南京!南京!City of Life and Death


“Nanjing! Nanjing!”, also known as “City of Life and Death”, is a new Chinese film by director Lu Chuan depicting the battle of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This battle is commonly referred to as “The Rape of Nanking” or the “Nanking Massacre”.

City of Life and Death takes place in 1937, during the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Army has just captured the then-capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing. What followed was known as the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking, a period of several weeks wherein tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed. The film tells the story of several figures, both historical and fictional, including a Chinese soldier, a schoolteacher, a Japanese soldier, a foreign missionary, and John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who would ultimately save thousands of Chinese civilians.

The past year, I’ve seen some really great movies coming from China with not only great cinematography but also great stories. This movie is one of them. I think  everyone should try to watch it at least once. Especially if you’re like me and are trying to understand the complexity of China-Japan relations.

The Japanese occupation of China is still a hard topic for most Chinese people to speak about and it’s the source of a lot of hatred towards Japanese. I’ll be honest and say that I’m tired of hearing all the Japan-bashing from Chinese people though. Some of my Chinese friends even hate on Japanese people for something that happened over seventy years ago. They need another lesson in basic human-nature. Genocide and mass murder has happened and can happen anywhere in the world under the right conditions. So, to my Chinese friends, please stop demonizing a whole nation of people and move on for a better future.

Nanjing, 1937: City of Life and Death

Anyway, that’s my little rant. This topic is highly controversial in China and who knows what fury might rain down on my blog for my little comments here. :)

I want to direct you to a really good review of this movie on CNReviews.com. The author, known as Kai Pan, can sum it up much more eloquently than I can. So, please go read his write up here.

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23 Responses to 南京!南京!City of Life and Death

  1. Hi, interesting post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for writing. I will certainly be coming back to your blog.

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks. Glad you liked it.

  3. Yiu-Cho Chan says:

    Nice post, but I’d just like to add my two cents on the whole China-Japan animosity. As a foreign-born Chinese, I like to think that I (hopefully) approach most of China issues with less passion than a native Chinese, however this issue still makes my blood boil for a reason that you haven’t really pointed out here.

    It’s not simply that the Chinese people have issues with ‘getting over it’ and moving on with their lives after such horrible things, but they believe that it has to be openly acknowledged by the offenders that it did, in fact, happen, and there needs to be a public apology by the government to the Chinese people. As it stands, Japan refuses to talk about the issue and when they do, they bog everyone down by citing a civilian death toll that is a fraction of international estimates. There is also a powerful faction in the Japanese intelligentsia and the government that refuse to believe that it even happened at all.

    When we’re young, we’re often taught by our parents that if you do something wrong to someone else, you apologize for it and try to make it up to them. That’s not much to ask, but the Japanese government refuses to even take this first step, let alone show a slight sign of guilt. I acknowledge that there have been many individual soldiers that have done so, but I frankly don’t think that’s enough.

    I agree that it’s wrong to demonize an entire people, but I know many Chinese (Hong Kong and Mainland) that don’t believe it’s the people themselves, but the stubbornness of the Japanese government. I think that’s a fair argument, but anyone that wants to use this as a platform to hate on Japanese people in general is probably not even familiar with anything to do with this issue and just wants to hop on the bandwagon (a common Chinese trait, especially in the ‘angry youth’ and ‘netizens’).

    Anyhoo, sorry for going on and on and on, and thanks for your quick review of “Nanjing! Nanjing!”, I’ve been waiting for it for a while and am excited to see it this weekend.

  4. Alex says:

    Thanks for your insight! I think you made a really good point that I hadn’t thought of before. Yes, if Japan can’t apologize then there’s some reason for animosity. However it should only be directed at the Japanese government, I think.
    It’s amazing how countries almost never apologize for their crimes. I can think of tons of examples right off the top of my head.

  5. ada says:

    Also a foreign-born Chinese here, also with my two cents –

    The problem is, many Chinese do not realize that Japan has apologized — repeatedly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war_apology_statements_issued_by_Japan

    China under Mao actually refused reparations from Japan after the war. Since 1972 however, China allowed Japan to essentially pay reparations in the form of aid and cheap loans that continued up until just a few years ago, amounting in the billions of USD. But most Chinese people do not know this.

    Kudos to Lu Chuan for making a film that tries to advance the dialogue around Nanjing forward…

  6. Alex says:

    Ada, thanks for the link. This is really interesting to learn.
    Thanks for commenting and starting a good discussion guys.

