Saturday, December 15, 2012

Remembering the "Rape of Nanking"

December 13, 1937, was the beginning of a terrible, terrible time for the Chinese people living in Nanking (now Nanjing), China. That day was the beginning of the Nanking Massacre, which is also known as the Rape of Nanking.
Nanking (literally: Southern Capital) first became the capital of China in 229 A.D. and was the capital of the country many times over the next eighteen centuries. In 1912 it was made the capital of the new Republic of China and then was re-established there in 1927 under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Exactly 75 years ago, from 12/13/37 and for the next six weeks, perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese people in Nanking were murdered, and it is estimated that around 20,000 Chinese women and girls were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Iris Chang (1968-2004) was a Chinese-American woman who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, a powerful book that was a bestseller in 1997. Ten years later, “Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking,” a documentary starring Olivia Cheng, a Chinese-Canadian actress, was released.
Two years ago Miss Cheng was in Japan and spoke in Chapel at Seinan Gakuin University (where I taught for thirty-six years). It must have been hard for the Japanese students, and especially for faculty and staff members, to hear the details about such an atrocity. This is a part of history that most Japanese would like to forget—and they have fairly successfully kept it under cover.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a gradual recognition in Japan that the Japanese people have not only been victims (especially of the atomic bombing) but also victimizers (as in the case of the Nanking Massacre).
Two outstanding artists, Toshi and Iri Maruki (a married couple whom I have had the privilege of hearing speak), are mainly known for their paintings about the bombing of Hiroshima. But in 1975 they painted “The Rape of Nanjing,” a 13 x 26 feet black and white panel.
This fall I read the highly acclaimed novel Nanjing Requiem (2011) by Ha Jin (b. 1956 in China). Although a novel, Jin’s work is based partly on the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who was the acting dean of Jinling College in Nanking in 1937. Through her efforts, some 10,000 girls and women were admitted to the relative safety provided at the college.
Earlier this week, June and I watched “Nanking” (2007), a very well done documentary. The film is a blend of actual movie clips taken at the time (in 1937) and contemporary actors telling the story of the main foreigners who exerted extraordinary effort to save perhaps as many as 250,000 lives. (Mariel Hemingway told Minnie Vautrin’s story of valor.)
Toward the end of Nanjing Requiem, one of the American men in the devastated city avers, “Men can be more vicious than beasts of prey if they’re put in the extreme situation of war. No rules will be followed, and all kinds of evil will be unleashed. War is simply the most destructive force we human beings can produce, so we must make every effort to prevent it (p. 273).  
Those were profound words for the people in Nanjing in 1937—and for us today, 75 years later.
According to yesterday’s SouthChina Morning Post, about 10,000 people gathered in Nanjing on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Massacre. The Japan Times reported that there were 9,000 people there, including around 100 Japanese.


  1. The other night, Jean and I watched, through Netflix streaming, "A Woman in Berlin" (2008), a German-language film about the relations between German women and the first Soviets to enter Berlin at the end of World War II. An extremely difficult movie to watch; and another excellent illustration of the "kinds of evil...unleashed" by war. // I do have this thought, however: The quotation from Nanjing Requiem says, "No rules will be followed, and all kinds of evil will be unleashed." I wonder how true is the first half of that sentence. Have the rules really been suspended, or are they different rules?

    1. Well, you know the old saying, "All's fair in love and war." There have, supposedly, been some "rules of war," but they have pretty much all been broken--such as rules against intentionally bombing civilian populations as was done in Germany and Japan during World War II.

  2. "May we human beings examine our hearts, and may God cause us to come to grips with the violence within us that leads to violence against others." (From my esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky)

  3. I have the documentary Nanking and recommend it to anyone with the stomach. It may be the best documentary I've ever seen. What really took my mind for a spin was seeing how a Nazi's racism and the Japanese soldier's feeling of inferiority in front of unarmed white men saved lives. I don't think I've ever heard of a more morally confusing situation.

  4. I recall being shocked in 2004 when I heard the news that Iris Chang (author of The Rape of Nanking) had committed suicide. She was such a gifted writer and her first three books had received much acclaim. It was difficult to imagine how a writer/historian who had experienced so much success could experience depression.

    1. I just now looked at the article in the 11/20/04 "San Francisco Chronicle" titled "Iris Chang's suicide stunned those she tried so hard to help -- the survivors of Japan's 'Rape of Nanking.'" Her suicide sure was both shocking and very sad.

      Read more:

  5. The following are important historical comments by Thinking Friend Ernest Hollaway, who served as a missionary to Japan from 1949 to 1966; he now lives in Tennessee, and I post these comments with his permission:

    "Fairly early during my ministry in Nagoya, probably 1952 or 1953, there were reports that were circulated among the Japanese about the rape of Nanking. Since most of the information seemed to be word of mouth, the young adults in our congregation tried to learn about what happened.

    "Most of them refused to believe that such an atrocity happened, while others agreed that Japanese were capable of such conduct.

    "Some of them wanted me to take sides in this controversy, but I refused to do so, since I knew nothing about it.

    "Some of the rumors put the Chinese casualties as high as 500,000. While that number seemed unbelievable, I tended to think something terrible must have happened because of things told to me by my brother-in-law who was a batallion surgeon who participated in many island invasions during WWII.

    "Japanese snipers had actually shot men on whom he was performing surgery during battle. I also had talked with the Japanese man who became the first pastor of the Baptist Church at Kobe. (He later was chaplain at Seinan Jo, but I cannot recall his name.)

    "He was a Japanese officer who served in Manchuria and he told me about cutting off the heads of Chinese coolies who became exhausted while carrying supplies for the Japanese army. He had been trained to think of Chinese as inhuman and so killing them was like killing a mean animal.

    And so when "The Rape of Nanking" was published I hoped Japanese would believe the report. But when I was back in Japan in 1985-86, I discovered that many Japanese still would not believe their soldiers did such horrible things.

    "Just thought you might be interested in my experience related to this matter -- from a historical perspective.

    "May you have a Christmas filled with love and hope and the spirit of forgiveness."

  6. Thinking Friend Glen Davis, a close personal friend who used to live in the same city as I did in Japan and now lives in his home country of Canada, wrote (and gave me permission to post):

    "Whenever one of these all-too-frequent shooting tragedies occurs in the U.S. we in Canada shake our heads at what we perceive to be an alarming strengthening of the gun culture in your country.

    "Is the gun lobby so strong that peace-loving people of good sense are unable to do anything about it? Is the interpretation of the constitutional 'right to bear arms' inviolable?

    "It seems to this outside observer that this right was intended to guarantee the right of the people of the new union to defend themselves in times of war or attack by other powers, not a blanket permission for anyone and everyone to carry guns for their own personal protection or sport.

    "God bless all those affected by this terrible shooting, and God bless you, our neighbours to the south, as you seek effective ways to prevent these bloodbaths in the future."