Nanking: A Historical Background

The City 

          Nanking, China, is a city with a rich history that has played a central role in much of China’s history. It is the capital of the Jiangsu Province in Eastern China, and a port on the Yangtze River. The city, also spelled Nanjing or Nan-ching, was founded in the 8th century BC. The city served as the national capital of China from the 3rd to the 6th century AD under many different names, in addition to parts of the 10th, 14th, and 15th centuries. In 1421, Beijing became the imperial capital of China, whereupon Nanking was given its name, which it used until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when it was named Chiang-ning. Chiang-ning was opened to foreign trade in 1860 it remained an important treaty port for Chinese trade. In 1912, the city was renamed Nanking and made the provisional capital of the new Republic of China. 1927 saw Nanking taken by Communist control, but the city was retaken by Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek in 1928, when it was named the nation’s capital. In 1945, after the end of World War II, Nanking served as the capital of the republic of China until 1949, when Beijing was named the new capital of the People’s Republic of China. Nanking was developed as a heavy industry center, and in 1952, it was named a provincial capital. The city sports a rich cultural heritage, serving as a manufacturing center for cement, fertilizer, chemicals, electronic equipment, iron, steel, motor vehicles, and machine tools. The city has its own university, a theological seminary, and astronomical observatory. Nanking also hosts a bridge spanning the Yangzte River (built 1968), the tomb of Sun Yat-sen (built 1925-29), and the remnants of a 14th century Ming emperor tomb. The 1990 population of Nanking was estimated at 2,090, 204.[1] Nanking has also been the host of events that occurred during World War II that were later to be labeled as the rape of Nanking. In 1937, Nanking was seized by Japanese forces and held until 1945. Over the course of this capture, events indicate that Japanese soldiers enacted numerous counts of atrocities. The goal of this web site is to recount the events leading up to the rape of Nanking and to followup these events in as objective a manner as possible. The primary focus of this site is neither to condemn nor defend the events that occurred at Nanking. Rather, the aim of this site is to analyze these events from a sociological perspective and examine how these events could have occurred using the theories driving conformity and groupthink. This page gives a historical account of the events at Nanking that have been labeled as the rape of Nanking.

The First Sino-Japanese War and After

            Tensions between China and Japan began escalating in the early 20th century, precipitating the events at Nanking during World War II. The first Sino-Japanese War saw its roots in a conflict over Korea, which began as a tributary state of China. During the 19th century, Japan grew as a military power and began looking towards taking control of Korea from the Chinese. Japan signed the Treaty of Kanghwa with Korea in 1876 in which a provision declared Korea unilaterally independent, weakening China’s hold on Korea. March of 1894, a domestic rebellion by the anti-foreigner Tonghak cult against the Korean monarchy was jointly put down by both Japanese and Chinese troops. After the revolt was quelled, China proposed the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops, which Japan ignored. During July of 1894, Japanese troops surprise attacked the Chinese troops in Korea, escalating events in Korea into the first Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese quickly defeated Chinese forces in Pyongyang and at sea and under the Terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, drafted on April 17, 1895, China was made to acknowledge complete independence of Korea, cede Taiwan, the P’enghu Islands, and Liaodong Peninsula in northern China to Japan and pay a war indemnity of 200 million taels. This first Sino-Japanese War set the stage for the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) of which the events at Nanking were a part.

            During the interim between the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars, both China and Japan saw many militaristic changes. In China, two hundred years of Manchu ruler ship was put to an end with the rise of Nationalist rebels led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. This movement drove to establish a republican government, and rebellions sprang up all over China during the middle of 1911. General Yuan Shih-k’ai, in charge of the Manchu armies, turned power over to the rebels in exchange for a position as president of the newly proposed republican government and on February 14, 1912, two days after Sun Yat-sen had stepped down as provisional president of China, a revolutionary assembly in Nanking elected Yuan Shih-k’ai the first president of the Republic of China, nailing down the lid of the coffin of the last of the dynastic rules in China and paving the way for a new and militant style of leadership in China. The Kuomintang party, under Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s leadership focused on reuniting China.

