December 12, 1937, Early morning, Nanjing, the Republic of China

By Han Li 

Imagine that you are a conscript, from a rural improvised countryside town of a war-ravaged country, sent to boost the hopeless defence of your nation’s capital.

Your clothing comprises of cheap cotton which offers little resistance to the cold humidity brought on by the Yangtze. You stand atop a battered city wall (impressive, despite the scars of war) that curtains around the entire city and has done so since the first Ming dynasty emperor ordered its construction 600 years ago. You look into the city – the capital of a republic not even half a century old – and see refugees flooding towards the docks of the Yangtze River as they were turned away from the city gates that are filled in with sandbags and sealed from both sides. You then look into the horizon which rests outside the city and beyond the walls at the mountain ranges that surround the city. They are burning. Yet you are unaware of why, because your commanding officers have left the city days ago, though not before telling you to defend the city until the end.

Now imagine that you are the youngest son of a family with three children, you live with your entire family, including the elders, in a grey Qing dynasty-era one-floor complex. Your great grandparents acquired the property after the defeat of the Taiping usurpers, the defeat of which took place right outside your very door. Your grandparents hide under a table as your siblings and you try to construct a basic air raid shelter. All attempts of leaving the city have been unsuccessful; the soldiers threatened you with rifles as your family tried their best to stay together amongst the sea of refugees being turned away from the docks. At home, you can hear the screams of the air sirens and the victims of the air raids. You are unaware of how hopeless the situation is but you pray to the goddess of mercy that the thick ancient walls of your city and home will keep you and your loved ones safe.

Regrettably, both young men will meet their ends together, on the banks of the Yangtze with thousands of others executed by machine guns – executions of which were carried out to systemically cleanse the city of soldiers or anyone suspected of being a soldier, which tended to liberally include all men of military age. The young conscript will lose all who fought alongside him while the young civilian adolescent will lose his entire family to unspeakable horrors in a chapter of history which we know today as “the Rape of Nanjing”. 

Unfortunately, stories like these are so common nowadays that one does not need to flip through the history books or speak to an aged survivor to get a familiar sense of the untold, but personal, sufferings that war brings. One simply can read the daily news and view the high definition footages of child refugees and fatigued soldiers to be reminded that war is very much a plague to humanity as it has ever been. Yet no combat photographer or talented journalist from any conflict will ever recreate the real stories of war. This is because the experience of war is personal to each victim. Throughout my studies and work with historical societies, as well as non-profit educational organisations, I have had the opportunities to meet survivors of that dark chapter in East Asian history. What shocked me was not simply the sheer number of deaths that the conflict brought among East Asians, which ranges into the tens of millions, but also how little people of the modern age knew of the conflict in general. Beyond the fog of war there is the smokescreen generated by the ever-more pivotal “progress” of history.

In this regard, the Nanjing massacre is truly unique. The political turmoil of the Cold War; the various treaties signed by the superpowers during post-war years; and the sheer scale of destruction that comprised the global theatres of World War ll have all resulted in the massacre at Nanjing to be forgotten before it could be properly remembered by the world. Those who remember and have personal accounts of the massacre number into the hundreds of thousands. They witnessed the deaths of many more of their friends and loved ones and each have dealt with it in their own personal way. If one approves the logic of George Santayana that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, then the Nanjing Massacre suddenly becomes a more pressing concern. I will therefore in a few humble paragraphs attempt to summarise a few pages from the volumes of history that makes up human conflict, in which we, as a species, are so obsessed with expanding.

The “opposing” front

Without being too academic about specific perpetrators such as those involved in the Japanese high command (including Lt. General Isamu Cho of the Imperial Japanese Army), the survivors of the Japanese Expeditionary Force in China offer more personal facts extracted from interviews conducted often by modern Japanese scholars. The average Japanese soldier, who was drummed up into the service of the Emperor as a result of the exacerbated militarism of 1930s Japan, had realised the sheer madness of war by the time they reached the outskirts of Nanjing. What was promised was a quick victory, in which China would be conquered and Western imperialism thrown out of East Asia, that should have seen an end to the war within just a mere few months. Such reckless estimation was made obvious after the battle of Shanghai in which, after months of fighting, the casualty rate had mounted into the hundreds of thousands. Such “quick victory” had been promised up to the day of the engagement in Shanghai; scuffles between poorly-trained and under-equipped mobs turned into a vicious urban battle where each house and street was wrestled from the Chinese defenders at a staggering cost.

