The story of Nadine Hwang: The ‘Chinese Joan of Arc’

Photo collector Zou Dehuai tells the story of Nadine Hwang, a half-Chinese woman who was a rare breed in every sense of the term. Her dramatic life took her from Madrid to China and the salons of Paris, to a concentration camp in Germany, and eventually to Belgium. Amid the tragedy of war, she found love, and through it all, lived life with great spirit.
Nadine Hwang, who led a storied life, was known as the 'Chinese Joan of Arc'.
Nadine Hwang, who led a storied life, was known as the 'Chinese Joan of Arc'.

(All photos courtesy of Zou Dehuai unless otherwise stated.)

Those who know history would probably be familiar with the story of St Joan of Arc, a young girl in armour waving a banner, protecting all that she held dear with a burning courage. The charm of this story comes from a sense of incongruity, which in turn stems from gender bias, and this charm lends a sense of romanticism to the tragic end to Joan’s life.

Among my collection are a few photographs that remind me of St Joan. In April 2019, I got a friend to buy four extraordinary photographs from a collector in Pennsylvania. They show a Chinese woman from the time of the Republic of China, with angular features and an air of exoticism. In some photos, she is dressed in fur, her chin slightly upturned, looking like an arrogant rich woman; in others, she wears an army uniform, and looks as dashing as any man.

The four photographs that triggered a quest into Nadine's story.
Notes that came with the photos. 

With the photos, there was a card with a simple line on this mysterious woman: “Nadine Hwong, Chinese Joan of Arc.” The first time I saw the photos, the thoughts in my head made me smile at the unspoken chemistry between such collectors. With her determined gaze and upright military bearing, “Chinese Joan of Arc” was an apt accolade for her.

But my curiosity about her did not end here. From these four photos taken a century ago, in her eyes, I saw many more stories, which seemed to be as closed as her name.

Surviving the ‘Hell for Women’

In this spirit of discovery, I began my investigations and research into Nadine’s story. After repeated searches through news archives online and at foreign universities, I pieced together fragments of information to gradually get a sense of the stories she wanted to tell through her gaze. These efforts culminated in finding a documentary from 1945 featuring the liberation of Ravensbrück concentration camp.

A screen grab of a YouTube trailer featuring Nadine Hwang (centre) in the documentary Nelly & Nadine. (Documentary Nelly & Nadine)

The documentary says that some survivors were rescued through Sweden’s White Buses operation, Nadine among them. She is not glamorous in furs, or dashing in uniform, but I immediately recognised her powerful eyes looking towards the camera, which she seems to notice after an instant. And on that day of liberation, as long-absent smiles appear on the faces of the other refugees, Nadine merely gives a pale, cold smile, as if less than satisfied with how it all ends.

From its start in 1939, about 130,000 people were interned in Ravensbrück; over 90,000 did not make it to the end of World War II. And because it was a camp for women, it was also called a “Hell for Women”. For most people, wouldn’t leaving such an unimaginable hell be something to celebrate? Why would Nadine give such a chilling smile?

I have to admit that the moment that was captured sparked in me the greatest curiosity and desire to get to the truth. I had to unravel this secret ⁠— even if that charming smile lasted for just two seconds, all of 76 years ago.

Nadine on the cover of Estampa.

In the long-distant 1920s and 1930s, Nadine’s name was in the newspapers all over the world. In this issue of Estampa from 1929, Nadine appears on the cover, dashingly clad in men’s clothes, and the front-page story gives a clear account of her legendary life.

Nadine's story in Estampa.
Nadine's baptism certificate in Estampa.

In this magazine, I came across a baptism certificate that said a girl called Nadine Hwang was born in Madrid, Spain, and was baptised on 5 June 1902. Her mother was a Belgian noble and her father was a Qing dynasty diplomat based in Spain. Following some research, I found that Nadine’s father was named Huang Lühe (黄履和), a native of Yuhang, Zhejiang province. He had another daughter called Marcela de Juan (黄玛赛), who was better known than her forgotten sister — we found her Chinese name, and that she was a well-known translator. In 2017, she had a prize named after her: the Marcela de Juan Chinese Translation Prize.

Nadine's sister, the translator Marcela de Juan. (La Línea del Horizonte website)

A carefree childhood in Spain

In searching for Nadine, I discovered something interesting. While her father was working in Spain, he started using de Juan as his surname (being pronounced similarly as Huang or Hwang), and so his daughters were often also known as Nadine and Marcela de Juan. According to Estampa, Nadine’s childhood was spent in Madrid. She grew up humming Spanish nursery rhymes in a house near the Las Ventas bullfighting ring; this active young girl of mixed heritage loved anything new, as she enjoyed her life of luxury in Madrid.

