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Suping Lu. They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ix, 398 pp. Hardback $35.00, ISBN 962-209-685-9.
Fei Fei Li, Robert Sabella, and David Liu, eds. Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. xxvi, 278 pp. Paperback $26.95, ISBN 0-7656-0817-0. Hardback $72.95, ISBN 0-7656-0816-2.

The last ten years have witnessed the stunning production of works in English about the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking and the Nanjing Atrocity). Aside from brief mentions in a number of places—especially important is the exemplary essay by the late Lloyd Eastman, “Facets of an Ambivalent Relationship: Smuggling, Puppets, and Atrocities During the War, 1937–1942”1 —no scholarly book or article of which I am aware was devoted to this topic until roughly sixty years after the event itself in the winter of 1937–1938. What accounts for such an extraordinary time lag is discussed in a number in places in Nanking 1937, but let us not address that topic here—it is all speculation, much of it psycho-historical, and completely improvable. More to the point is the fact that the scholarly world is much larger than the Anglophone press; elsewhere in the world there has been a continuous flood of writing about those terrible days in the Chinese capital. We who read and write primarily in English are slowly catching up, though we have a long way to go.

What do these two books add to our knowledge? In other words, how do these two works justify their publication? Both do, in fact, offer interesting new perspectives or source material, though both also contain a fair share of tedium. Not every book, of course, is a blockbuster or paradigm shifter, and these two join the majority in this regard. What distinction, then, can these two volumes be said to offer?

Suping Lu’s book is based exclusively on American and British writings from the time of the massacre itself—letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and the like. However, unlike the recent volumes edited by Zhang Kaiyuan and Martha Smalley, 2 Lu’s aim was not to reproduce those original accounts into a sourcebook or document collection but rather to write a scholarly treatment based on those materials. Lu is clearly an assiduous researcher, having dug up primary materials in libraries and archives all over the world. Nonetheless, They Were in Nanjing is no more and no less than an annotated collection of snippets from these primary documents. No effort has been made to integrate his findings with the research of others or to even explain what all this new material is good for, except to reinforce the fact that the massacre occurred. [End Page 146]

The book has a total of 736 footnotes, every one of which contains references only to the English-language primary materials. In the text itself, large chunks of these documents are produced as if they provide some sort of self-explanatory proof of an assumed proposition. There is no mention, for example, of the work of David Askew on exactly the same subject, the foreigners who chose to remain in Nanjing as the Japanese army descended on the city and occupied it. Nor is there any mention of the biography of one of those courageous Westerners, Minnie Vautrin.3 Instead, Lu takes us through all of the available primary sources, knee deep, often with interesting pitted biographies of the individuals involved, but never with any real depth of insight or analysis. He really does not seem to be interested in that.

Repeatedly, we are told how awful the Nanjing Massacre was for its victims. After the third or fourth time, this point—which probably could have been made with a single telling—becomes almost annoying, not because no sane person would disagree but only because it reaches almost preaching proportions. The only work of scholarship—and I use the word loosely—that Lu notes in his text is the late Iris Chang’s bestseller, and without a critical word about this highly problematic book.4 It might have been useful to integrate the rich documents with what is known from the mountain of secondary scholarship on the massacre and demonstrate how this or that newly dug up text elucidates or disproves this or that thesis.

Another problem with such an approach is the unquestioning way in which these sources are accepted at face value. I am not suggesting that anyone purposefully lied. However, it is not only useful, but also necessary, to subject primary materials to close scrutiny. Observers and participants who are caught up in the minute-to-minute demands of historical events lack the luxury of distance and reflection to assess what passes before their eyes. They also cannot possibly have seen everything, especially murder on the scale perpetrated in Nanjing.

What do these sources tell us about the Westerners themselves? Virtually all of the Americans and British discussed by Lu were missionaries in Nanjing. That fact alone speaks volumes about their attitudes toward Chinese culture. Why did they feel as though they should stay behind to help the Chinese? Did they believe the Japanese would not hurt them? Did they think the Japanese would listen to them if ordered by a white face to do or not to do something? These are important questions to consider, but nothing resembling them crosses the pages of this book. Instead we have long lists of damages incurred, including items stolen—do we need to know (p. 239), for example, that George Fitch had $8.00 of Christmas decorations stolen from his home when thousands were being killed outside?

