The Rape of Nanjing

By Baker, Kevin | Contemporary Review, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Rape of Nanjing


Baker, Kevin, Contemporary Review


The Japanese army captured the city of Nanjing, then the capital of the Chinese Republic, on 13 December 1937. From then until early February, there was systematic killing of citizens and surrendered soldiers and widespread rape of women. Large parts of the city -- one of the oldest and largest in China -- were destroyed. The incident has come to be known as the `Rape of Nanjing'.

Estimates of those killed range from 155,000 to 320,000. Between 20,000 and 30,000 women were raped. The events in Nanjing over this seven-week period constituted the largest single atrocity of the twentieth century. They deserve record not only because of the scale of the killing and its systematic nature, but also because the incident provides a clear and well-documented account of the rape of women in war.

Details about what happened in Nanjing over those fifty days of winter have not been well publicised in English, although recently published work on Chinese and Japanese military movements help to place the events in context. A record and review of those days may be timely, especially as revisionists in Japan have downplayed the atrocity and senior figures, even in the Japanese Cabinet, have denied that it ever took place. It is particularly appropriate to remember this event in 1995, fifty years after the end of the war.

Full-scale war broke out in China on 7 July 1937 with the Japanese attack on the Marco Polo Bridge and the occupation of Beijing and Tianjin. By September 1937, the main theatre of the war became the delta of the Changjiang River (formerly known as the Yangtse). Shanghai, still only partly occupied by the Japanese, was the largest port in east Asia, and the most important economic and transportation centre in China. The city of Nanjing, around 200 miles up the river, was the capital of the Chinese Republic. From the military point of view, the delta was crucial because the bulk of the Chinese armed forces were gathered there. Only limited holding forces faced the Japanese in the north and minimal forces remained in the south. The Japanese strategy was to secure the delta by the capture of Shanghai and Nanjing and defeat the capacity of the Chinese to resist.

On September 30, a Japanese army totalling 200,000 men opened an offensive and, with air and naval superiority, overran the defenders of Shanghai by early November. There followed a three-pronged advance up the Changjiang River. Nine divisions of the Chinese army made up the garrison of Nanjing. The civilian population had been one million on the outbreak of the war, and although many fled the Japanese advance, many other refugees streamed into the city. In November 1937, the government of President Chang Kai-Shek moved to Chongqing.

On 6 December, the Japanese outflanked the main Chinese defence line along the Purple Mountains to the east, and launched an attack from the southeast with a striking force of three divisions, supported by tanks and artillery. By 11 December, the defeat of the garrison was imminent. Within the city, the resident Europeans met and determined to form what became known as the International Safety Zone, a district surrounding the embassies and other foreign properties, and comprising less than four square miles (one sixth of the area within the city walls). The Europeans, mainly Americans and Germans, elected a committee to oversee the Zone as the municipal authority collapsed, and hoped that it would be a zone of refuge for Chinese citizens and refugees in the city.

A desperate Chinese counter-attack on 12 December failed and the two attacking divisions were annihilated. The defences were breached, and the southeastern suburbs of the city, outside the city walls, were burnt by the Chinese to try and delay the attacking army. The Chinese resistance resulted in 40,000 Japanese casualties. The Chinese casualties cannot be determined, but of the divisions that fought at Nanjing, only one was able to be reformed as a unit to see action again in March 1939. …

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