How “City of Life and Death” trod on Chinese censorship (I)

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Nanking Massacre

On December 13, 1937 Japanese soldiers captured Nanking, the former capital of the Republic of China. Four months of long bloodlust came to an end when the Empire of the Rising Sun finally won over the Chinese. It all began with the self-inflicted “Mukden Incident,” engineered by the Japanese army as a pretext to take over Manchuria. Japanese victories on Chinese soil, first in Shanghai and later in Nanking, were important not only because they meant the fulfillment of the imperialistic agenda of the Kwantung Army –they also seemed to validate a long tradition according to which Japanese Messianic destiny was to extend itself across Asia and to repopulate it with the immaculate blood of the descendants of Amaterasu, the Japanese goddess of the sun.

The gruesome eight weeks that followed were realistically depicted by Iris Chang in her book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997), for which she received many death threats from Japan and had to endure the resentment of some academic circles from that country. A combination of Japanese government concealment and Chinese photographic forgery created an atmosphere of suspicion in Japan in the last quarter of the 20th century and, because of this, the “Nanking Massacre” received little attention in Japan and references to Japanese war crimes were erased from many textbooks. This revisionism was called by Iris Chang “the Second Rape.” Eleven years after she shot herself through the mouth with a revolver, unable to endure the pain anymore, we are now witnessing a new “Third Rape”: Lu Chuan and his acclaimed film, City of Life and Death (2011), which has been regarded as China’s equivalent to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Four years after its release, this movie is as relevant as ever. But for the wrong reasons.

City of Life and Death was presented with patriotism and documentary expectations but it disappointed most of the audience. In ten days director Lu Chuan achieved unprecedented popularity: he became the fifth Chinese filmmaker to hit the 100 million yuan mark after Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Ning Hao –but he also came to be the most hated one. The major reason behind Chinese anger against Lu Chuan was the Japanese character he introduced in his movie. According to an interview on RTHK, Lu Chuan decided to narrate the story from the perspective of a Japanese soldier for two reasons: despite truthfulness being essential for an historical film, he wanted to “get our film into Japan” –just think about Steven Spielberg trying to sell his List to Holocaust revisionists–. But he also wished to take a closer look at the human soul, to offer a more realistic image of both sides, to show that not all soldiers were bloodthirsty killing machines and, finally, he wanted to analyze why the Japanese army perpetrated widespread looting, rape, killing and torture. However, Lu Chuan’s insight is a joke rather than an answer to the same very questions Iris Chang struggled with until her suicide.

John Rabe, the Nazi that saved more than 200,000 Chinese civilians with his own hands is portrayed as an insecure, useless and hopeless figure who, unable to save either himself or anyone else, leaves Nanking with his head down. Mr. Tang, John Rabe’s secretary, is a Judas-like character who regrets his actions at the end. And Kadokawa, the Japanese soldier who is meant to command the audience’s sympathy for the enemy (!), to “turn the other cheek,” is a plain character with no depth, good by nature and incapable of violence, who falls in love with the first Chinese prostitute he meets. A deep, psychological analysis of the Japanese and Chinese soul? Or a commercial cliché?

In fact, the Japanese soldier is one of many liberties Lu Chuan takes in order to narrate the Second Sino-Japanese War. According to the director, the idea of presenting the point of view of a Japanese soldier came to him as he was reading some Japanese war diaries that were at odds with the testimony of the victims. Hence, ignoring the historical relevance of the victims, hundreds of photographs, and the diaries, letters and communications of many American and German witnesses, Lu Chuan decided to forge the history of his own country and to take Japanese revisionism at face value –by diminishing the role of the Chinese army and also the efforts of the foreigners who left behind their countries to defend the land which had given them shelter.

A non-exhaustive list of these forgeries includes:

  1. Chinese defeat was a consequence of their weakness:

The Chinese army and the Chinese citizens are presented as weak and useless. Not only are they unable to fight for their own country, but they prefer to live on their knees rather than die on their feet. This weakness is not presented as shameful, but as heroic. Nothing is said about how the Chinese media announced that the city would “be defended to the last drop of blood” (John Rabe, The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, 20.11), or how one week before occupation Col. Huang proudly said: “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood. Nanking must be defended to the last man” (6.12). And despite defeat, on January 8 there were still rumors that the Chinese troops were going to take back the city. Because of this, many civilians got ready to attack the Japanese embassy (8.1).

For Lu Chuan, however, the Chinese people should not courageously defend their city, children and women, but they ought to “resist” like a weak, defenseless lamb: “I am not writing about the humiliation and wounds of the Chinese people”, Lu Chuan explains, “but about their resistance.”

  1. John Rabe is a weak and useless character who cannot endure his self-imposed duties:

 City of Life and Death presents us with a weak John Rabe who cannot even protect his own project, the Nanking Safety Zone –which according to Lu Chuan was in fact an idea proposed by a Chinese professor. He is usually seen on his knees when confronted with Japanese soldiers, tears in his eyes, blindly accepting their demands. In fact, John Rabe decided to remain in China and protect its citizens and recover national treasures that were being looted by the Japanese army (23.11). He daily confronted and quarreled with armed Japanese soldiers who were stealing, killing and raping, and risked his own life to save captives and young girls being raped outside the Safety Zone, denouncing Japanese atrocities despite the consequences for Germany-Japan relations (18.12, 19.12, 30.1, and 10.2). According to his own diary:

“Usually all I have to do is shout ‘Deutsch’ and ‘Hitler’ and they turn polite (17.12) […] I drag two Japanese out of a back room in a house that has been totally looted (18.12) […] [I] saw a soldier about to rape a woman, roared at him in German, […] grabbed him by the collar, and threw him out of the house (30.1).”