Lu does offer an opinion about the critical issue of whether the Japanese army discipline broke down leading to mass murder and rape or whether the murder and rape represent the army’s plan to scare the Chinese into submission. Unfortunately, at different times he offers both views (pp. 187 and 55, respectively). His epilogue, which is substituted for a conclusion, contains the now inexcusable view that the Japanese either downplay or deny the massacre. Some on the right (and even in the [End Page 147] center) in Japan do claim that Chinese either exaggerated or miscounted the bodies, but this sort of reductive statement by itself ignores the fact that the mainstream in Japanese scholarship lies not on the right. The left has led the international community in researching this topic. There is no mention of all the Japanese military diaries—fascinating primary materials—painstakingly collected and analyzed by the Japanese and other scholars who read Japanese. In sum, Lu’s work shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the purely documentary approach.

At the far other end of the spectrum lies the collection of essays edited by Li, Sabella, and Liu. This volume is the result of an international conference convened by undergraduates at Princeton University on the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre. One is tempted to treat it with kid gloves—three youngsters tentatively stepping into the big arena and a topic with which no warm-blooded person could disagree. By the same token, this is a book produced by a scholarly press, not a vanity publication, with serious authors in its pages. I decided to say just a few words about the editors’ work and then approach each of the essays more closely.

Aside from two pages of extremely sophomoric acknowledgments, in which they thank just about everyone they have ever known, the editors penned a roughly three-page introduction, which should probably not have been included—or at least should have been looked at by one or more older scholars. We are, for instance, told (p. xxiii) that the “U.S. government valued Japan’s position as a strategic ally during the Cold War more than the need for justice.” This sentence might have made more sense had it been prefaced with the fact that the United States was the primary force behind the Tokyo war crimes trials, a subject of one of the later essays in the book. Without mention of this fact, the sentence looks like so much empty polemic. Later in their introduction, we learn that immigration to the West from China has resulted in “knowledge of Chinese culture and history that has heretofore been unknown in America” (p. xxiii). However, knowledge of Chinese history and culture is what these students often come to study in America (and in Canada and Western Europe and Japan), precisely because they can learn more of it here. There is a whiff of identity politics underlying this assertion. The subtitle, “Memory and Healing,” seems to assume that there is catharsis from retelling painful memories, but let me save remarks on this topic for the end.

What must be said in their very great favor, though, is that the editors have brought together essays on a broad range of topics and from a broad range of viewpoints, not just the usual suspects (although they, too, are represented). While I seriously doubt anyone will find “healing” as a result of reading this book, it nonetheless offers Anglophone readers perspectives not easily found elsewhere. That a bunch of undergraduates were able to do this is all the more remarkable.

Perry Link’s foreword presents a number of cautionary points in addressing an issue such as the Nanjing Massacre. First, while memory is indispensable to history, it is not the same thing as history. Some memories are too painful and are [End Page 148] weeded out; details are often forgotten, while others are often added to connect the dots. Primo Levi (1919–1987), arguably the most important participant-chronicler of the Holocaust, himself made this point. Link also sounds an important note—well placed as it is early in this volume—about victim tolls. The numbers of killed and raped have become a contentious issue in and of itself, as if the higher the numbers, the greater the pain against which the world must devote belated moral outrage. But, “by themselves,” as he notes, “numbers cannot represent the moral significance of a massacre” (p. xvii). I only wish several essay writers in this volume would have paid closer heed to Link’s words.

