In 1943 Japanese troops rounded up all the foreigners near Peking, China, and shipped them to this abandoned, looted church compound. The two thousand internees were made largely responsible for governing themselves while confined there until the end of the war. As I read this account of the difficulties they encountered I was amazed at the clarity with which the most basic problems of human nature and community emerged. They had to contend with housing, waste management, food preparation, representation, legislation, law enforcement, hunger, boredom, and distribution of supplies. I wished that we had read something like this in my Junior High Civics class. The author’s candid observations are so revealing, I felt many of them could just as easily apply to us today. (Those things that have since changed, especially gender distinctions, are also revealing in the contrast they present.)
The camp reaches practical solutions to their problems, but never eliminates them. They never reach consensus. Despite this, the author feels compelled to offer his own solutions that fit his definitions of morality, spirtuality, and justice. Clearly he wrestled with the issues the camp faced long after the war was over. While it’s interesting to see how intensely the camp experience affected him, I found far more value in his keen observation of the problems humans face than his personal solutions.
The salient message for me is that we’ll all have some part in these problems during our lives. Even though we may never reach agreement, we’ll continue to find creative solutions that are practical for the current environment. The solutions will never be better than the individuals that make up the body that creates them. The strongest body will always consist of individuals striving to improve themselves.
I wish I could remember more about King Rat, James Clavell’s fictionalized account of his time in a Japanese POW camp. I’d love to compare the two books.