Contesting the Nanking Massacre

Let it be stated at the outset that there is no such thing as a single true and objective history as such.  Instead, history is contested territory.  There is a common saying that history is the story as narrated by the victor.  Sometimes, the victors may contain pluralistic voices and they will contest the history.

This post is about the Nanking Massacre which is currently being contesting in the newspapers and forums of Hong Kong.  The starting point is a column by writer Chip Tsao (陶傑) in Apple Daily (via InMediaHK):

The Japanese textbooks revise the history of the Nanking massacre, but the Chinese have also concealed their own history.

The Nanking massacre need not have happened.  Li Zhongyan said that Nanking was a "strategic dead-end" that was indefensible.  Why did the massacre take place?  Apart from the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers, the bureaucratic politics of the Chinese people is the other reason.

There are many sects within the Chinese military, just like today we have the British remnants, the Fujian native communists, the Shanghai gang, the Chiaozhou sect and others in Hong Kong; they don't like each other and they try to derail each other.  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek favored the Whampoa Military School officers, who were known as the Central Army and received special favors . Other sects such as Zhang Xueliang's Northeastern Army, Fung Yujiang's Northwestern Army, Li Zhongyan's Guizhou Army, Chen Jitong's Guangdong Army and Tong Sungzi's Sichuan Army were all other treated as outsiders.

When the Japanese army rolled in, the Northeastern Army's Zhang Xueliang staged a mutiny and forced Chiang Kai-shek to fight the Japanese.  This made Chiang even more antagonistic towards the non-Whampoa sects.  When the Japanese army approached Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek called for a military conference and asked for a volunteer to defend the city.  All the officers stayed quiet.  Chiang glared at Tong Sungzi, who was forced to stand up and say, "I will shall defend." And then he swore that he would defend Nanking to the death.

So Chiang Kai-shek left Nanking and transferred the capital of the country to Wuhan.  Tong SIngzi sealed all the roads from Nanking to the north of the Yangtze River and he destroyed all the ferries.  So when the Japanese soldiers entered the city, the citizens of Nanking had nowhere to go.  But Tong Sungzi saved a boat for himself.  When Nanking fell, Tong got on the boat and left.  The defenders had no military command and surrendered.  When the Japanese army entered the city, they took the 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese prisoners of war to the shore of the Yangtze River and executed them, leaving the river filled with floating corpses and dyed blood red.

1.  Chiang Kai-shek used Tong Sungzi to defend Nanking in order to get rid of him.  He placed personal vendetta above national interests.
2.  Tong Sungzi put on a brave act to defend Nanking, but he fled before the battle ended.
3.  Nanking was a "strategic dead-end" and should not have been defended.

This was why the 300,000 people of Nanking died.

The Chinese history textbooks will not narrate this shameful truth.  The historical photo at the Yasukuni shrine emphasized: "The Japanese soldiers occupied Nanking, and the Chinese commander fled."  This sentence is true.  The Japanese people hold China in contempt and they never admit that China defeated Japan.  History is written by the victors, just like when the Communists defeated the Kuomintang, the Eight Year War of Resistance was under "Communist leadership."

Predictably, this drew some raucous response, including this one in the pro-Beijing Taikungpao with language straight from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution:

During the Eight Year War of Resistance, the Chinese people obviously hated the invading "Japanese ghouls" most of all, but they also hated the Chinese running dog traitors who sell out their country.


A characteristic of Chinese traitors is that they reverse black with white.  In a recent column, Chip Tsao clamed that the Nanking massacre occurred because Chiang Kai-shek wanted to eliminate the troops outside of his own faction.  Therefore Chiang left Nanking himself but made Tong Sungzi stay behind to defend the city.  This 'infuriated' the Japanese army, which began killing people when they entered the city.  The sixty thousand Chinese defenders were taken to the river bank and executed.  Tsao wrote: "The Chinese history textbooks will not narrate this shameful truth.  The historical photo at the Yasukuni shrine emphasized: 'The Japanese soldiers occupied Nanking, and the Chinese commander fled.'  This sentence is true."