In a short essay, Ian Buruma next offers some words of concern about the whole debate itself. He also presents a number of interesting comparative perspectives with other great massacres of the twentieth century. He is clearly no fan either of the right-wing deniers in Japan nor of the ethno-nationalist Chinese who, in line with Iris Chang, have sought to make the Nanjing Massacre into a Chinese holocaust. He makes a particularly salient point about analysis of the topic in China: “[T]he pursuit of truth is not encouraged in China under the current regime, and the Nanking museum does not invite critical debate. Instead, it demands piety from the Japanese and patriotism from the Chinese” (p. 9). Furthermore—and one point I have also come to in my own research—Buruma addresses the role of the overseas Chinese in the efforts to transform this event into a holocaust: “As religious habits dwindle, languages fade away and cultural habits are narrowed down to eating bagels or dim sum, symbols of terrible collective suffering become a kind of badge of common identity. This is a sad development, for instead of celebrating a rich tradition, it tends to lead to resentment and collective self-pity” (p. 9). I think, as Link intimates, this is a phenomenon that has afflicted both the Jewish and the Chinese diasporas.

The next essay, by Richard Falk, a specialist in international law, adds little or nothing either to the volume or to the larger discussion. The essay may be of interest in and of itself, but what added value it provides the book is unclear. Not being a specialist on China or Japan, he would not be expected to know the vernacular literature. It would have been nice, though, if he had acquainted himself with some of the historical literature. It would have prevented the occurrence of mistakes that detract significantly from his otherwise sober analysis. For example, he suggests that a “relative lack of attention [was] given in Western, and specifically American, circles to the suffering endured by Asian societies that were the main victims” (p. 13) during the war with Japan. Relative to what? The Holocaust? Assuming the statement is even true, why would it be surprising, and why would that be a concern to Chinese either in Taiwan or on the mainland? Two sentences later, we learn that insult was added to injury when “Japan was allowed to keep the emperor system intact.” This statement will come as a big surprise to the Japanese, most of whom were only too glad to be rid of most of that horrific system’s trappings. The imperial institution remained, to be sure, but not the emperor [End Page 149] system. Then a paragraph later, he opines that the West was insensitive to Chinese suffering at the time of the Nanjing Massacre and World War II, but this conclusion could only be reached by a concerted effort not to consult the contemporary press that covered the war in China closely.

The inclusion of an essay by mainland China’s premier scholar of the Nanjing Massacre, Sun Zhaiwei 孫宅巍, was an important historiographical coup. Sun is cited frequently by scholars, but his work itself is little known outside East Asia. In addition, this piece provides a summary of his findings over the years and a measure of analysis. Of course, Sun will not budge from the death toll of 300,000, the figure carved in stone at the memorial in Nanjing, but he only cites the figure; he doesn’t belabor it. His analysis of why the massacre transpired is less than satisfying, though I suppose we should be happy to have any analysis at all. He gives a number of reasons; first and foremost is Japanese militarism that, he claims, began with the Meiji Restoration and concluded in 1945, nearly eighty years later. This sort of long-term tracing backward of events from World War II in search of extremely deep roots leaves something to be desired analytically.5 Sun argues (p. 39) that “[t]his ideology was closely related to the feudalistic, religious system of emperor worship and the spirit of Bushido (samurai moral code).” A mass army of conscripts, composed mostly of rural recruits in Japan, would hardly be the sorts who would have imbibed bushidō, a decided elite ethic.

Sun is actually much more convincing when he takes refuge in psychological explanations. He sees Japanese behavior at Nanjing as the result less of a centrally directed mass murder, as Iris Chang argued, than a reflection of anger and frustration. The ragtag Chinese forces had held them in Shanghai for three months, and although Japan won that encounter in the fall of 1937, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Then, General Matsui demanded they continue and march all the way to the Chinese capital at Nanjing. No extra provisions were made available—they were to be confiscated en route. Add to that the fact that taking a capital in wartime can have a demoralizing impact on a subject people—or at least it may have been so assumed—and one comes a good deal closer to understanding a cause for what transpired at the time. In addition, as Sun notes, the Chinese troops were initially ordered to fight Japan and were then abandoned by their leadership at the last moment. That left tens of thousands of troops disorganized and without leadership. The result was chaos. As he astutely concludes, “If the Chinese army at Nanking had been able to retreat completely . . . then both the form and the severity of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking might have been much different” (p. 45).