Tang Daoluan, a professor at Nanking University and the curator of the John Rabe Memorial Hall, was so pissed off that she walked out of a screening accusing the director of distorting history.

  1. Japanese atrocities are ignored or manipulated

In fact, the only “massacre” we see is the prostitution of Chinese girls and women. Gang rape, bayonet killings of babies, execution contests, beheadings, cremation of enemy corpses, common graves, unborn babies extracted from pregnant women, victims that were left half-buried in the middle of the road for horses or cars to run over them, or tied up with their feet cut off for dogs and wolves to eat them up –they are all ignored. Furthermore, according to Lu Chuan, Nanking was in fact saved by the sacrifice of one hundred women who surrendered their bodies to the Japanese army, ending sexual crimes in the city.

This is not only outrageous and blatantly false –these women had no relevant role in ending Japanese occupation, since this incident took place on December 26, but on Februart 10 there were still many cases of raping–: the so-called “One Hundred Women of Nanking” is a deliberate forgery meant to comply with a well-known state-sponsored view –that “being a victim is morally superior.” Lu Chuan explains that the Japanese soldiers took all the women from Nanking (!) to a church and there, with tears in his eyes, a useless John Rabe told them that, in order to save the city and protect the Safety Zone, the Japanese soldiers wanted one hundred women in return. One after the other, many women offer themselves to serve as prostitutes. Was this a heroic deed? Or another example of state-sponsored morality, where the individual should be sacrificed for the sake of the whole?


Chinese women heading towards their fate (Source: City of Life and Death)


Ginling Girls College, where the Japanese soldiers actually tried to recruit Chinese prostitutes (Source: Hua-ling Hu, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking. The Courage of Minnie Vautrin).

However, according to John Rabe’s own words, this shameless act of submission never happened:

“Miss Minnie Vautrin, our American Minnie, a proper lady to the core— I really don’t know quite rightly who she is. It would appear that she’s a teacher who’s now in charge of Ginling Girls College, […] And now the Japanese authorities have come up with the fabulous idea of erecting a military bordello, and with hands clenched in horror, Minnie is forced to watch as authorized underlings force their way into her Girls Assembly Hall filled with hundreds of gungyangs [virgins]. She is not going to hand over even one of them willingly; but then something unexpected happens. A respectable member of the Red Swastika Society, someone we all know, but would never have suspected had any knowledge of the underworld, calls out a few friendly words into the hall—and lo and behold! A considerable number of young refugee girls step forward. Evidently former prostitutes, who are not at sad to find work in a new bordello. Minnie is speechless!” (26.12).

In short:

– The scene took place at Ginling Girls College, not a church;

– Japanese soldiers forced their way in and did not take any girls. The young girls were already in the college as students or refugees. Hence, it is also false that “all women from Nanking are here;”

– John Rabe did not try to convince the girls to engage into prostitution. It was a Chinese citizen with connections to the criminal world;

– No College student offered herself to work as prostitute;

– Since looting and rape continued for six more weeks, none of the women who offered themselves to work as prostitutes –twenty-one, not one hundred– did anything for the city. On January 12 Georg Rosen sent Rabe a letter explaining how a young pregnant woman was being assaulted with bayonets, wounding her stomach and killing the baby, and an underage girl arrived at the hospital after she was raped twenty times (15.1).

The question remains: Why did the Japanese army commit such atrocities during their occupation of Nanking? Lu Chuan’s words:

“to kill ruthlessly in a war, to callously violate a woman’s chastity, this, perhaps is in every man’s heart. It’s just that you might not have the opportunity to release it. […] because there wasn’t a law to limit them, they could kill as many as they wanted.”

This Hobbesian vision of human nature is a particular characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party propaganda, and the most commonly raised excuse in China against human rights, democracy or freedom. Human beings are evil, treacherous and bloodthirsty wolves by nature and, thus, they need laws to control themselves. Because the State acts as their guard, they are ultimately expendable and their history, facts, and feelings are just pawns to be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good. It is because of this enlightened government that the Chinese people are so soft and furry, while other countries are just wild beast without law wishing to loot, kill and rape the China doll.

Japanese war crimes exceptionality has also been questioned by Japanese revisionists, both within and outside of Japan. John Rabe’s diary shows that, however, this vision is at odds with reality:

 “The Japanese soldiers are completely out of control” (19.12).

“They are currently displaying a crudity, brutality and bestiality that bears no comparison except with the hordes of Genghis Khan” (22.1).

“One might well believe the Japanese army is made up of ex-convicts. Normal people do not behave this way” (22.1).

“One might be led to think that the entire criminal population of Japan is in uniform here” (3.2).

In order to understand the psychological reasons behind Japanese militarism and the Nanking Massacre we should direct our attention to two less known aspects: the “Textbook controversy” or “Second Rape,” and the fabrication of the myth of “Japanese culture.”

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