Lessons from the Rape of Nanking

Today marked the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, and as I wrote last year, it is a day that for me is inescapable (you should read that post because I won’t be rehashing much of it). I am surrounded by the history of that dark time, but am also buoyed by the memories of those who risked their lives for the common people of China. Today I’d like to share a few lesser known facts from those six weeks.

One of the most important things to understand about the Nanjing International Safety Zone, is that the foreigners involved with it never lost their faith in the rule of law. Time and again they brought cases directly to the Japanese embassy and Japanese military command, and demanded that the soldiers involved be punished for their actions.

This led to mixed results. Often consular police would find a tiny detail in a witness’ story that was incorrect, like the placement of a lamp in a room, and discount their entire testimony. At other times they would publicly scold soldiers, which seemed to serve as a very mild warning to other soldiers. While this deeply disappointed the foreigners in the Safety Zone, they continued to bring daily reports to the consulate.

Ultimately these reports, along with testimony given by the Safety Zone members, led to the convictions of those directly responsible for many of the atrocities at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Even six weeks after the Japanese occupation had begun, it was not safe to leave the zone (six weeks is the length commonly cited for the duration of the Rape of Nanking). Families were ordered to return to their homes by Febuary 4th, but this order came as news of robberies, rapes, and murders continued to be reported. In many cases, the only thing that was powerful enough to stop Japanese soldiers was the presence of foreign faces.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 31st, Dr. Robert Wilson reported that just the day before, Mr. Rabe had actually lifted a soldier off a woman in the street not far from the hospital, and that on the 29th a truck had been seen abducting women. The women of Nanjing at that point were well aware of the dangers of Japanese troops. Letters available here and here (pdf)

Dr. Wilson’s other letters provide dozens of accounts of the atrocities that were committed on a daily basis during the months that followed the initial invasion. He refers to his own location as the “so-called Safety Zone” due to the number of incidents that occurred within its boundaries. The soldiers made no distinction between young and old, and murdered indiscriminately. Dr. Wilson alone attended to hundreds of cases in just the first few days, and it clearly took a toll on him and the other volunteers. Sadly, one year after the invasion, Minnie Vautrin ended her life regretting that she had not been able to do more to protect the women who had sought refuge behind her walls.

In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today). Even the doctors who work in Wilson’s hospital know little of his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. My co-workers today went so far as to complain about the noise of the air-raid siren meant to remind us of the tragedy. One said, “It was too noisy, I couldn’t work at all for thirty-minutes.” To which the other replied, “It’s OK, we just have to do this once a year.”

30 responses to “Lessons from the Rape of Nanking”

  1. ben says:

    There is no doubt that the Rape of Nanjing was a horrible part of history, not only for China, but for the world…………..but I can’t help but wonder……………how can the Chinese people be more angry with the people of Japan, for something that happened 74 years ago, than they are for the atrocities of Mao, which occurred more recently than the Rape of Nanjing. It is estimated that 30 – 40 million people died under Mao, and millions more were imprisoned or lost their jobs and home and families.

    Oh yeah……………I forgot…………….Mao was 70% right and only 30% wrong.


    • Lorin Yochim says:

      “In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today).”

      Although I can’t quite work out the contradiction in Tom’s account (the letter in Global Times, of all places, seems intended to dampen the fury towards Japan), it seems that he is saying that the massacre is not so much at the forefront of people’s minds as you suggest. Also, perhaps the difference is that the deaths under Mao were the result of cynical manipulation of extant social conflict rather than the direct murderous activity of an invading army marauding through the streets killing, raping, and abducting indiscriminately. The comparison is not apt, unless you are saying that 30% wrong and 100% criminal are the same thing.

    • C. says:

      I think they do, they just have a weird way of showing it. Chinese people blame everything bad in Chinese society on the Cultural Revolution — even when the issue being discussed has absolutely no logical relation to the C.R. Materialistic women who only date men for their money? It’s because the C.R. scarred society. Spitting on the street? C.R. Plus, I think it’s the only way you can express your dislike of Mao without being labeled a troublemaker or mentally ill. Indirect communication is everything here — even if it’s illogical and irrelevant by Western standards.

      I think the hatred of Japanese people it’s more about Us vs. Them.