Sun’s essay is complemented by Taiwan historian Lee En-han’s discussion of the death toll at Nanjing. Again, the editors of the volume are to be congratulated for getting such a piece as this one by Lee into print in English. He has published widely in Chinese on this and other topics related to Japanese atrocities. His work offers a window into what has appeared in other scholarly discourses. Lee makes no attempt to hide his feelings about the Japanese—he does not like them, not [End Page 150] then and not now. He clearly believes there was a “well-planned, large-scale” effort by the Japanese army to commit atrocities against the Chinese, “aimed at terrorizing the Chinese into submission” (p. 48). He puts the Chinese casualty toll at 21 million, which (he claims) was higher than that inflicted on the Soviet Union by the Nazis, a statement substantiated by a Chinese article in which no journal is identified (see p. 70, n. 2).

Lee definitely believes that the 300,000 figure may be too low. He thinks the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s statement of “more than 200,000” was “rather conservative” (p. 55), and he goes through innumerable arithmetical exercises counting death tolls, but not once does he even question a source in the manner that historians have for generations been taught to do. He also continues to quote the old canard that Hirota Kōki 広田弘毅 (1878–1948), Japan’s wartime foreign minister, confirmed (“unequivocally,” p. 67) in a cable 300,000 or more Chinese victims at Nanjing. This ruse has to be put to rest once and for all. First of all, how could Hirota, sitting far away in Tokyo, have known the local death count; second, what proof do we have that even the Japanese officers at the scene had an accurate death count that they may have tried to convey to Hirota? In fact, Hirota was trying to suppress the reportage of Harold Timperley (1898–1954), the Australian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, who was on the scene in Nanjing and had cited that figure. Recently, Japanese historian Kitamura Minoru 北村稔 (b. 1948) has demonstrated that Timperley was at least overly sympathetic to the regime of Chiang Kai-shek and may have been on its payroll. Whatever any of this sort of innuendo may mean is problematic, for at the very least Timperley could not have established a death toll despite his presence in Nanjing at the time.

Lee is not even ready to acknowledge that an A- and H-bombed Japan changed after 1945: “Immediately after World War II, Japan as a defeated country never really relinquished its old expansive and aggressive ambition” (p. 57). Perhaps he had been watching too many conspiracy movies when he wrote that line, or at least it would have been good to distinguish what he meant by “Japan.” True, formerly indicted war criminals were let free, as were many in Germany, but does that mean that “Japan” remains an unreconstructed force for aggression? We get a better view of this guilt-by-association thesis when he states, “Although the Japanese leftists were victims of American atomic bombs, they were also victimizers in China. Their fellow Japanese actually killed more Chinese in Nanking than the combined number of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined” (p. 58). Leaving the numbers game and the implied moral hierarchy aside, Lee seems to be painting with an awfully wide brush. Was every Japanese a victimizer by virtue of his residency, or surname, or whatever? If residency is a determinant, then all foreigners on Japanese soil at the time should be included; if surnames, then all overseas Japanese immigrants were equally guilty. This kind of ethno-nationalist “analysis” strains credulity.

Who are these shameless Japanese anyway? They were “ungrateful for. . . American protection” after the war (p. 58). “The nonrepentant [sic] Japanese [End Page 151] elements of the social mainstream directed their major renunciations toward a weaker China, a poor performance of their samurai spirit. They began to whitewash their savage record in Nanking” (p. 59). And, all the while, they hoped they and all of us would forget their terrible record in the war against China, while continuing to berate the United States for dropping nuclear weapons on their homeland. This kind of logic goes on and on. Lee has taken the actions of a relatively small, vocal group on the far right in Japan, attached a third-rate analysis to it, and then claimed it to be virtually the entire picture in Japan. He does cite some of the work of left-wing scholars, such as Hora Tomio 洞富雄 (1906–2000), who have been working on this subject for a long time, but they don’t seem to figure into the equation when “the Japanese” or “Japan” becomes the subject. Then, after slandering an entire people, he inserts audaciously (to say the least) the note that David Bergamini’s Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, a work long ago dismissed by serious historians of Japan as based on little substantial evidence, is a “generally reliable” work that “has long been ‘slandered’ by some Japanophiles” (p. 67). I can only assume by this remark that virtually the entire Anglophone Japanese history profession is being rudely regarded here as Japanophilic.

