Share This Article

Today a city of six million people, Nanjing has changed a lot since 1937. But remnants of the old city remain

Nanjing is a beautiful city with an ugly history. Stately plane trees line its long avenues, their graceful branches forming a green canopy over the city’s bustling street life. But 70 years ago these very trees bore witness to a sickening orgy of murder and rape, the streets they shaded littered with bodies. Of all the atrocities committed during World War II, the Nanjing massacre stands out in its scope and brutality.

Nanjing has been China’s capital several times. In 1368, the Ming Dynasty made Nanjing its home, and constructed an immense wall around the city. The Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek returned the capital to Nanjing in 1927. This city, then with a population of about one million, became a prime target when Japan invaded China in 1937.

Japanese troops appeared outside Nanjing’s walls that November, and bloody fighting raged for weeks. Concluding that Nanjing was lost, Chiang evacuated the government and retreated deep into China’s interior. The Chinese army in Nanjing disintegrated. Many surrendered. Others shed their uniforms and fled. There were even reports of soldiers stripping the clothes off civilians in the streets. Japanese soldiers entered the city on December 13, but found themselves outnumbered with limited supplies and thousands of prisoners. It was a formula for disaster.

The cruelty inflicted on Nanjing’s citizens over the next six weeks defies comprehension. Japanese troops killed Chinese men indiscriminately, assuming them to be disguised soldiers. Prisoners were executed en masse. Many were mowed down by machine guns; others experienced far more horrifying deaths. Some were beheaded. Some were used for bayonet practice. Some were buried or burned alive. Thousands of bodies were dumped into ponds and moats, as well as into the nearby Yangtze River, where corpses washed up along the banks like driftwood.

Nanjing’s women also met a horrific fate. Thousands were raped, sometimes on the streets in broad daylight, victims ranging from young girls to grandmothers. Soldiers looted and burned nearly every quarter of the capital. The official Chinese estimate is that 300,000 people were killed.

Nanjing was home to many Westerners. As the Japanese approached, most fled, but a few stayed behind. To protect civilians, a committee of Westerners established a safety zone in the northwest portion of the city, where most of the foreign embassies and residences were located.

An unlikely bunch of war heroes—businessmen, educators, missionaries—these men and women were armed only with foreign passports, yet they shielded an estimated 200,000 people from death, interposing themselves between Chinese civilians and Japanese troops.

The most unlikely hero of all was a German named John Rabe, a Siemens employee and a Nazi, who was elected leader of the safety zone. Since Germany and Japan were allies, the Japanese treated Rabe with more respect than other Westerners. He frequently used his Nazi insignia to stop attacks, and sheltered hundreds over time in his modest home. Many others were American. Minnie Vautrin, for example, was a teacher and missionary at Ginling Women’s College who turned her campus into a massive refuge for the city’s women.

The world was shocked by the Nanjing massacre, but with the horrors that befell humanity in the years that followed, the event was nearly forgotten. Following the war, Japan played down the extent of its atrocities; some in Japan still maintain that the massacre never happened.

China was engulfed by civil war. The Communists took power in 1949 and moved the capital back to Beijing; Chiang and his Nationalist regime took refuge on Taiwan. China was isolated from the rest of the world for decades.

As a historian of World War II, I had long wanted to visit Nanjing, and a study tour of China for college faculty members last year finally gave me the chance.

Today a city of six million people, Nanjing has changed a lot since 1937. The sound of construction is ever-present here as skyscrapers burst forth into the heavens. The oft-heard joke in China today is that the national bird is the crane.

But remnants of 1930s Nanjing remain. The old safety zone covers two and a half square miles north of Hanzhong Road and west of North Zhongshan Road in the Gulou district. Many of the buildings once used by foreigners still stand here, in an eclectic display of Eastern and Western architecture. Ginling Women’s College, now Nanjing Normal University, has erected a statue in Minnie Vautrin’s memory; John Rabe’s home, located at 1 Xiaofenqiao, is today a museum dedicated to his rescue work.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Presidential Palace is located at 292 Changjiang Lu. While the Nationalist period is a touchy subject in China today, Chiang seems to elicit a great deal of curiosity. I had to struggle down a narrow hallway through a sea of camera-clicking tourists just to get a glimpse of his office. Its gardens nonetheless feel quiet and secluded, a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of the city. A close look at the lattice windows and other decorative features revealed the occasional swastika—a symbol of good fortune in Buddhism, and not at all related to Nazism.

Portions of the wall built during the Ming Dynasty still dominate many parts of the city. I visited the Zhonghuamen Gate on the south side of the city. Magnificently restored, it is Nanjing’s oldest and largest gate. Massacres occurred just outside these walls. I looked out over the former killing fields, but saw no sign of the city’s brutal past—only urban sprawl, stretching out as far as I could see. Some segments of the wall itself still bear scars of the war, however. Near the Zhongshanmen Gate on the east side of Nanjing, I saw countless pockmarks on the massive fortification—some large, some small, scattered like shotgun blasts—dating from the battles of 1937.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is located at 418 Shuiximen Dajie. It first opened in 1986, and was greatly expanded and rededicated in December 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the massacre. The main exhibit hall is a long black granite structure; a large mourning plaza is adjacent. Upon my arrival, a group of young Chinese soldiers in crisp green uniforms got off a bus and entered. I wondered what lessons they would take away from their visit.

The memorial was built on the site of one of the massacre’s execution and burial grounds, and exposed mass graves are a disturbing and powerful part of the exhibit. One is located inside the main exhibit hall. Another is contained in a gray marble building nearby. Yellowed bones protrude through the brown earth where they fell decades ago. Skulls stare back at you, hauntingly, silent yet speaking volumes. There is also a coffin-shaped structure built low into the ground. Inside, the earth is cut away, revealing layer after layer of bones.

As I stare at this tangle of remains, the human dimensions of this calamity hit home. Who were these people? What were their last thoughts? What did their families know about their fate?

Simply put, this facility is one of the most moving World War II memorials in the world. But in a sense, the entire city of Nanjing is a memorial to the massacre, and a tribute to survival in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

When You Go

Nanjing is located 186 miles west of Shanghai. Only a few international airlines fly into the city’s Lukou Airport, but most major carriers serve Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. Nanjing is a three-hour drive from Shanghai by automobile, and a four-hour journey by train. Some Yangtze River cruises stop here as well.

Where to Stay
Nanjing has plenty of hotels for international travelers. American chains include Crowne Plaza, Ramada, and Sheraton. The language barrier in China can be significant, but hotel staff can usually advise foreign visitors on how to navigate their way through the city.

What Else to See
Nanjing is rich in history. Visit the 15th-century shipyards of Chinese explorer Zheng He; the Nanjing Treaty Museum, which tells the story of the notorious 1842 treaty in which China ceded Hong Kong to Britain (116 Chao Yue Lou); and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum, which explores the history of a bloody rebellion in China between 1850 and 1864 (128 Zhanyuan Lu). Purple Mountain, east of the city, is home to Ming tombs and the stunning mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern Chinese nationalism. Also on Purple Mountain is a site of special interest to World War II enthusiasts: the Aviation Martyrs Cemetery. It is devoted to the aviators who died defending China from the Japanese during the war, including the famed Flying Tigers; more than 2,000 American airmen are buried there. For more information on Purple Mountain, visit