  7. lin says:

    first off the film is fantastic. i had never thought that something like this could be made within this century – kudos to lu chuan’s artistry and courage.

    secondly to say “japan has apologized, therefore china should move on” is a little too catholic – “i’ve sinned but i’ve confessed, so i’m off the hook.” most japanese people don’t even know about the rape of nanjing, and comfort women have been sued in japan for “defamation.”

    the reconciliation has to happen. governments come and go. let’s don’t forget that without “people” the governments can’t stage wars. the japanese people have to learn that they must not do what they did before, and the first step to it is to understand what they did in wwii, really understand it, not just brushing it aside under some official apologies, or think of it as the only time nuclear bombs were used.

    china must not become a belligerent superpower. the nationalist sentiments can’t become mainstream. our people have to learn to forgive. that’s why a film like nanjing! nanjing! is so needed here – it’s the first time we’re seriously reflecting upon that experience. encouragingly, the government is supporting the film here. now, our people have to learn how to comes to terms with our trauma, and how to move on.

    i really wish the rest of the world could understand china a little more through this film. so they won’t behave like china’s this weirdo that must be contained. because if they do they’re only turning china into a nationalistic monster.

    and i’m speaking as a daughter of nanjing who had lived in the enlightened west all her adult life and who had made peace with that period of history and with japan.

  8. Nescol says:

    “Some of my Chinese friends even hate on Japanese people for something that happened over seventy years ago.”

    It will go on longer than that if Japan keeps digging up the past. What happened in Nanking was not human nature.

  9. Alex says:

    Hi, Nescol. Thanks for commenting.

    “What happened in Nanking was not human nature.” I think now that I should have worded my sentence differently. Whether it’s part of human nature or not to be savage, I don’t really know. But I do know that certain corrupt environments can make people savages. My belief is that this tragedy didn’t happen because it was the Japanese who invaded. It could have been any nation/group of people who invaded and could have committed those crimes. The right conditions (fascism/brainwashing, etc.) can turn any person into a monster. It’s not because Japanese are the boogey man and like to kill or something.

  10. kc says:

    to Lin:

    You have a point about people needing to see and accept what has happened but you have failed to realize that the educational level of most Chinese who are going to be exposed to this movie is not really that high. So instead of “reflecting” on it, they will just continue to hate their fellow Asians. Unlike you, who have had the benefit of living abroad and getting a much much better education, those people in China won’t be as “reflective”. What do you think will be their reaction once they see this film? I’m living in China now and when I ask the locals about this, they immediately start spreading the Hate again. I suggest you come back to China and see the hatred that’s boiling again yourself. FYI, I’m also a Chinese.

    Forgive but don’t forget…not forgetting is not the same as hating

  11. kc says:

    Lin, I just realized that my initial comment was too one-sided. Didn’t want it to come out that way:) I totally agree with you that “nationalistic sentiments shouldn’t become mainstream”.

  12. kk says:

    I would like to watch this movie… But is there extreme brutality or sexual content in it?? I hope not.
    I pretty neutral about it, this is history…

    But how can people forgive the japanese fully after all that they have done?? The scenes are too dehumanizing… we didn’t live in that era to experience all that, so we shouldn’t comment so much on it… or rather expect everyone to forgive and forget.

  13. tom says:

    It’s a great film and it does make you reflect on human nature, but even more importantly the value of human life. You have to watch it to understand.

  14. kc says:

    We should hope that there won’t be another world war. Too bad human beings, as the smartest specie, can’t seem to learn from the mistakes of the past. “War – what it isn’t good for…absolutely nothing” If we don’t forgive, the cycle of hate will keep on turning…

  15. tom says:

    Forgiveness is fine, and needed. But it is not to say we should forget or dishonor those who suffered. Some of them are still living.

    What is unique about this film, is that it humanizes the Japanese as well (the main protaganist is a Japanese soldier), which is very unusual for a mainland Chinese film. It’s surprising this film even got greenlighted.

    But importantly, it does not sugarcoat the brutality.

  16. tom says:

    That comment is really patronizing. Most Chinese who watch films in theaters are reasonably well-off and educated, since watching movies is not that cheap. And those who care enough about history, again are fairly educated. The alternative that you should shut off history to people because you think they cannot handle it is unfathomable.

    Of course, if you ask most mainland Chinese now, they are not very affectionate towards the Japanese. But then, the Japanese have not exactly done their best to build bridges the way Germany has done with the Jewish world and I would say the onus is more on them.

    “you have failed to realize that the educational level of most Chinese who are going to be exposed to this movie is not really that high.”

  17. kc says:

    “Shutting off history to people” is definitely not an option. Movies are more often than not, exaggerated, to achieve dramatic effects. The more your emotions are moved by the movie, the better it is for the people behind the film. This is not a documentary.

    And yes, most people who go to cinemas are well-educated and well-off financially. But what about piracy and the internet? I’m not arguing about who should see it, but instead, when they should see it (when the hatred is not that strong and when they can truly reflect on the brutality of war).

  18. Ray says:

    Its not so much about punishing later generations for what happened than it is about atonement, remembrance and education. Japan has a lot to learn from Germany in terms of paying respect and responsibility. Instead we have Japanese head of states, officials visiting a war shrine that explicitly worships war criminals and offers a complete revisionist history on Japan’s role in Asia. We have Japanese right-wingers, many of whom within the gov’t, denying any war crimes committed by Japan and controlling what goes in history textbooks. We have entire generations of Japanese folks ignorant of what the Imperial army did across Asia. We have a Japanese director about to release his own movie decrying the Rape of Nanjing was a hoax and conspiracy. Distorting history and not acknowledging the crimes committed is a insult and a injustice. Can you understand why Chinese and Asians in general are pissed?