            The Japanese, for their part, stepped away from their feudal roots of government and also took on a more militant style of leadership during the early part of the 20th century. With the ancient philosophies of bushido, The Way of the Warrior, still deeply ingrained in the citizenry of Japan, The Japanese sought to advance their militaristic power. The Bushido philosophy placed the greatest honor a warrior could gain with serving his lord and ultimately the emperor with devoted loyalty. Under this philosophical framework, Japan began its military growth. Education in Japan became a means of programming a new nation of warriors. Students were groomed to desire to serve their nation, and the militaristic flavor of nation pervaded into the classrooms, where conformity and obedience to teacher demands to value obedience and unconditional loyalty to the emperor was the rule of the day. Physical training began in school with students being taught to march and wave flags in a disciplined and orderly fashion. The next logical step for most students was to serve in the military after school, where the pressure to conform to authority only increased. Obedience became the doctrine of the soldier and individual aims were made subservient to the desire to advance the goals of the nation. The Japanese military was rigorous, requiring 3,382 hours of class work and 2,765 hours of private study to earn an officer’s commission, some four thousand total hours more than what was required of an officer’s commission in England. Military forces continued to dominate Japanese government throughout the early 20th century. One of the goals laid down by Japan during this time was to become a dominant power in Asia, a credo demonstrated by the first Sino-Japanese War and later during World War I. The Japanese saw expansion into China as a key play to gain military dominance, and World War I offered them the chance to push into China when, in 1915, Japan proposed the Twenty-one Demands that pushed China to become virtually a protectorate of Japan in addition to ceding more holdings to the Japanese. China signed a modified version of the Demands which placed more power over China in Japanese hands.

            This severely strained Sino-Japanese relations and the Chinese, disillusioned by lack of western nations’ support, looked to communism as a means of securing Chinese national unity. The Communist party, formed in 1921 in Shanghai, added to Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism the ideas of anti-imperialism and national unification. Anti-Japanese sentiments grew stronger in China. After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, general Chiang Kai-shek took over control of the Kuomintang and violently purged the Kuomintang of Communist members in 1927, creating a fissure between the Nationalist and Communist factions. The Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong went underground in central China and Chiang Kai-shek established Nanking as the national government of China.

            Japan continued its aggressive stance toward China from the north. On September 18, 1931, the bombing of a Japanese-owned railway pushed the Japanese into China. Though it is unclear whether the bombing was initiated by Japanese military forces or Chinese Nationalists, the outcome is clear. This incident moved the Japanese to march on Manchuria, extending their military control further into China. Spring of 1932, the Japanese renamed the three provinces of Manchuria as the new state of Manchukuo and set up a puppet government under the leadership of Henry Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Manchu dynasty and newly crowned Emperor Xuantong, the leader of Manchukuo. This control of Manchuria raised the threat of Japanese invasion on the northern border of China for Chiang Kai-shek, who was still dealing with routing the Communists from central China. As the Japanese threat from the north increased, popular opinion in China pushed toward unification against Japan. It was not until 1937, after being kidnapped by one of his own generals, that Chiang Kai-shek softened his anti-communist stand and a united Kuomintang-Communist front was formed to face the Japanese.

            By then, it was too late to stem the Japanese tide flowing into China. Japan launched an attack on Shanghai that lasted from summer of 1937 until November that year. Shanghai’s fall in November, while not as quick a campaign as expected, did give Japanese imperialists hope for their expansion across China. The stage was set for Nanking.

Attack on Nanking

            By 1937, Nanking, which usually boasted a population of about 250,000, had swelled to more than 1 million people. This large population growth might be attributed to refugees fleeing the Japanese forces, running to the nation’s capital. On November 11, 1937, Japanese forces had taken Shanghai and were advancing on Nanking. Three groups of Japanese troops marched on Nanking in tandem. Nakajima Kesago led his forces from the west by the southern banks of the Yangtze River. General Matsui Iwane led an amphibious assault south of Nakajima’s forces. Lieutenant General Yanagawa Heisuke led the final group up from the southeast. Each of these leaders has been characterized as uniquely different from one another. Nakajima has been described as a cruel violent man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation, and torture. Matsui, was a Buddhist from a scholarly family. Yanagawa was a serious man who focused on the importance of military discipline and control. Their forces had reached the outskirts of Nanking by December. On December 7, General Matsui, of a generally weak constitution, grew very ill on the field and was replaced by Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, a member of the royal family, who brought the authority of the emperor’s crown to the front line in Nanking. On December 9 the Japanese launched a massive attack on Nanking. As many as possible of the defending Chinese troops retreated to the other side of the Yangtze River on December 12, and the December 13 saw the Japanese Army’s 6th and 16th Divisions enter the Zhongshan and Pacific Gates. Two Japanese Fleets arrived that afternoon and in the following six weeks, a flood of mass executions, rapes, and animalistic behavior poured over Nanking.