    • Anonymous says:

      Most Chinese people are totally ignorant to the deaths, murders and total atrocities committed by Mao. The less educated the Chinese people are, the more they love and admire him. Travel to dozens of small rural towns and villages as I have and see every house has a huge poster of Mao inside…usually in the living room. Some even have shrines below the poster. They have no idea about the failure and the deaths from the Long March, The Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward and dozens more. I am living in Florida now after living 4 years in China. I hope to return to China soon. David Troxell

      • Chopstik says:

        I’m not sure that it would be accurate to state that the less educated, the more likely they are to revere Mao. Certainly the educated were the more likely targets of Mao’s policies but the poor were no less similarly affected, particularly with events such as the Great Leap Forward or some of the collectivization efforts that resulted from the Cultural Revolution. And I suspect that much of the reverence comes from the same source that allows many Russians to similarly revere Stalin – people always think the past was better than the present as they tend to sublimate and put away the negative and only remember the positive.

  2. mrchopstik says:

    Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Those who neglect the past will be unlikely to escape it in order to create a better future.

    I don’t know whether to find it admirable, impossibly naive or just plain ridiculous that Westerners continued to complain to the Japanese consular officials with any belief that it would resolve any issues. Sure, after the war (and long after the atrocities had been committed), they were convicted and sentenced (to death?) in a court of law but I’m sure that was a bitter denouement to those who were raped, brutalized and killed.

    Who was Minnie Vautrin? You introduce her only as having killed herself afterward so we can assume that she was a Westerner who tried to help but a little more context would be useful in this instance.

    And the on-again, off-again relationship with Japan where protests are raised against it by the Chinese government is a pathetic attempt at the worst forms of nationalism with no true intent at healing – only utilizing the tragedy for political gain. I guess political expediency toward maintaining power trumps history and all other relationships. And while the Chinese government has been happy to point out such inconsistencies in Western power relations, I still wait for the day where it looks back at its own existence with such a critical eye.

    Or maybe I’m just annoyed today… Sorry if I started ranting…

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I’d suggest the on-again, off-again protests have as much to do with the need to maintain good economic relations with Japan, or perhaps to get the upper hand in other negotiations, as they have to do with distracting the public. As distractions they are also aimed at Western powers and their condemnations of China’s human rights stance, reminders that their position is far from righteous. Still, distractions nonetheless.

      • Tom says:

        Last year the posts from the Global Times were quite different regarding Japan, when China wanted them to release a fishing boat captain who had rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. Protests were organized, and nationalism flared up. Once the captain was released, a bucket of water was tossed on the flames.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        So it is used to suppress and inflame. But who is the intended audience of Global Times?

    • Tom says:

      Ah, thank you for pointing out that I had missed Minnie Vautrin. She’s actually one of the major actors behind the creation of the safety zone, and has had 2 or 3 books written about her (check the best China books section of the blog). I chose to focus this year more on Robert Wilson’s accounts because they are less widely known.

      Basically, she grew up in Illinois, and in her 20’s decided that she wanted to join the mission field in China. After a few decades of working in other Girls schools, she was assigned to head Jinling (sometimes Ginling) Girls School. Through the war, she worked ceaseless to defend the 10,000 women who sought refuge on the campus. Her diary shows that in the first six weeks, she never managed to finish a meal without needing to rush off to attend to some urgent matter. On an almost daily basis, she chased Japanese soldiers from the campus, and was even slapped for being so direct in her objections to the Japanese officers.

      One of the tragic moments that forever changed her life, was when a group of Japanese soldiers approached the school and demanded that she hand over the 100 prostitutes that they thought were hiding there. Their reasoning to her was that if she gave up a few women, who were already less than pure, then the soldiers wouldn’t go looking for innocent women to rape. Minnie insisted that there was no one like that on her campus, but a few women came forward and were never seen again. This instance haunted her for the rest of her short life.

      As the Japanese occupation continued, she organized projects for the women to start earning basic salaries, and continued to work with the poor. After a year, she started to feel terribly depressed, and was sent back to the US for psychological help. She felt as if she was a terrible burden on the mission in China, because people were spending their time worrying about her instead of focusing on the much larger task at hand. Shortly after checking out of the mental health facility, she committed suicide in a friends apartment. Her farewell letter stated, that if she had more lives to give, she would use everyone of them to help the people of Nanjing.

