A New Telling of the Nanjing Massacre

City of Life and Death
Poster for City of Life and Death

Lu Chuan’s 2009 film, City of Life and Death, which opened in New York last week, is a fictionalized telling of the Rape of Nanjing. Though the massacre has been downplayed in some historical accounts, it remains one of the worst atrocities committed during World War II. According to the International Military Tribunal, during the Japanese invasion of the city of Nanjing, 20,000 Chinese men of military age were killed and approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred; in all, the total number of people killed in and around Nanjing was about 200,000.

“The Japanese refused to acknowledge the massacre officially,” Manohla Dargis writes in her review of the film, “while the Chinese, anxious to maintain relations with Japan, did not press the case, a tragedy twice over for the massacre’s victims.” Though the film can be difficult to watch, she says, “you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must.”

Dargis notes that “Mr. Lu provides little background and context for the massacre … doubtless because his Chinese audience needed no such instruction.” For those interested in learning more about the historiographical and moral issues surrounding the tragedy, the UC Press collection The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography may be a useful resource. Through a series of original essays, the book considers the post-World War II treatment of the Nanjing Massacre in China and Japan, and examines how the issue has developed as a political and diplomatic controversy in the five decades since World War II.