Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Chinese Holocaust

This is not going to be an easy article for me to write. Which is strange, because this is a topic I wrote extensively about in college, including my senior project. It is going to be difficult because of what and how I have written previously on this blog, and the sudden change in mid-stream to such a difficult topic. My goal in writing this blog is to share stories from history that the average person is probably not aware of. My first two posts followed this theme in a light, comical manner: I found two very strange stories from history that had funny or unbelievable twists, and I wrote about them in a similarly light way, with no ulterior motives behind the story except that they are entertaining. This post is different. History can be light and funny and ridiculous, but it also has a dark side. I want people who read my blog to know the secret side of all of history. If you don't want to know the bad stuff, I think you're missing out, but by all means, skip this story. I think everyone should know more about all of history, including this tragic story I am about to share.

Imagine a world that is exactly the same as the one we live in, except for one key fact. In this world, almost no one except historians and the victims know that the Holocaust took place. Sounds too unbelievable to be true, right? Well, we live in a world that is glossing over an event that took place at almost the exact same time as the Holocaust, that is arguably just as brutal and horrible, and yet I would guess that 75% of Americans have no idea that it happened.

Before I start telling the story, I need to apologize for the briefness and vagueness of many of the details. Whole books have been written on this topic, so trying to squeeze a condensed version of the story into a relatively short blog does not do justice to the story. Here is my best attempt.

The Nanjing Massacre

"To forget a holocaust is to kill twice."-Elie Wiesel
 In 1937, four years before World War II, Tang Shunsan was a 25 year-old Chinese shoe-makers apprentice living in Nanjing. Stuck in the middle of a hellish war zone, he had managed to find a rare safe haven. Sitting on the floor of his friend's camouflaged house, he sat in relative safety until his curiosity got the better of him. He had heard his entire life that Japanese soldiers looked just like Chinese soldiers, but he had never seen proof. Even though it was Japanese soldiers he was hiding from, he had to go and see for himself. He left the safety of his house and immediately regretted it. Tang had stepped into a scene from hell: blood everywhere, corpses of men, women and children covering the ground. Suddenly he saw Japanese soldiers walking towards him, so he hid in a dumpster with another man. After what seemed like hours of tense hiding, he heard movement above him, and a Japanese soldier's face appeared over the rim. The soldier swung his sword and decapitated the man hiding next to Tang. Then, Tang was pulled from the trashcan and ordered to follow other Chinese civilians being herded down the corpse-strewn streets by Japanese soldiers. Tang did not know what to do, but he regretted looking for Japanese soldiers (Chang, Rape, 83-87).

In the years leading up to World War II, Japan was looking to expand its Empire. The Japanese islands are surprisingly bereft of materials useful for building a modern nation, and so Japan had to look outside of its borders for sources of supplies. This started with the annexation and colonization of Korea in 1905, and really began to pick up steam with the capture of the huge Northern Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931. This effort for Japan culminated with attempts to take over all of Asia under the propaganda-laced Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was a Japanese attempt to convince the other Asian nations they were capturing that being ruled by the Japanese and being freed from Western influence was a good thing. The propaganda conveniently ignored that the other Asian peoples were seen as inferior to the Japanese and it was really just an attempt to subjugate Asia under Japan. Even the Pearl Harbor attacks in Hawaii can be viewed as an attempt by the Japanese to cripple the United States Navy, to give Japan more time to capture extra territory before the US intervened.

In 1937 Japan made a major attempt to take over all of China, which came to focus on the major cities of Shanghai and later, Nanjing, the capital of China. Japan sent in eight brigades, 300,000 troops, in August of 1937 to try to invade Shanghai, the major economic and port city of China. The Japanese encountered 700,000 Chinese troops, although the Chinese troops were vastly out-supplied and under-trained compared to the highly advanced Japanese army. Using their numerical superiority, the Chinese were able to hold off and demoralize the Japanese troops for three months, but eventually the Japanese were able to rout the Chinese. By November 15, 1937, Shanghai was controlled by Japan. Most of China's best soldiers were killed, and the remainder were forced to flee towards Nanjing. On December 1st, the Japanese army was ordered to capture Nanjing. An angry, demoralized Japanese army chased the Chinese troops to the walls of Nanjing, where our story really begins.

For the next month, three columns of Japanese troops streamed towards Nanjing, burning, raping and looting cities and farms as they went. The goal was to come at Nanjing from multiple angles- as the city was already surrounded on two sides by water, the Chinese would have no escape and would be forced to surrender quickly. The commander as these troops marched was General Matsui Iwane, a tubercular old man, who stressed a peaceful takeover of Nanjing that would show off how progressive Japan and it's army was, that would "...sparkle before the eyes of the Chinese..." (Chang, 39). This was believed by many to be the goal of the Japanese: a peaceful, non-violent takeover of a city that was thought to be indefensible (Askew, "Westerners", 230.) A group of European businessmen and American missionaries that were living in Nanjing at the time (a fascinating story in it's own right that I will do a post about in the future) all expressed similar beliefs. They expected the Japanese to provide order, peace, and safety compared to what had been experienced in Nanjing in the previous few weeks as Chinese soldiers flooded the city. James McCallum, an American missionary, recorded this in his journal about the Japanese coming: "We all breathed a sigh of relief thinking now order would be restored... but a week has passed and it has been Hell on Earth."