  3. […] Lessons from the Rape of Nanking (seeingredinchina.com) […]

  4. fdfnbvjn@sharklasers.com says:

    I think the lessons are easier to see if you think about it comparatively. Why are Jews/Israel on such good terms with Germans/Germany? Why is it so different with the Chinese and Japanese? It’s particularly startling if you look at it in population terms: approximately 6 million were killed out of a total population 12-15 million in the whole world. The Rape of Nanking was a horrible, racially motivated act of war, but it didn’t destroy a third of Chinese people worldwide.

    I think it has to do with the nature of apologies made after the war. Japan has apologized, but it hasn’t really worked. Is it a media thing? Is the apology not culturally appropriate (i.e., was it a “mistakes were made” type of apology)? Do monetary reparations really matter? Does taking concrete steps to prevent similar actions in the future really count? How much does this change in non-logocentric and group-oriented societies?

    I think it’s also partly about how people, and particularly people in very group-oriented societies, are even more likely define Us in relation to Them — and use groupthink in the process.

    • Ji Xiaodong says:

      I think it has to do with the nature of apologies made after the war. Japan has apologized, but it hasn’t really worked. Is it a media thing? Is the apology not culturally appropriate (i.e., was it a “mistakes were made” type of apology)?
      I agree with this. This is probably a common viewpoint of many Chinese people. In China, many people think that the Germans apologized for what the Natzi committed and they really meant to apologize. There are many reports about individual Japanese confessing for the war, but only words from the government.

      • Tom says:

        I think Xiaodong has a good point here. To most Chinese people, the fact that Japan has made large investments in China don’t make up for the lack of an official apology (my understanding is that many Koreans feel the same way when gov’t leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine). In Germany, people are still deeply disturbed by anything even remotely approaching nationalism, even in events like Eurovision and the World Cup.

  5. Chip says:

    Japan has apologies numerous times in both official an unofficial circumstances, but the language chosen has generally been along the lines of “regretful” as opposed to “we’re sorry”. I’d say despite the sincerity of the apologies (sincerity is a very abstract concept) or the lack thereof, the antagonism towards Japan is certainly somewhat orchestrated. An easy way to see this it to look at opinion of Japan in the other Asian countries attacked by Japan. Opinion of Japan from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Philippines tends to be much more varied that the almost universally negative opinion in China.

    • Tom says:

      I’m not sure “regretful” is really an apology that makes up for the amount of destruction caused by Japan during that time. I think China called the stabbing of a Korean coast guard “regretful”.

      As for your other point, which is important to clarify, the Chinese gov’t has certainly down played the contributions made by Japan, and their regret. In China, many people believe that all Japanese people deny the events of WWII, which is certainly not the case.

    • mrchopstik says:

      Can you offer some evidence of your claim that opinion of China is almost universally negative in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines? I will grant that there is some negativity but almost universally negative seems, to me, to be stretching things a bit.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I suspect such evidence does not exist, chopstik, at least not evidence in any but the broadest sense of the term.

      • mopedchi says:

        “An easy way to see this it to look at opinion of Japan in the other Asian countries attacked by Japan. Opinion of Japan from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Philippines tends to be much more varied that the almost universally negative opinion in China.”

        I think Chip meant to say that opinions of Japan in Taiwan and other countries is varied whereas opinions of Japan in China is universally negative. This probably has something to do with the preponderance of WW2 era propaganda dramas shown on CCTV. OTOH, I know many Chinese-Americans from Taiwan that won’t buy a Japanese car so YMMV.

      • Chopstik says:

        Ah, mopedchi, that makes much more sense in that context. Then yes, I would agree with that assertion from my own experiences. Though that might then itself to questioning why those in an authoritarian nation would hold such a universal view whereas others in more “democratic” nations (yes, Lorin, I use that term loosely) show more variation in their opinions – perhaps because they are allowed to hold different opinions and have not been told what to think by authorities?

        (Why, yes, yes I am trolling, now that you mention it…)

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Haha. This trout is biting, but only on the use of the word “universal,” which is the easiest way to undermine the case one is trying to make, as is implying quantitative measures that don’t exist. Also, this notion of being “told by authorities” really needs to be questioned. Granting for the moment that this particular strategy is unique to China (it’s not), one really has to take into account how people consume such propaganda. In no place at no time has this been a particularly successful strategy in the way suggested by comments like “the universally negative opinion in China,” “groupthink,” or “most Chinese people are totally ignorant to the deaths.” Frankly, I’m struggling to understand why these views are so pervasive amongst foreign observers of China. There is something to be said for the ability of government propaganda to set the frame for people’s views of the world, views that align with the preferred view to a greater or lesser extent. Still, it’s the actual views of Chinese people that will determine the congruence, not our assumptions about the nature of “the Chinese” based on limited contact with our Chinese friends and colleagues. I’d encourage people to explore the long and impressive history of Chinese resistance to authority and to pay attention to its present manifestations. Indeed, in the face of the continuing oppression of people in all walks of life by government and especially capital interests (and the combination of both), China is, in fact, a country characterized by some of the highest levels of social protest in the world, some of which is reported on this very blog.

