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.