Old Version


The life and heroics of Qian Xiuling, a Chinese woman who risked her life to save 110 Belgians from the hands of Nazis, are revealed in a new book

By Kui Yanzhang Updated Aug.1

A Chinese woman living in German-occupied Belgium in the 1940s finally succeeded in her mission: an audience with the top Nazi leader in Belgium, General Alexander von Falkenhausen.
It was not the first time that Qian Xiuling had met the general, and she was counting on their prior connection to aid her. She told Falkenhausen that 96 people were being held hostage in the Belgian city of Écaussinnes and they would be killed in a few hours by Nazi soldiers in reprisal for a resistance attack on SS officers. She pleaded with him to save their lives.  

The historic scene is imagined in writer Xu Feng’s new book, Forget Me, published in the Chinese mainland in April 2021. So far it is only available in Chinese.  

At the outbreak of World War II, Qian was a doctor living in Belgium with her husband Gregoire de Perlinghi, also a doctor, where they ran a clinic together. Falkenhausen had been a military attaché in China in the 1930s, where he had worked with her cousin Qian Zhuolun, a senior official with the Kuomintang, China’s then ruling Nationalist Party. The connection enabled her to make the acquaintance of Falkenhausen, who while he was military leader of Belgium for the Nazis, he was sympathetic to resisters on occasion, although he had also allowed the deportation of thousands of Belgian Jews. During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Qian turned to Falkenhausen for help several times, saving the lives of 110 Belgians.  

The king of Belgium lauded her as a “national hero.” Today, there is a street named after Qian in Écaussinnes. This is China’s version of Schindler’s List, but there are some differences between Qian and Schindler.  

“Oskar Schindler, John Rabe and He Fengshan all had relatively high economic and political status. Qian was just an ordinary Belgian citizen,” Xu told NewsChina, highlighting that while she had connections, Qian Xiuling had no official status. He Fengshan was a Chinese diplomat in Vienna who granted thousands of visas to Jews for Shanghai before he was recalled to China in 1940, and John Rabe was a German businessman and Nazi party member who helped rescue Chinese people during the Nanjing Massacre perpetrated by Japanese troops at the end of 1937. Oskar Schindler was also a businessman and a member of the Nazi party.  

Heroic Deeds 
In 2002, Zhang Yawen, writer of Chinese Woman at Gestapo Gunpoint, went to the city of Yixing, Jiangsu Province. Xu, then deputy director of the local television station, attended the reception for Zhang, where he first heard the story of Qian’s war deeds.  

Shortly after, Xu produced a documentary about Qian based on Zhang Yawen’s research, as well as interviews with the councilor of the Chinese Embassy in Belgium and many others.  

During the filming, Xu spoke with Qian on the phone. He wanted to go to Brussels to interview her, and she readily agreed. Xu’s interview, however, was delayed several times and on August 1, 2008, Qian passed away at the age of 96. Xu deeply regrets missing the chance.  

In 2018, Xu decided to write a book about Qian.  

Xu Feng was able to meet Qian Xiuling’s eldest grandson Jerome de Perlinghi in Shanghai. Most of Qian’s relatives in Belgium were not familiar with China, but Jerome was an exception. He liked the stories his grandmother told about China when he was a child. Today, Jerome de Perlinghi is an internationally renowned photographer living in the US who has published a book of Shanghai photographs based on nine trips he made to the city over several decades.  

Jerome de Perlinghi promised Xu that if he went to Belgium, he would take him to see Qian’s former home and grave, and introduce him to people who knew his grandmother.  

In 2018, Xu traveled to Belgium where he met Raymond Maucq, director of the World War II Memorial in Écaussinnes. His father, Raymond Maucq senior, was a resistance leader in the 1940s. Before the 96 hostages were about to be shot, it was he who first approached Qian for help and witnessed her rescue of the hostages.  

Jerome de Perlinghi also helped Xu find 103-year-old Maurice, the only survivor of the hostages Qian saved, at a local retirement home. During their first meeting, the nurse whispered “Qian Xiuling” repeatedly in his ear. Maurice smiled back but could not remember anything. Three days later, Xu was told that Maurice could remember Qian. He immediately returned to the nursing home and collected plenty of first-hand information.  

Before leaving Écaussinnes, Xu went to see the mayor, who had only been in office for two days. He learned from the mayor that few Belgians under the age of 50 knew of Qian. He checked the largest bookstore in Brussels but could not find a single book about Qian.  

“As an easterner, she saved so many Belgians. She should have a place in history,” Xu said. After leaving Belgium, Xu went to Taiwan, where he met some grandsons and nephews of her cousin Qian Zhuolun.  

“After returning from Taiwan, I felt I could write a book. I had tons of material for a book,” he said. It took him nine months to finish.  

The bulk of material about Qian Xiuling comes from interviews and historical records, while Xu took literary license to describe the scenes and emotions. Xu Feng did not write a conventional biography of Qian. Instead, he wanted to draw a group portrait set in the most turbulent period of war.  

Mutual Rescue 
Qian Xiuling and her husband Gregoire de Perlinghi ran a clinic in Herbeumont, a small town near the French border of some 1,000 inhabitants, 160 kilometers from Écaussinne. In 1943, a local priest told Qian that her son-in-law had been sentenced to death for antiNazi activities.  

