Based on: “Gazette de Changhai – 84 : Le père Jacquinot de Besange”, La France en Chine: Consulat général de France à Shanghai.
Ristaino, Marcia R., The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai. Stanford 2008
Last updated: 09/07/2019
Robert Jacquinot de Besange was born on 15 March 1878 in Saintes, France. He went to school in Brest, was educated in a Jesuit institution and decided to devote his life to the church.
In 1914, just a few weeks before the outbreak of WWI he left France for China. In Shanghai, he was immediately assigned to the Xujiahui Mission as a language teacher and used the opportunity to study Chinese. He was appointed to the Sacred Heart Church in Hongkou, Shanghai and lead the diocese from 1914-1934. Furthermore, he was appointed director of the general hospital of Aurora University, where he also taught English until 1921. Over the years, he took part and led several rescue and relief actions, such as helping the victims of the flooding of the Yangtze in 1931 and 1936.
In August 1937, as the Sino-Japanese War approached Shanghai, Besange was one of the founders of the International Refuge Committee, which coordinated the relief efforts in some of the city’s foreign concessions. By September, it was estimated that around 500,000 people were seeking refuge in the concessions. In November, around 95,000 refugees were living in 142 camps, 26,000 of which were located in the French concession. By this time, the strain on resources forced the authorities to close the gates.
As a result, around 250,000 refugees fleeing the conflict became trapped in the district of Nantao. The situation was worsened by the continuous bombings of the area by the Japanese. In this situation, Besange managed to convince the Mayor of Shanghai, Yu Hongjun, to create a safety zone in Nantao. On November 3, Yu announced that armed soldiers were no longer allowed into the area and gave the International Committee full authority over his 200 policemen. On November 9, the area between Renmin Lu and Fang Bang Road was declared a neutral zone. By the end of November, the “Jacquinot Zone” held an estimated 250,000 refugees. This safety zone became the inspiration for many others in different parts of China, among them Nanjing and Wuhan.
Jacquinot de Besange left China in 1940 and subsequently negotiated safety zones in the European war. He died in Berlin in 1946.