With people like Chip Tsao, the Japanese rightwing elements do not need to revise their history textbooks.  All they have to do is publish more of Tsao's essays, and the effect will be the same!

In a follow-up column, Chip Tsao answered:

On April 8, Phoenix TV host and Taiwan writer Li Ao said on television: 

"Li Zhongyan analyzed why there was a Nanking massacre.  Because we announced that we would fight the Japanese at Nanking  But he said that the battle could not be fought at the time.  Why?  Because our troops at Shanghai had just been defeated and only the remnants made it to Nanking.  This battle could not be fought.  What should have been done?  They should have announced to the world: Our capital is an open city.  The Japanese would have a different approach to taking an open city.  In other words, the Nanking massacre would not have to be so tragic.  If you have an open city, then they don't have a reason to assault you.  But Chiang Kai-shek talked tough then and insisted that he will fight for Nanking.  So the city was quickly taken, and the Nanking massacre took place."

These comments were posted on the website of Phoenix TV.  Li Ao went even further than me.  He is blaming Chiang Kai-shek for the resistance that led to the massacre and he is holding Chiang responsible.  Is Li Ao a Chinese traitor?  If so, then is the "patriotic" Phoenix TV, which can be received on the ground in China, a "platform" for "Chinese traitors"?

Here is another scenario:

At the time, the Kuomingtang had a vigorous debate over whether to defend Nanking or not.  Nanking is the capital of the country, and the site of the grave of the founding father of the republic, Sun Yat-sen.  If they let Nanking go without a fight, maybe all of China will not forgive Chiang Kai-shek.  Therefore, Tong Sungzi volunteered to stay and fight.

And yet another scenario:

Tong Sungzi was an opportunist.  At the military conference, he jumped up and invoked nationalistic honor to call for a defense of Nanking.  Although everybody else including Chiang Kai-shek realized that Nanking was indefensible, they could not argue against Tong's nationalistic rhetoric.  So everybody paid lip service to supporting Tong, they did not offer material support. 

Here is a hypothetical question:

Once the war has begun, the only thing that matters is to win.  Who cares about moral standards?  If you were Chiang Kai-shek and you knew the Nanking massacre would become the key factor in rousing national as well as international anger and uniting all the internal factions of China -- if the same historical opportunity arises again, would you let the Nanking massacre happen or not?

Here are some photographs from the May 15, 2005 issue of Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly):

Chinese people were marched down to the riverbank
and mowed down by machine gun fire

Chinese people being bayoneted to death by Japanese soldiers
after being forced to dig trenches for their own graves

I translated these excerpts to illustrate a number of points.

First, today, even internal Chinese history is contested territory among the Chinese.  You should not get the impression that Chinese children all grew up reading the same standard-issue textbooks and know nothing else apart from the official party line.

Second, these specific questions are ultimately irresolvable by these literary writers, forum commenters, bloggers or even learned historians doing their research at universities and institutes.  The contesting versions about the Chinese side of the Nanking massacre revolve around the thinking that went on inside the heads of a few people: Chiang Kai-shek, Tong Sungzi and other attendees at the military meeting over the defense of Nanking.  We will never know what the principals really thought and did.  Even if they wrote their thoughts down in their memoirs, you don't know if these were just self-serving lies made up as post facto self-justification for a place in history.

Third, this particular exercise is not just another pointless circle jerk-off.  People do get a sense of the ambiguity of history.  If people come across enough case studies, they will develop a healthy critical attitude towards that copy of official history.

Fourth, this is not advocating historical relativism such that equal weight is assigned to all possible histories because they are all fictional.  There will always be people ready to peddle garbage theories.  It is up to you to learn to detect garbage, and one possible approach is to correlate the proposed history against the possible motivations of the proposer.  You may also have to ferret out other information for corroboration.  For example, what would you feel towards the assertion: "The Japanese army did not kill a single Chinese citizen during the first three weeks after the fall of Nanking"?  What weight would you give it?