The "Hell on Earth" McCallum talks about is the Japanese army entering the city of Nanjing. On December 2, 1937, only 11 days before the Japanese were to invade Nanjing, the peaceful but sickly General Matsui was replaced by Prince Asaka, the Uncle of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. While it is not known exactly why Asaka was chosen for this task, Iris Chang argues that it may have been an attempt by the Emperor to test his Uncle, whose loyalties were apparently in doubt. Regardless of why he was chosen, Asaka had something to prove, and he was also ruthless. When Asaka got to the battlefront, he was told that there were 300,000 Chinese troops near the city prepared to surrender. Shortly thereafter, he, or one of his subordinates, issued a secret order to kill all captives. Shortly after that, another order was issued, this time giving finely detailed orders on how to accomplish the killing of so many men. By dividing the Chinese prisoners of war into smaller groups and leading them to secluded areas, the Japanese soldiers were able to keep the other Chinese from figuring out what was happening. Then, the Japanese would surround the confused, tired and demoralized troops and open fire. According to Iris Chang, the biggest obstacle the Japanese faced in this effort was the disposal of bodies, and that eventually they began to dump corpses into the Yangtze River. This was just the beginning of atrocities in Nanjing.

Once the Japanese army had dealt with the majority of the Chinese soldiers in Nanjing, they moved on to the civilians. With few soldiers to defend them, the citizens of Nanjing were now easy targets for the Japanese soldiers, who embarked on a rampage through the city that was as brutal as any period in human history. I cannot possibly relay the whole scope of carnage that was unleashed upon the city, but I can give a few examples to highlight the atrocities that happened in Nanjing.

A pile of decapitated Chinese heads.

Above, I mentioned Tang Shunsan, who was captured after going out to try to see if Japanese soldiers really looked like Chinese. Tang was herded with other Chinese civilians through the city to an area with several large, pre-dug trenches, already filled with corpses. Tang and the other Chinese were lined up, and then the Japanese soldiers began to have a killing contest- who could behead the civilians fastest. Most of the Chinese were too scared to resist, but Tang recalls a pregnant woman who began to struggle when a soldier pulled her away to rape her. When the woman resisted, the soldier sliced open her belly, pulled out her intestines and her fetus, and killed them both. The soldiers returned to their killing contest, and slowly got closer to Tang. Finally, the person next to him was the target. A Japanese soldier swung his sword and decapitated the person kneeling next to Tang. The headless body fell into Tang, and he was carried by the momentum into the pit of corpses. Miraculously, the Japanese did not notice and he lay as still as he could in the pit while more bodies fell on top of him. When the contest finished, the soldiers jabbed their bayonets into the grave to make sure everyone was dead. Tang was stabbed three times, but kept quiet. He passed out from the pain, but his friends came to the pit to look for his body and found him, badly wounded but still alive.

Decapitated Chinese head with cigarette stuck in mouth.

The "killing contest" mentioned above, unfortunately was not the only time an incident like this happened during the Nanjing Massacre. In fact, there is a famous instance where a contest took place in which the competition was tracked over a several day period, with newspaper articles in Japan that treated it as though it was a sporting event. The two Japanese soldiers involved allegedly had a competition in which they were trying to see who could behead 100 Chinese first. Because both of the men surpassed 100 kills at roughly the same time and a victor could not be ascertained, they extended the contest to 150. While these contests were terrible, they only account for a tiny percent of the deaths that occurred at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Sources from the event recall seeing thousands of civilian corpses shot in the back, or bayoneted to death, whole ponds filled with corpses, etc. Official estimates of death tolls vary. Iris Chang, who was my main source of information for this article, estimates at least 300,000 people died, a number echoed by the Memorial Museum for the tragedy in Nanjing. Some Japanese deniers of the event claim that few to no people died, while some extremely liberal historians have claimed as many as 400,000 people died.  The best, most well-reasoned estimates I have seen put the number of dead at between 70-200 thousand. No matter where the actual number falls though, a sickening number of people died.

The December 13, 1937 article in the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun's Contest to kill 100 people using a sword series. 

So far we have talked about the killing of soldiers who had already surrendered, and the killing of civilians in cold blood. There was an even more terrible roll to be played by women during the massacre. This event is not called "The Rape of Nanjing" by many historians for nothing. Women were not only the target of murder, they were also the target of rape and sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers. Estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000 or more women raped in the city in six weeks! And many of these women were not just forced to have intercourse. They were violently assaulted, tortured, gang-raped, and killed after they had been assaulted. And it was not just young women treated like this. The Japanese soldiers would rape women as old as 80 or as girls as young as 10; nuns, Buddhists- no one was safe from Japanese attack. The  soldiers were even recorded as sodomizing men on occasion. Another form of sexual abuse some soldiers seemed to enjoy was capturing families and forcing them to commit incest. I have no desire to go into greater detail on the ways that people, and especially women, were assaulted during this time period, but it is horrific.