There are numerous errors of a more mundane nature—misreadings of Japanese names and mistranslations of Japanese titles—but let us leave it there. I introduced this essay by congratulating the editors for including it. Sad to say, this sort of work typifies much of the ethno-nationalist Chinese writings on the Nanjing Massacre. The right-wing in Japan has begun to have its own work translated and disseminated to the English-reading public worldwide. Their odium is now widely available. It is well complemented by works like this one.

Again, the editors are to be applauded for including the next piece, an essay by Kasahara Tokushi 笠原十九司 (b. 1944), one of the most active and widely publishing scholars on this topic and on the history of the Republican period in general on the left in Japan. He, too, attempts to assess why the Japanese army committed atrocities in Nanjing and elsewhere. He gives three reasons: contempt for other Asians, sexual discrimination against women in Japan and consequent disregard for their rights abroad, and “the inhuman nature of the Japanese Army” (p. 78). In his description of the last of these, Kasahara makes clear that this has nothing to do with bushidō. Both here and in general, his analysis is among the best in this book.

One thing he notes that should be made clear is the fact that the Nanjing Massacre, contrary to what many may have read in the New York Times and elsewhere, is one of the most studied and discussed topics in modern history in Japan. This includes numerous monographs and document collections. He notes that there are deniers and downplayers in Japan, but he argues that the numerous studies of serious scholars of the topic, trained card-carrying historians, have effectively shown their work to be without validity.

His essay is followed by one of his arch opponents in Japan, Higashinakano Osamichi 東中野修道 (b. 1947, whose given name is sometime Romanized as [End Page 152] Shūdō, as it is here). Higashinakano is one of the great deniers—and while we might not agree with his findings, we cannot ignore him and simply hope he will go away. His argument takes up what he assumes to be the most important evidence of those who argue that a massacre ensued and to eviscerate each piece (unconnected to the next), leaving a collapsed edifice: thus, no massacre. Unlike virtually all of the others in the revisionist camp, Higashinakano is actually a historian but, rather than making him more attentive to the details of assessing sources and the like, his expertise actually improves his abilities at legerdemain. In effect, he sees the “Nanjing Massacre” as Chinese propaganda aimed at belittling Japan and the Japanese.

Several of the essays that follow are of a much more specialized nature. Haruko Taya Cook closely examines the process by which a novel written by a Japanese journalist, Ishikawa Tatsuzō 石川達三 (1905–1985), Ikite iru heitai 生きている兵隊 (Living Soldiers), was eventually suppressed by the authorities. Sent by the journal Chūō kōron 中央公論, Ishikawa arrived about three weeks after the fall of the Chinese capital. The story shies away from nothing that he witnessed, describing in fictional form the horrors all around him. This masterpiece of war fiction is now available in English translation, which it was not when Cook wrote her piece.6

The essay is marred only by a number of infelicities in English and a large number of incorrect Romanizations. Of the former, I shall only mention one. Four times the narrator of Ishikawa’s tale is referred to: once as “all-mighty” (p. 131), twice as “omnipotent” (pp. 133, 139), and once as “transcendent” (p. 135). I think she means omniscient. I shall not repeat all the transcription errors, but just point out a few: the Xiaguan area is repeatedly referred to as “Xianguan,” numerous Chinese toponyms are referred to by their Japanese pronunciations, the Chinese term for “young girl” should be guniang (given various ways), and the notes are full of mistakes. I think the editors should take some of the blame for these mistakes.