In 1911, with the success of the revolution in China, a sea change happened in that unseen, faraway eastern land. When Nadine was ten years old, her father received transfer orders from the foreign affairs ministry in Beijing, and Nadine had to leave Madrid with her family and go to China. In Beijing, Nadine and Marcela attended Sacre Coeur Catholic School (法国圣心天主教学校). But even though they returned to a new republic, many areas clung to the vestiges of the past; not that Nadine ever let go of her free-spirited, avant-garde personality.

A young Nadine with her parents. (Wikimedia)

Nadine spent her youth in Beijing. She became fluent in English, French and Spanish, often dressed in men’s clothes, and took up newfangled, competitive sports like rowing, boxing, and fencing. Influenced by China’s revolutionary atmosphere, Nadine often spoke at rallies, and took to the streets in protest against the injustice and bullying that imperialism had inflicted on China, and taught literacy to children who could not afford to go to school.

It seemed that this lively young girl who once did not want to leave Madrid was now fully immersed in the great rejuvenation of the awakening lion of the East. “She stood in the crowd, eyes burning with passion, fist in the air as if speaking out loudly. That image was imprinted on a US reporter, who gave her a nickname that later spread through North America — the Chinese Joan of Arc.” These words in Estampa reveal the name that first caught my attention.

A colonel in the air force

By this time, Nadine was much like the patriotic revolutionary youth activists in Chinese society. If there was something just a little different, it was that Nadine had a unique love for life, a passionate, free-spirited style that came from Madrid. Often, after rallies, she would pull her friends into dancing the chotis, a traditional dance from Madrid. Of course, I would guess that she led the dance as a guy. From then on, Nadine moved towards the period that would be hers, until fate began to work on each little individual.

Nadine Hwang in uniform. (Wikimedia)

In 1921, Nadine — dressed in traditional Aragon men’s clothes — danced the jota, a Spanish folk dance, with a woman. This drew the attention of a Chinese general known as Ting, who was forming an air force. He approached Nadine, whose unconventional speech impressed Ting. Following that conversation, Nadine became a colonel in that air force. This dramatic incident got me curious about Ting’s identity, and following much investigation and verification, we narrowed it down to two prominent people in China’s political scene.

In a 1933 issue of Colony Pioneers News (《殖民地先驱报》), Nadine mentioned the name of her superior — “Chang Tsong Chang”. And in another issue of Daily News (《每日新闻》) in 1928, it is mentioned that Nadine was with the Shandong army. These two keywords confirm the name Zhang Zongchang (张宗昌), a warlord active in the Shandong region.

But other information points to Chang Hsueh-liang (张学良), known as the Young Marshal. In 1930, the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi went to China and met Nadine, who was then a lieutenant in Chang’s army, and whom Noguchi described as “beautiful”.

But whether Zhang Zongchang or Chang Hsueh-liang, they were all of the same camp, and so we can be sure that at the event, with her unique dance steps and personal charm, Nadine joined the Beiyang Army, which was then already near its end.

Zhang Zongchang (centre, with sword) and Chang Hsueh-liang (beside him, in white) in a group photo of the Beiyang army, 1926.

But such a story does not give enough credit to our heroine. Going back to research, I found that Nadine never ceased to surprise. She did not care to be a vase in the army because a general took a shine to her; she truly wanted to be a real soldier. Her stubborn determination took her through the course in military school, and she gained her qualification to be an army officer.

What happened next is more vivid in the original interview.

Nadine’s family said: “Now, are you satisfied? You will seek no more adventures?”

Nadine serenely answered: “Now, I want to learn to fly!”

In 1925, the Chinese government sent a finance delegation to Europe, including the multilingual, law-educated Nadine. In Paris, she embarked on her own plan — she started flying lessons at an airfield outside Paris, and returned to China as a trained pilot. Now, she was finally a real air force colonel. But just one year later, her father fell ill and died.

In 1927, Premier Pan Fu nominated Nadine to be press secretary for the Economic Information Service, and she was sent to Oregon in the US. But during her second year, there was a coup against the Pan Fu government leading to the Northeast Flag Replacement (东北易帜), and Nadine seemed to face a similar fate as her father who served the Qing government.

Fitting into social and literary circles

With all these happenings, Nadine was like a kite taking to the air — just as she was ready to soar high and show what she could do, the line snapped. In 1933, Le Petit Provençal reported that Nadine arrived in France on a ship. Even as her life took a major turn, given her talent and charm, Nadine thrived among the French elite.