Chinese sex slaves, also known as "comfort women", captured to satisfy Japanese lust.

Pit of bones at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum.

Estimate of victims ay the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum.
Poem about the Nanjing Massacre.


In the months after the Japanese invaded Nanjing, life slowly settled back into normalcy. The worst stretch of violence lasted  six long, brutal weeks. The Japanese slowly ended the violence and put a puppet Chinese government in place. After a few months, the people of Nanjing started to rebuild. In their journals, many of the missionaries in Nanjing marked the return of things like taxi service, general good stores, and church services to the city. In 1941 the war between Japan and China was absorbed into the overall WWII Pacific Theater when Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor. When Japan was hit by nuclear weapons by the United States and were forced to drop out of the war in August of 1945, the people of China and the rest of Asia were set free from Japanese domination and were able to begin restoring their lives. When war crimes trials were held in Tokyo and Nanjing for all Japanese actions in WWII, more than 500 Japanese were convicted, and more than 150 were executed, including General Iwane Matsui, as well as the two men who had the noted killing contest. Not executed or even tried was Prince Asaka, who had been granted immunity by the United States for being part of the Emperor's family. Today, interest is just starting to pick up again in much of China, while in Japan the event is largely ignored.

There are countless other atrocities I could describe in this article: torture, starvation, theft, destruction of property, leaving the city of Nanjing in a broken down state- the list of Japanese atrocities is seemingly is never ending. But I believe- and hope- that I got my point across. This was an event that was on parallel with the Holocaust in terms of atrocities, and yet very few people know about it. I think it should be something that is studied by students in history classes, that has popular history books written about it. People always say that we should study history so that we don't repeat it. If that is true, then this is something we should study, because we definitely don't want it to be repeated. These people deserved to be mourned and remembered for their losses, not brushed under the carpet of history.

I would argue that the saddest part about this story is the people in Japan today that argue the event never happened. In Germany, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. In Japan there are no such laws, and in fact many people in Japan have done everything they can to keep this information out of the media and children's textbooks, effectively trying to make the event disappear. In Germany there are very few people at any level that deny the Holocaust, and the sites from the Holocaust have been turned into museums as proof. But in Japan, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is an ardent denier that the Nanjing Massacre occurred, and there is a memorial to the Japanese soldiers who were executed after World War II for war crimes. Rather than repenting from their crimes, many Japanese have tried to whitewash and ignore them. Issues like this continue to cause the relationship between China and Japan, two preeminent world powers, to be highly strained- at times almost to the point of war.

One last interesting point I would like to make. In the Fall of 2011 I had the opportunity to visit Nanjing, and specifically the museum built there to memorialize the event. When they were excavating the site to build the museum, a memorial of what happened, they made a chilling discovery. The place chosen for the museum happened to be on top of a previously unknown mass grave. The plans for the museum were changed so that the museum was built around this mass grave, so that everyone would see exactly what happened to thousands of people who suffered the misfortune of being in Nanjing at that time. For the rest of time, the museum will stand with an open pit full of human bones in the center, a testament to what happened in the Winter of 1937 in Nanjing, China.

Last Note:

I did not write this article to attack the people of Japan, or to pity the people of China. I write this article because of what I have seen and read. The things I saw in the museum in Nanjing and in the countless books I read on the subject have changed me. I think this is a topic that is too important for people not to know about. I am not close to being satisfied with how this post turned out because I feel like I left so much out. I hope this leaves you dissatisfied as well and desiring to learn more about Nanjing. If you have interest in reading more specific stories about this incident, I would suggest reading The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, The Good Man of China by John Rabe, or The Nanking Massacre by Honda Katsuichi, among other excellent books on the topic.


  1. Askew, David. “Westerners in Occupied Nanking: December 1937 to February 1938.” In The Nanking Atrocity: Complicating the Picture, edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 227-247. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.
  2. Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.
  3. Honda, Katsuichi. The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japanese National Shame. Armonk: An East Gate Book, 1999.
  4. Hsu, Shuhsi, editor. Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, Limited, 1939.
  5. Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, edited by Erwin Wickert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "Contest to kill 100 people with a sword," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (Accessed September 12, 2015).
  7. Wikipedia contributors, "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (Accessed September 12, 2015).
  8. Wikipedia Contributors, "International Military Tribunal for the Far East," (Accessed September 13, 2015)
  9. Wikipedia Contributors, "Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal," (Accessed September 13, 2015)
  10. Wikipedia contributors, "Nanking Massacre," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (Accessed September 12, 2015).

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