Fifth, this is not about history but it is also about current affairs.  To my mind, this is the most important implication.  It seemed that people are ready to concede the ambiguity of history, but they can still be persistently simplistic and mechanistic with respect to current affairs. Take the example of the anti-Japanese demonstration in Shanghai last Saturday.  How about a statement like the following?

We all know that this is an organized attempt by the Communist Party of China to channel internal discontent into the nationalistic xenophobia.  PERIOD.  And if you don't agree with me, you are a Communist shill!

Sixth, in the translated excerpts above, there are different viewpoints about the motives and deeds of the various Chinese principals.  But you did not see and you probably will never see any Chinese person dispute the Nanking massacre itself.  In the translated excerpts, nobody challenged the figure that 60,000 Chinese prisoners of war were 'executed' by the Japanese soldiers at the bank of the Yangtze River.  Some of them repeated the same facts and figures.  This explains why there was such acute anger in Hong Kong (see Hong Kong Poll Results About Japan) when they heard that the new Japanese history textbook downgraded the Nanking massacre to the Nanking 'incident' and removed the number of Chinese casualties because the 'experts' are in disagreement.  I cannot tell you if that 60,000 figure is undisputed objective fact, or whether it is cultural taboo for any Chinese to broach the topic.  If people are already being branded 'Chinese traitors' for discussion on other aspects, what worse dirty name can be given to someone who doubts these 'figures'?

David McNeil in the Independent describes the Nanking massacre thusly:

Japanese troops poured into the wartime capital city of Nanjing on 13 December 1937, after suffering heavy casualties in Shanghai. They then began a six-week orgy of medieval raping, killing and looting, carrying out what the United Human Rights Council called "the single worst atrocity during the World War Two era in either the European or Pacific theatres of war".

An American eyewitness, Minnie Vautrin, who kept a diary, wrote on 16 December 1937: "There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today." Witnesses said soldiers practised with bayonets on tied-up prisoners, burnt others alive and set dogs on children.

Pregnant women were raped and bayoneted, decapitated heads were put on spikes or waved around like trophies, hundreds of unarmed civilians were mown down with machine guns and dumped in rivers and open graves.

Tillman Durdin, the New York Times reporter who called the rape of Nanjing "one of the great atrocities of modern times", described a car journey to the city's river front. "The car just had to drive over these dead bodies. And the scene on the river front, as I waited for the launch ... was of a group of smoking, chattering Japanese officers overseeing the massacring of a battalion of Chinese captured troops."

The most famous witness was John Rabe - the so-called Good Man of Nanjing, an Oscar Schindler-type businessman who ran the local Nazi party but became leader of an international safety zone that reportedly saved 250,000 lives.

After weeks watching children and old women being repeatedly raped then murdered, often with extreme cruelty, he wrote in his diary that the suffering "dumbfounded" him. Exactly how many were killed in Nanjing is one of the most bitterly contested statistics of the Second World War.

The best-known account, by the Chinese-American author Iris Chang, who committed suicide earlier this year and who said she "felt rage" and suffered nightmares during her research, claims more than 300,000 Chinese died and at least 20,000 women were raped. Her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was the target of a vitriolic campaign by neo-nationalists in Japan who said it was full of lies and exaggerations.

Today, Nanjing is another of China's booming, rapidly modernising cities, a metropolis of more than four million people with wide tree-lined streets and a new highway stretching to Shanghai. The city memorialises the winter of 1937 in a sparse concrete bunker in the south-western suburbs where the figure "300,000" is carved in four-foot black lettering on the museum wall. Inside, an exhibition of pictures of mutilated corpses and glass cases containing the bones of the victims concludes with a visitors' book.

"I cried when I learnt what my country did," reads a comment from one of the many Japanese visitors.

How much of this account is contestable?