History of the Nanjing Massacre

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Prior to the start of World War II, Japan was at war with China. During this time, Japan's army committed horrible atrocities against the Chinese people. This lesson discusses the history of the Nanjing Massacre.

Japan At War

Before World War II, Japan was fighting a much smaller war in China. As a tiny island country, Japan's government determined that it needed to start expanding throughout the region. Along with gaining control of other small islands, Japan set its sites on large territories in China. In 1937, Japan set its plan into motion and invaded China, marking the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War that would last until 1945. During this time, the Japanese committed numerous atrocities against the Chinese people, including the Nanjing Massacre.

Invading Nanjing

During the 1930s, Nanjing was the capital city of China and home to the country's government. The Japanese knew that Nanjing was an important target. If they could capture China's capital, they would have a much easier time expanding throughout the region. In November of 1937, it became apparent to Chiang Kai-Shek, China's leader, that the Japanese were on their way. To save the strength of the military, Chiang evacuated the Chinese troops from Nanjing. The people of Nanjing were left unprotected. Shortly afterwards, the Chinese government left the city as well. Along with the Chinese people, a number of Westerners stayed in Nanjing as well. The remaining businessmen and missionaries set up a large safety zone in the middle of Nanjing, a place where refugees could find food and shelter. By December 13, 1937, the Japanese had sacked the city and taken control.

The Nanjing Massacre

Capturing Nanjing was not enough for the Japanese Imperial Army. On the orders of their general, Matsui Iwane, the army began to destroy the city. Over the course of six weeks, the Japanese destroyed roughly a third of Nanjing, pillaging and burning buildings as they moved from block to block.

The Japanese committed numerous other atrocities. During the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese people. Estimates range anywhere from 200,000 to as many as 300,000. Men, women, children, and the elderly were ruthlessly murdered. In addition to mass executions, the Japanese army was responsible for raping tens of thousands of women (estimates range from 20,000 to 80,000). For this reason, the Nanjing Massacre is also referred to as the Rape of Nanjing.

Bodies of Chinese victims
Bodies of Chinese victims


After the Nanjing Massacre, China's capital was in complete ruins. The Japanese quickly set up their own puppet government and ruled the territory until the end of World War II. General Matsui Iwane, along with another high-ranking official, were tried for war crimes and sentenced to death.

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