  6. Chip says:


    I think that’s exactly it, Taiwanese citizens are generally not told what to think about anything, or they at least get several mixed messages and are given the chance to decide for themselves. How often in China have you heard this phrase said against someone with a differing opinion “你是中国人吗?“, “Are you Chinese?”, with the implication that being Chinese means having a specific opinion on the issue.

    • Chopstik says:

      I can think of the political equivalent in US politics but it would be politically incorrect to state it here – not to mention it does not specifically relate to China. But I have heard that phrase more than once when someone offers a differing opinion.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Yes, chopstik! Picture me gleefully grinning.

      • Chip says:

        Not really comparable, as the phrase you’re talking about is pretty much limited to political topics, and generally only used by one of the two major political parties in the US, and it’s certainly used less now that opinion on the Iraq war has changed dramatically. Whereas the appeal to nationalism with “are you chinese” I feel is far more universally used in China on a much wider array of subjects. And yes, I think the phrase you’re talking about (Unpatriotic, right?) is just as silly as “Are you Chinese?”.

        I personally don’t think Japan will ever use the word “apologize”, for the same reason that China has not ever apologized for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Call it Confucianism, call it “face”, but I don’t put too much hope on the governments of either of these countries coming even close to the bowed down apologetic style of Germany. So you can expect the wounds of Nanjing to keep festering for the foresee-able future.

      • Chopstik says:

        Ok, apparently I should have been more clear. I was not referring to patriotism, per se, though I now see where it could have been interpreted that way. No, what I meant to infer was the belief of a certain minority that they must believe and vote a certain way/party based simply on their ethnicity. If they do not, they are referred to as Uncle Toms or Oreos. The implication, of course, being that ethnicity = nationalism (in China) or ethnicity = political affiliation (in US). Hopefully that clears up any confusion.

  7. Chip says:


    I think we’re discussing two different things here. Resistance to authority DOES exist in China (though fairly limited), which I’m glad you pointed out. It’s a fascinating historical read, especially in light of the current style of resistance (sarcasm on weibo as well as straight up riots that seem to pop up just about every other day). However, the topic at hand is Chinese opinion on Japan, Japan is not an authority figure to be resisted. It’s perfectly fair to say that Chinese opinion of the country of Japan is almost universally negative, and that this is orchestrated. Simply look at official textbooks used in all levels of public education or the amazingly high amount of War-Against-Japan tv shoes for just two examples of this propaganda.

    Also, please stop assuming that everyone is as limited as you think we are in our contacts with Chinese people. Many of us have been here long enough, in different capacities, that put us in far larger circles of Chinese contacts than even your typical Chinese individual. It’s folly to restrict commentary on China if one has to follow each statement with “but what do I know, I’m just a foreigner”, when in reality they may very well have a sound understanding of the situation and a valid point.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      The specific issue is attitudes toward Japan, but the general issue is that of separating the production of propaganda from its consumption. With respect to the issue of contacts with Chinese people, I don’t mean to say that you or I are particularly limited or not. And I’m not trying to establish the superiority of my experience in China. Rather, my point is that the kinds of understandings we can gain based solely upon interpersonal contacts are limited. Nor am I saying that, as foreigners, you and I are can never “know China,” although being an outsider does erect severe barriers to understanding, never mind explanation. Having said this, the limitations of experience and interpersonal communication as data sources apply to both Chinese and foreigners. It’s clear that Chinese have access to certain insights that we do not, even as our position as foreigners gives us other important insights. The second point I’m making is that it is folly to imply statistical evidence (using words like “universal”) in the absence of such evidence. Given this, while it is fair to say that there is orchestration of public opinion on Japan, it is precisely unfair to say that Chinese opinion of Japan is almost universally negative. Is it disturbing and annoying and upsetting and extremely common? Of course.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.