As the last of the Chinese soldiers are driven out of Shanghai, very few periods of rest are given before orders are issued to march on into the Chinese capital. The close proximity of Shanghai to Nanjing suggests hard fighting the entire way. However, Japanese soldiers discovered a unique change in circumstances. There are few instances of organised Chinese resistance on the way. The Chinese defence simply collapsed with the advance of Japanese armoured columns. The average soldier, beaten by his officer for minor misconducts; fatigued by months of combat; frustrated by the stiff resistance of an enemy; and dehumanised by state propaganda and the experience of war, begins to feel an unprecedented possession of rage. The first massacres of the villages on the road to Nanjing begins. One can only imagine the state of madness he is in by the time he arrives at the city gate.

The home front

The complexity of the Chinese situation made it very difficult to translate personal accounts without dabbling in creating a hindsight-informed perspective of the bigger picture. The variety of social strata and its biased entrenchment, which sowed the seed of the upcoming violent class struggles, made it very difficult to find the medium interpretation. But what we can say is that, for those who counted themselves fortunate enough to live in dwellings in the capital until the winter of 1937, have over the years witnessed extremely turbulent times. Those of middle age would be familiar with the sight of armies and uniforms as imperial troops joined warlord armies. Fighting was common even up to the unifying military expeditions by the central government that currently held office in the new capital. Those of the literati would be aware of new issues such as union strikes in newly-built factories, lending requirements issued by new offices of foreign banks and rising house prices in urban areas. New ideas such as Chinese communism from Yenan, investment going outbound to America, and industrialisation blue prints from Nazi Germany were common topics among the educated of the day. Newly-graduated officers of the central army trained by German advisors waited for their chance to halt a century of national military humiliation. Modernity had come at last.

Where the poor starved as they had done since an emperor sat on the throne in Beijing, the concept of urban migration became ever more popular in the countryside. The foot soldiers (some who had been newly trained by the central government) and foreign advisors stood side-by-side with men who had once served under regional warlords. The cream of the crop, the Western trained divisions were “precious” beyond measure. However, when these precious divisions were depleted after the battle of Shanghai, the situation became one of panic. In the confusion of evacuating what effective strength the government and military still had to the interior of the country, complete chaos ensued. The high command left the city after the central government departed and without properly organising the defence of the city. As shattered regiments from Shanghai retreated to Nanjing, young men and boys were conscripted to bolster the defences. When the Japanese planes began bombing the city, those without mobile transport, railway tickets or boat access simply became trapped within the walls. Without a proper command structure, the common soldier was dumbfounded during the full Japanese onslaught. During only a three-day battle, large sections of the wall would collapse under the weight of bombs and the Yangtze river would be blocked by the Japanese navy. One can only imagine the forlorn sense of hopelessness plaguing these soldiers as they changed into civilian clothing and were subsequently caught by the Japanese entering the city. The ensuring massacre saw innumerable accounts of mass killings, rape and looting. People of all ages and classes, soldiers and civilians all fell victim to the brutality.

Latter day saints

Yet the horrific accounts of December 1937 also provide echoes of humanity and compassion. Even during the darkest times of that period saw acts of courage and selflessness which continue to inspire acts of kindness in modern conflicts. Accounts of Western and Chinese cooperation during the establishment of the International Safety Zone; foreign workers in embassies pushing the limits of their foreign immunity to protect citizens from the killings and rapes; and doctors working around the clock to keep people alive even as the Japanese shot at their patients, would later be published. One merely has to look at the examples of modern doctors and aid workers who brave the threats of combat to take comfort that those of strong will and hearts continue to make our headlines.

When the Japanese set up a new Chinese administration during the post-massacre months in early 1938, the first personal accounts of the massacre began to circulate around the country and eventually around the world. Tales of extreme violence, fear and death reached the ears of listeners, along with stories of selfless sacrifice, compassion and hope.

Throughout history, stories by survivors have added emotional and moral weight to conflicts. Such is true even to conflicts unfolding across the world today. Where wars are fought, the shocking tales of carnage and hope will follow suit. Unless we understand and comprehend the personal perspectives of war, we will never gage the magnitude of its calamity. 

About the author 

Han Li is a lawyer in training.  He is a history and political science specialist from the University of Toronto. He attended law school at Queen Mary college,  University of London. Han has worked for numerous historical societies that focus on modern Asian history.

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