Shantung Compound

Shantung Compound

Full Title: Shantung Compound: 2,000 men, women, and children herded together under the menace of Japanese guns rebuild a world and rediscover themselves

Author: Langdon Gilkey

Published: 1975

Publisher: Harper & Row; HarperOne

In 1943 Langdon Gilkey was a young American teaching in China.  He was rounded up by the Japanese along with 1,500 other foreigners and interred in a camp for two-and one-half years until World War II ended.  Gilkey, a writer, fortunately kept a detailed journal and had a keen sense of political and moral dynamics.  Shantung Compound is a novelistic narrative of a sociology laboratory which is both fascinating and sobering.  His opening lines are from Bertolt Brecht: “For even saintly folk will act like sinners, unless they have their customary dinners.” 

Gilkey continued to be surprised that this diverse group of 1,500 men, women, and children, confined with barely enough food to survive, and with the necessity of creating their own system of governing themselves, often had difficulty doing the obviously just and fair things.  In solving their problems, they were often ingenious; but when shortages arose, they had difficulty seeing things from the perspective of the group as a whole. 

The most divisive issue arises when the 200 American internees receive generous supply packages from the Red Cross.  Should they share with the others?  In reflecting on democracy Gilkey remembers his teacher Reinhold Niebuhr who said that the goodness and rationality of people made the rise of democracy possible.  But Gilkey observed in the camp that it was the grousing, the orneriness, and outright resentments of people that made democracy necessary.

Submitter’s Notes

This story is the best real life outcome comparison between a life committed to secularism and a life based upon a belief in God. And when one adds the real-life conversion of the author who was educated in secularism, the essential message could not be any more real for a died in the wool secularist who discovered the real difference for himself.