Takashi Yoshida’s contribution to this volume is important for everyone who gets his or her primary data on the Nanjing Massacre from sources outside of Japan. He makes the highly salient point that the conservative resurgence noted by many in Nanjing Massacre studies is not evidence of the right’s vitality in Japanese academic and political circles; it is evidence instead of their frustration with the successes of the mainstream liberal left on every front: textbooks, courts, museums, traveling photo exhibits, and the like. This essay has now been superseded by the recent publication of his book on the same topic: The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States.7

Vera Schwarcz’s essay is, well, very Vera Schwarczian. We always learn something, although often it tells us more about the author. To be sure, much of scholarship is autobiography, and here it is a bit more transparent. How can the experience of Jewish memory coming to terms with the Holocaust help us to situate the Nanjing Massacre? One wonders if this is at all a fruitful approach, given the enormous historical differences between the two events, and this despite Iris Chang’s determined effort to prove the Nanjing Massacre a more heinous event than the Holocaust. Inter [End Page 153] alia, Schwarcz writes that the “search for history’s true face is further impeded by the fact that the Japanese government is still suppressing the facts about the Nanking Massacre” (p. 192). This is the first I have heard of such a conspiracy. If true, how much more is it the case than, say, the level of suppression of the facts in China?

The subsequent essay by Ōnuma Yasuaki 大沼保昭 (b. 1946) on the Tokyo war crimes trials dates to 1984 and probably would have been dated even then. He basically argues, from the left, that those trials were a form of victor’s justice. He also struggles with the idea of “war responsibility” from the legal perspective, rarely a clarifying approach to any human question. More to the point, it has almost nothing to do with the Nanjing Massacre. The final essay is one of many by Yang Daqing 楊大慶, who has written eloquently on the subject. In this short form, he offers some suggestion on how these vexing questions can be approached without purposefully or inadvertently alienating those with whom one disagrees.

Some concluding thoughts. Several authors, Lee En-han most forcefully, are angry that Japan has not apologized in as prostrate a fashion as they would like. However, one has to wonder if every Japanese citizen were to fall on his or her knees in an abject confession of collective guilt, would that change anything for the Chinese? This is a question less for Professor Lee than for the victims. Certainly, none of the dead would return to life, none of the raped would shed their suffering, and none of the injured would suddenly forget past pain. What, then, is the point? The world was greatly moved at the sight of Willy Brandt (1913–1982) falling to his knees before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in December 1970. He won the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year later. It was an important gesture, but is the German-Jewish rupture mended as a result? Of course not, and it never will be. Yet no one demanded this action on Brandt’s part; it was as spontaneous as a politician’s behavior can be.

Does the retelling of the past matter? Is it like psychotherapy: reviving dormant, subterranean memories, rather than allowing them to fester within, helping us on the road to healing our mental wounds? Perhaps, perhaps not. There is surely no truth about this proposition that we can simply assume. Psychotherapy has always been an idea, not a science. Have victims who have been allowed to come forward and tell their stories from wartime Nanjing and elsewhere gained any psychological repair as a result? I would not want to argue against this idea, but I would want to remain extremely cautious, even dubious about the whole endeavor.

Joshua A. Fogel  

Joshua A. Fogel teaches history at York University in Toronto


1.  In The Chinese and the Japanese: Essays in Political and Cultural Interactions, ed. Akira Iriye (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 275–303.

2.  Zhang Kaiyuan, ed., Eyewitnesses to Massacre: American Missionaries Bear Witness to Japanese Atrocities in Nanjing (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001); Martha L. Smalley, ed., [End Page 154] American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre, 1937–1938 (New Haven, CT: Yale Divinity School Library, 1997).

3.  E.g., “The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone: An Introduction,” Sino-Japanese Studies 14 (2002): 3–23; Hu Hualing, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Pres, 2000).

4. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997). I shan’t repeat my criticisms of Chang’s book here; see my review in Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 3 (1998): 818–820.

5.  See, for example, Kobayashi Motoharu, “Trends in Chinese Research on Modern Japanese History: The Fifteen-Year War,” trans. Bob T. Wakabayashi and Bernard Hung-kay Luk, Sino-Japanese Studies 9, no. 1 (1996): 75–92.

6. Soldiers Alive, trans. Zeljko Cipris (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003). There is also a Chinese translation by Liu Musha 六慕沙 Huozhe de bingshi 活著的兵士 (Taibei: Maitian chuban youxian gongsi, 1995).

7.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. [End Page 155]