The Rape of Nanking – a summary

13 December 1937 saw the start of one of the most horrific acts of brutality of the Second World War, the Nanking Massacre, often referred to as the ‘Rape of Nanking’.

In Britain or the US we may consider the war to have started in 1939 or 1941, but many modern historians consider this to be too Eurocentric and that the war had really started in 1937 with the outbreak of hostilities between China and Japan. (Pictured is the Eternal flame at the Nanjing massacre memorial).


Six years earlier, in 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria, brushing aside Chinese resistance, and setting it up as an independent state, naming it Manchukuo. Only Germany and Italy formally recognized this enclave of Japan on Chinese soil, and despite the incursion war was averted. China appealed to the League of Nations who duly condemned the Japanese aggression but did nothing.

China at the time was embroiled in a protracted civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. Then, in July 1937, a skirmish between the Chinese and Japanese near Beijing soon escalated into full-scale war. Mao and Chiang Kai-shek agreed on a ceasefire and the formation of a ‘United Front’, the Kuomintang-Communist front, in order to defeat the Japanese.

Kill all captives

Despite this united Chinese front, the Japanese advance was rapid – taking Beijing and, in November 1937, Shanghai, before heading to what was then the capital, Nanking (or Nanjing), which, since 1928, had been under the nationalists’ control. Chiang Kai-shek fled up the river Yangzi. Although heavily outnumbered, the Japanese forces took only four days to take the city, entering it on 13 December. The 150,000 Japanese soldiers were then given licence to murder and rape on a massive scale. The order to ‘kill all captives’ came directly from Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, uncle to the emperor.

90,000 Chinese soldiers surrendered. This, in itself, raised the wrath of the Japanese, who, preferring the idea of death, considered surrender a cowardly and traitorous act. The Chinese POWs were loaded onto trucks, driven to the outskirts of the city, and there were killed by all manner of gruesome methods – bayoneted, decapitated, burnt alive, disemboweled, dismembered or buried alive by young Japanese soldiers, keen to prove their manliness and readiness for the reality of war. Proud of their work, they would pose with heaps of mutilated corpses, smiling as they took photos of each other. A Japanese newspaper report (pictured) told of a competition between two Japanese soldiers to see who could be the first to behead 100 POWs.

Killing without remorse

Returning to the city, the soldiers began a six-week orgy of bloodletting and mass rape. Elderly women and little girls were victim, women tied up and raped ceaselessly, pregnant women had their swollen bellies cut open, men were sodomized, Chinese fathers forced to rape their daughters, young men their mothers, men forced to commit necrophilia. Their indignities ceased only with death, usually at the end of a bayonet. ‘When we were raping, we looked at them as women,’ said one Japanese soldier. ‘But when we killed them, we just thought of them as pigs.’ Scores of civilians were forced to dig their own graves before being killed. Arson and looting became the norm.

Marauding through the streets the soldiers killed and raped for sport. ‘When we were bored,’ testified one Japanese soldier years later, ‘we had some fun killing Chinese. Buried them alive or pushed them into a fire or kill by other cruel means.’ ‘We stabbed and killed them,’ said another, ‘like potatoes on a skewer. I thought then, it’s been only one month since I left home… and 30 days later I was killing people without remorse.’

Incredibly, amongst all this carnage, a group of perhaps thirty very brave American and Europeans, using Red Cross flags, established a 2.5 square-mile area in the middle of the city as an ‘International Safety Zone’. 300,000 Chinese civilians took refuge there. One of the Europeans, John Rabe, leader of the Nanking’s Nazi Party, became the subject of an eponymous film.

Figures vary but over a period of six weeks, up to 300,000 Chinese had been murdered. The atrocity earned Japan worldwide condemnation which the Japanese government shrugged off in a ‘such is war’ attitude. The city remained under Japanese occupation until Japan’s surrender and the end of the war in August 1945.

China’s contribution

The Chinese were to suffer 15 million deaths up to Japan’s surrender, almost thirty per cent of global fatalities throughout the war. The huge contribution to the American war effort is often overlooked – the Chinese kept a large part of the Japanese army busy, men that could have been deployed in the Pacific War against the US.

With Japan’s surrender, the United Front, always a fragile being, collapsed entirely and the civil war resumed with the eventual victory, in 1949, of Mao Zedong and the communists.

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