (though some sources say he was a Methodist). Though, also as far as I know, Feng spent his warlording career up north of Nanking, so maybe Abbot is thinking of someone else. Frankly Abbot was a good read but not really noted for his accuracy – half way through he starts referring to Ging as Feng. Anyway, the kids might enjoy it – Blood Alley, warlords and beheadings – and all with a sort of message at the end:

The Conscience of the Converted General

Anthony Abbot

From These are Strange Tales (1948)

“It was in a Blood Alley cafe in Shanghai that I first heard the tale of the general’s stand for justice and humility – perhaps one of the greatest crimes of our day. I heard the yarn again from the late Carl Crow when he was librarian at the American Club. And again in the home of a Chinese tycoon I heard it, with confirming details that finally convinced me it had really happened.

It is a story of the “Baptist” General Ging, who was holding a review of troops one noon in Nanking. The sun burned hotly and filled the open square of the capital with glare and heat. The Chinese soldiers were drawn up in strict order as General Ging, portly and gorgeous, stepped forth to look them over. As he paused, an old Chinese woman rushed out from the crowd of spectators and cast herself at his feet.

“Daughter of China, what is the reason for this strange behavior?”

The answer tumbled from between her withered gums. She was a cigarette seller, trundling a little cart with solid wooden wheels. Outside the regimental barracks a soldier had stopped her and selected a pack of cigarettes from her small store. He opened the pack, took out a cigarette, lighted it, put the pack in his pocket, and told her he had no money. Then he went away. But every Chinese soldier has his name and his army number embroidered on his sleeve. She read that number and remembered it. Now she demanded justice.

General Ging lifted his chin and looked solemnly at the sky. In a voice thunderous and hoarse, he made a pronouncement.

“This is a crime,” he announced, “but I do not blame the soldier, nor his sergeant, nor his corporal, his second lieutenant, his first lieutenant, his captain, his major, his colonel. I blame myself. I, Ging, the Baptist general, failed to impress on his corps of the army of the Chinese Republic the virtues of Christianity. I, Ging, must pay the penalty. So here and now in the public square of Nanking, under the sun of high noon, I shall kneel for four hours and pray to God for forgiveness.”

With clacking tongues, a collection of lesser Chinese officers came up, trying their best to dissuade their chieftain from such heroic penance. If he carried out the threat, they must imitate his folly. But General Ging was obdurate.

Down on his knees he sank and bared his bald head to the sun. One hour passed; two hours, three, and at last big Ching, the Nanking clock, tolled out four solemn strokes, and the ordeal was over.

Dizzy and half blind, General Feng rose to his feet and brushed dust from his knees. The other officers followed suit. Now the converted general spoke again to the awe-stricken multitude:

“So, sons and daughters of China, we have avenged a wrong done to an innocent Chinese merchant. But that is not all, O sons and daughters of the Republic of China! I, Ging, the Christian General, have by this act of atonement been caused to lose face. The people have seen their general in the humiliating position of being on his knees. That too must be avenged! It can be properly avenged only by punishing the sergeant, the corporal, the second lieutenant, the first lieutenant, the captain, the major, the colonel, and the private of the first instance; and that punishment shall be administered here and now.”

And so, by half past four that same afternoon, eight human heads lay severed in the open square of Nanking – the heads of the private, the corporal, the sergeant, the second lieutenant, the first lieutenant, the captain, the major and the colonel. All were decapitated with the sword.

The trouble was that, in spite of all that happened, no one ever paid the old lady for her cigarettes!”


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