Qian remembered her brother had mentioned Falkenhausen, who was then the Nazi military chief in Belgium. She sent a telegram to her cousin Qian Zhuolun, who at that time held the rank of lieutenant general, and who was chief of the First General Office of Defense Ministry of the Kuomintang Administration and director of Chief of the Staff Office. She went to see Falkenhausen, carrying signed photographs and letters from her cousin.  

It made a difference and the sentence was changed from capital punishment to forced labor. Qian similarly saved the lives of more than 100 Belgians during World War II. The largest rescue occurred on June 8, 1944, three days after the Allied Forces landed in Normandy.  

The resistance in Écaussinne had killed three SS soldiers. Taking swift reprisal, hundreds of SS officers surrounded the city, arresting 96 young men. It was announced that if the guerrillas who had shot the SS officers refused to surrender in 36 hours, 15 people would be shot every half hour.  

In desperation, people thought of Qian. Raymond Maucq senior dug out a Citroen car that was hidden under a pile of hay, found some gasoline and drove in a last-ditch mission to get to Qian’s home under the cover of night. Qian’s husband did not want his wife, who was five months pregnant, to take the risk, but Qian decided to leave for Brussels immediately.  

The next morning Qian met Falkenhausen. She persuaded him to rescind the threat to kill the 96 hostages, although they could not be released. They were sent to concentration camps instead, however most, but not all, survived the war.  

Qian’s plea succeed in part because Falkenhausen, a high-ranking Nazi officer, had long-been dissatisfied with Adolf Hitler. Shortly afterwards, Falkenhausen was detained by the SS for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His adjutant instantly committed suicide. 

In 1935, Falkenhausen was posted to China and as head of a military advisory committee. He stayed for four years, and he and Qian Zhuolun became friends during this time, with Falkenhausen giving military tactical advice during the Japanese invasion and occupation. This was eventually seen as being in contradiction to the Axis alliance between Germany and Japan, and Falkenhausen was recalled to Germany.  

Falkenhausen’s faith in going to Qian’s aid ended up helping when he was put on trial for war crimes, when she appeared in his defense.  

In February 1948, Falkenhausen was brought to Brussels to stand trial in front of a military tribunal as Belgium’s top war criminal. In court, Qian defended the German officer and invited many of the people that were rescued to testify. Qian also published an article in his support in a Belgian newspaper.  

Falkenhausen was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was released several years early and lived in his hometown of Nassau until his death in 1966 at the age of 88. When Falkenhausen’s relatives went through his library after his death, they found thousands of books about China.  

Qian Xiuling and Raymond Maucq senior

Group photo of the people Qian Xiuling helped save from a Nazi firing squad

Ordinary Woman 
Most literature about Qian focuses on her heroism. Xu interviewed many of her relatives and acquaintances to present a more nuanced portrait.  

“She has the traditional Chinese feelings of home and country. Yixing, south of the Yangtze River, where she was born, is one of the earliest forward-thinking counties in China,” Xu said.  

Qian Xiuling was the fourth of five siblings. Her father Qian Xixun was liberal and opened a free school in the village in Jiangsu Province. All his children received a good education and Qian Xixun hired private tutors for them.  

Qian Xiuling read stories about physicist Marie Curie in a pictorial newspaper and looked on her as an idol. After many attempts, her father agreed to send her to a new school in Jiangsu Province, and then one in Shanghai. At the age of 17, Qian went to Belgium to study chemistry at the University of Leuven.  

While her father was liberal when it came to the education of girls, he had still betrothed her in marriage when she was just 3 years old. Her fiancé was also studying in Belgium. But after Qian Xiuling met him for the first time, she found she did not like him. She wrote to her father, hoping to get out of the arranged marriage. Her father was furious and cut off support for her tuition and living expenses.  

Later, Qian obtained a Chinese government scholarship and was able to continue her studies in Belgium. At the age of 22, Qian received two doctorates in physics and chemistry. It was at Leuven that Qian met her future husband.  

In a street near the university, Qian saw Gregoire de Perlinghi trying to resuscitate an elderly man who had collapsed. By the time she pushed through the crowd, the man was already conscious, and she called a carriage for him.  

The next day, Qian read in the school bulletin about her future husband’s deeds. He was then a third-year medical school student at the University of Leuven. The two gradually fell in love.  

After graduation, Qian worked as an assistant professor at the university. She had planned to return to China with her husband in 1937, but the Japanese had launched an all-out invasion of China. The couple stayed in Belgium and set up their clinic. They went on to have five children. 

After WWII, Qian resumed her work at Leuven University and the United Nations Institute of Nuclear Sciences. She departed from scientific research after getting pregnant again.  

Later, Qian ran three Chinese restaurants in Belgium. Her husband died in 1966, but after China’s reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, she traveled to China twice to visit relatives. 

Whenever people mentioned her heroics in saving people, she was always modest in reply. For years, none of her relatives in the Chinese mainland knew about her deeds in Belgium.  

Unassuming to the last, Qian had requested a simple funeral, but her coffin was draped with a Belgian flag, and survivors of Belgium’s resistance to the Nazis came to pay their respects and lay flowers.  

Qian’s last words were “forget me.”