            Two very different sets of orders were issued to the Japanese troops entering Nanking. According to Matsui’s testimony years later, he issued order from his sick bed that since this invasion into Nanking was a representative of the Japanese forces in China, the troops were to do their best to impress the Chinese and win their trust. His orders were to maintain moral integrity, and to “let no unit enter the city in a disorderly fashion… Plundering and causing fires, even carelessly, shall be punished severely.”[2] But on December 13, the Japanese 66th Battalion received the order from Prince Asaka that “All prisoners of war are to be executed. Method of execution: divide the prisoners into groups of a dozen. Shoot to kill separately.”[3]

            Though the Chinese outnumbered the invading Japanese troops, the fall of Nanking was a relatively quick event. The Japanese on their way to China had razed the countryside and burned and pillaged all the villages on the way between Shanghai and Nanking. By the time the Japanese were closing in on Nanking, half the population had fled, leaving about 500,000 in the city. When they reached Nanking, the remaining troops were ready to surrender, especially with the Japanese offering fair treatment in exchange for surrender. But the large number of prisoners presented a problem for the Japanese troops, who could neither feed nor house them. The orders to kill all prisoners seems to have stemmed from the desire to avoid incurring the cost of caring for POWs as well as preventing further rebellion amongst the prisoners. On December 17, military personnel received further orders to kill the prisoners, which they carried out in cautious fashion. The morning of the 17th, they announced that they were going to transport the Chinese prisoners to Baguazhou island on the Yangtze River and bound the prisoners’ hands. The prisoners were then marched to the banks of the river, encircled, and shot all at once. That night, the bodies were bayoneted, one by one.

            The Japanese did not limit themselves to killing just the soldier prisoners. From the first, Japanese troops scoured the city, searching houses for soldiers and killing the city-dwellers. The next six weeks saw Japanese soldiers committing a huge number of atrocious acts, acts which are now labeled as crimes against humanity. Door to door, soldiers demanded to be let in, only to open fire on the occupants. Chinese captives would be forced to dig graves and bury a group of captives alive, only to be buried by the next group of captive diggers. Others were buried halfway in the ground and attacked by dogs. Japanese soldiers tortured citizens with mutilation, including disembowelment, decapitation, dismemberment, and more creative means. Victims were also pushed into pits, tied together, and burned en masse. Others were forced into the River to freeze to death. Soldiers engaged in decapitation contests which would leave participants exhausted after a days’ sport. For example, coverage in the Japan Advertiser reported that “the score [between two competing soldiers] was: Sub-Lieutenant Mukai, 89, and Sub-Lieutenant Noda, 78” in an article entitled “Sub-Lieutenants in Race to Fell 100 Chinese Running Close Contest.” The contest the article was covering was a decapitation contest held between Japanese soldiers on Chinese prisoners. In total, estimates of the Chinese dead from Nanking alone range from 200,000 to 350,000. The International Military Tribunal of the Far East places the death toll at 260,000. Perhaps even worse than the mass murders was the mass rapes that took place. Anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women are estimated to have been raped. Fathers were forced on daughters and sons on mothers. Women were subjected to gang rape, forced to perform countless sexual acts, and often killed after soldiers tired of them.

            The reaction of the Japanese government to this treatment of women was the formation of underground networks of what came to be known as “comfort women.” The military recruited, purchased, and kidnapped hundreds of thousands of women and set them up in military facilities to create a web of brothels designated as a reward for good soldiers.