Nadine at the piano. This photo appeared in Paris-Midi, and is autographed by Nadine. (Wikimedia)

In France, Nadine took part in women’s rallies, where she spoke on the tensions in northeast China. With zero acting experience, she was even part of a play called Les Concubines (The Concubines). She joined the literary salon of writer Natalie Clifford Barney, where poets and artists from all over the world frequently gathered. The talented and good-looking Nadine quickly gained Barney’s liking, which got Nadine known in social and literary circles, but also brought her a lot of trouble.

Portrait of Natalie Clifford Barney, a prominent poet who held literary salons of which Nadine was a frequent guest. (Wikimedia)

The pretty Ms Barney never lacked suitors or lovers, and Nadine unsuspectingly became drawn into Barney’s backroom tussling. She was Barney’s lover, driver and secretary, and for a long time even had to sleep in Barney’s office, until the Germans came when World War II broke out.

In 1940, Barney and an artist girlfriend moved to Italy to escape Nazi Germany, while Nadine stayed in France, where she later used her skills in joining the resistance. She was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. It was here that she met the lover with whom she would spend the rest of her life — the singer Nelly Mousset Vos. Nadine also saved the lives of a mother and daughter pair, Rachel and Irene, and it was they who eventually passed down Nadine’s name for posterity. Academic Aaron Zhang has conducted rigorous research on Nadine’s life in the concentration camp.

A kerchief embroidered with the names of inmates at Ravensbrück. (Yad Vashem)
Nadine's surname embroidered on the kerchief. (Yad Vashem)

Finding love in the unlikeliest of places

From May 1939 to the end of WWII, this “Hell for Women” held women from over 20 countries who had engaged in anti-Nazi movements. Like Nadine, many were well-born, talented upper-class women, but in that place, they could only do tedious manual work in tough, dirty conditions. During a simple Christmas event, Nelly — who was detained for spying — sang for everyone in the cold. As she finished, from the darkness came a strong voice: “Sing Madame Butterfly.” Nelly acceded to the strange request, which came from Nadine. And so the two met because of that unforgettable song, and sparks flew between them that could not be extinguished.

I finally understood her expression as she looked at the camera. It was not disdain but an unwillingness to accept the situation. Could she have stood before the camera as a rescuer instead, or in some other identities or situations?

Nadine (left) and Nelly. (Documentary Nelly & Nadine)

 Another anecdote of the concentration camp involves another researcher, the documentary filmmaker Magnus Gertten, who produced the two films Every Face Has A Name and Nelly & Nadine. In his films, Gertten interviews Irene, who appears as a little girl in the same shot as Nadine. Irene and her mother Rachel were nearly “exterminated” by the Nazis, but Nadine helped them escape Germany on the White Buses away from Ravensbrück.

And after her selfless act, Nadine had a request: if Irene had a daughter, to name her after Nadine. And in the documentary, Irene cries tears of joy as she shares how her daughter was named.

An indomitable spirit

Nadine Hwang (or Hwong, or de Juan)  — she was a girl of mixed heritage born into a diplomat’s family; she grew up beside a bullfighting ring in Madrid and in the streets of Castilia humming Spanish nursery rhymes; she wore men’s clothes and rowed, boxed, and fenced; she became a colonel in the Beiyang air force by dancing the jota, then learned to fly an aeroplane; she was about to shine on the stage of history but was caught in a maelstrom of the period. But she went on to make her mark on society and live for love. She was a rescued person.

I finally understood her expression as she looked at the camera. It was not disdain but an unwillingness to accept the situation. Could she have stood before the camera as a rescuer instead, or in some other identities or situations? Perhaps Irene’s daughter’s name was one of those things she could insist on.

Nadine (right) and Nelly. (Documentary Nelly & Nadine)

By another coincidence, I found her Chinese name in her signature — Huang Nating (黄讷亭). After the war, she and Nelly moved to Venezuela and began a new life. In the late 1960s, due to health reasons, they returned to Nelly’s native Belgium. In 1972, Nadine passed away. She never returned to Madrid or China, but rests in Brussels.

Nadine in uniform, with a dog.

At the end of this unforgettable investigation, by chance, I purchased a photograph of Nadine online. She is in military uniform, with a newly awarded Tiger Medal (文虎勋章) proudly displayed on her chest and a dog in her arms as she leans languidly against a wall. One feels that she will start humming at any second; or stand up, brush the dust off her pants and start a new journey.


The following Chinese language video on Nadine Hwang by Zou Dehuai is also available on his YouTube channel.


It has been viewed over 10 million times in China and has been picked up by media within and outside of China.

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