            Though the majority of the tragic events occurred in the first six to eight weeks of the invasion of Nanking, the Japanese remained in control of the city until 1945, the conclusion of the war. During these years, the world was aware of what was going on. Three American foreign correspondents, Frank Tillman Durdin (The New York Times), Archibald Steele (Chicago Daily News), and C. Yates McDaniel (Associated Press), were in Nanking until December 15, when they left to report their findings to the world. Press members were not allowed back after their departure. The Japanese tried to bar foreign diplomats from entering Nanking. American intelligence was able to decipher messages sent between Japan and its ambassadors in Washington, D. C. These messages indicated that the Japanese wanted to keep diplomats out of Nanking to “prevent hard feelings.” The US government, however, delayed any action against Japan and censored some evidence regarding the events at Nanking, perhaps to ensure a smooth settlement with Japan for after the war. The Japanese response to public opinion was to rally a movement of propaganda supporting the idea that everything was perfectly fine in Nanking. Staged visits were prepared where visitors were invited to walk portions of the streets of Nanking.

            Even in the face of such ugly happenings, there were those who stood up against the madness in Nanking. November of 1937, Father Jacquinot de Bessage, a French priest, set up a area of neutrality in Shanghai to shelter Chinese refugees. W. Plumer Mills, a Presbyterian missionary, and about 24 other American, German, Danish, Russian, and Chinese individuals set up a similar zone in Nanking that came to be known as the Safety Zone. This area contained the Nanking University, Ginling Women’s Arts and Science College, the American embassy building, and other Chinese governmental building and came to shelter at least 250,000 Chinese refugees in Nanking, half of the remaining population of the city. The Safety Zone depended on the bravery of certain individuals who remained in Nanking at the risk of their own safety. One such important example was German businessman John Rabe, the leader of the Nanking’s Nazi Party. From diaries recovered years after World War II, it is realized that Rabe was one of the twenty or so individuals who maintained the Safety Zone in Nanking throughout the Japanese occupation. These brave people could be credited with the saving and sheltering of hundreds of thousands of lives.


            After the war, many of these humanitarians were branded traitors by the People’s Republic of China. Later articles accused them of handing the city of Nanking over to Japanese marauders and exposing women to rapists. But this was not even the most unusual reaction to Japan’s occupation of Nanking. In March of 1944, the United Nations organized the Investigation of War Crimes Committee, whose job it was to investigate Far East and Pacific war crimes. Situated in Chungking, China, this committee helped organize war crimes tribunals for Japanese war criminals in both Nanking and Tokyo. Thousands of Chinese and foreign witnesses stepped forward to accuse Japanese soldiers of atrocities committed. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, began on May 3, 1946, in Tokyo. This trial lasted nearly three years, the longest war crimes trial in history, but only 28 Japanese military and political officials were prosecuted. Matsui Iwane became the centerpiece to bear the burden of blame for most of the crimes of Nanking. His reaction to the trials was that of guilt and he repeatedly blamed himself for not properly guiding Prince Asaka and for having failed the imperial throne. He sought to place the blame on himself, and not on the members of the emperor’s house, stating that his duty was to die for his emperor, and he was prepared to do just that. Though he was not even at Nanking when the Japanese invaded, he, and 6 other Japanese war criminals were sentenced to death by hanging. Many scholars claim that Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989, must have known about the events at Nanking, which would implicate many more men for these war crimes, but the trials went no further. Japan has, at multiple points in the last 50 years, even gone so far as to deny the existence of the events at Nanking. The behavior of the Japanese, however, has remained inconsistent. In many school textbooks, Nanking has been written out of the history lessons or Japan’s role has been downplayed. Yet at a historical visit by Jiang Zemin, president of China, to Japan in 1998, the Japanese were moderately apologetic to China’s president after being prompted to atone for the massacre of Nanking. In the days, years, and decades following the massacre at Nanking, Sino-Japanese relations have focused primarily on economic policy. Japan has paid nearly no money for wartime indemnities, and neither European, American, nor Chinese government officials have pursued the matter to any great extent. The following pages will look at these historical events from a sociological perspective.


[1] "Nanjing," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 99. © 1993-1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[2] Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. BasicBooks: New York, 1997.

[3] Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. BasicBooks: New York, 1997.