    What better way for people to avoid these things happening again than to learn from history and teach the later generations? This goes for both sides. China too need to be more open and forward about its history against their neighbors and own people. Nationalism is dangerous, especially when combined with ignorance. Only thru education and reason can we prevent future atrocities. Its not just simply about “moving on”.

  19. tony says:

    Hi ada :
    “The problem is, many Chinese do not realize that Japan has apologized — repeatedly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war_apology_statements_issued_by_Japan

    I’ve checked NO sorry + China in the page ???

    Can U tell me did Japan make this statement in any document :
    “We’re sorry China”
    If no they DID NOT APOLOGIZED .


  20. May says:

    Can U tell me did Japan make this statement in any document :
    “We’re sorry China”
    If no they DID NOT APOLOGIZED .


    I agree. Some time ago, I did something wrong and was made to apologise in front of a group of people. So I faced the group and said “I hereby apologise to XXX for XXX”. Then a voice tinged with contempt said “IF you are TRULY SORRY, you jolly well LOOK INTO MY EYES and SAY YOU ARE SORRY and sincerely ask for forgiveness”. I squirmed. Yes, indeed, much as I had wanted to deny, I knew it in my conscience that I wanted to save a bit of face, my face, despite the wrong that I did to this person. My own EGO was more important to me than forgivness from my victim.

  21. Tom says:

    “So, to my Chinese friends, please stop demonizing a whole nation of people and move on for a better future.”

    I think you gotta admit, the movie at least doesn’t do any such thing. it ends with a conflicted Japanese soldier killing himself because he disagrees with what is happening.

    I think its a genuine attempt to tell history, at least some of it and your rant is inappropriate really in the context of the movie.

    Besides, you clearly dont understand that when such things happen, animosity will linger for at least a few generations. 70 yrs is NOT a long time. Many English who still hate Germans because of the war(s). And more recently, many Croats will hate the Serbs.

    When you or a relative are victims of such things you might understand you cannot forget these things and its only human nature NOT to forgive. You will see few survivors of the holocaust who can truly forgive Germans.

    China is probably gunna take longer to lose its animosity (its so family oriented so grandparents WILL tell their stories to the younger generation) and I think if you look at all the business and relations between China and Japan now you’ll see the animosity is not very high on the governmental surface at least.

    I think you really just need to say, you don’t give a rats what happened in the past, who is right and who is wrong because whats in the past is in the past. I totally agree with you there and at times I’m sick of hearing about it too but I think its up to the Chinese and Japaneses to decide that. Not some ignorant foreigner so far removed from the past who is only ranting ’cause he is sick of hearing about it.

  22. Spike says:

    You cant really tell what chinese people what to hate and not. I thought america is all about freedom of speech and thinking. Why you trying to control what Chinese people can think. I believer you were writing a review about the movie but it seems like 20% of your review is telling Chinese what to think. If Chinese people has not accepted the past, they would had went to war with Japan already. USA is not a obstacle. The Chinese just wanted a very simple apology that represent Japan as a whole of the atrocities they have commited during WW2.

  23. Martin says:

    I teach English, International Relations and Politics to groups of international students often comprising Japanese and Chinese students among many other nationalities, at Oxford Brookes University in England. I should also mention that I taught at Hiroshima University from 1983-1990.

    Two related subjects in the thread in this blog i.e. the contents of the film and the amnesia of the Japanese people/govt, are of great interest to me. I offer the following comments, based on my experience and reading: the film itself, a masterpiece in my opinion, touches upon a subject that many older Japanese would like to forget. Whilst living in Japan, I soon learned that words like ‘rape’ and ‘massacre’ in connection with ‘Nanking’ were considered taboo: the preferred word was ‘incident’. The outward appearance of political apathy and indifference to Japan’s war guilt covers up a terrifying division between left and right, and a seething hatred exists between historians on each side. When Iris Chang published her book(Nanking Massacre)in 1997, it caused a huge furore in Japan, as well as complications for Japanese and Chinese Americans. My view is that any Japanese representative apologising for the crimes of Nanjing would be signing his/her own death warrant. I do not mean political suicide but physical suicide: in Japan right-wing nationalistic fanatics are a much more serious menace to academics and mainstream politicians than Chinese or Chinese Americans can possibly realise.

    In a similar vein, it seems that Lu Chuan faced death threats from ‘patriotic’ Chinese for his portrayal of some of the Japanese soldiers as flawed human beings, rather than as demons. Apparently, someone high up in the Communist Party hierarchy had to step in so as to allow the film to be shown in China.

    There is a horrible symmetry that seems to govern how nations deal with grievances: the Germans killed and raped millions of Russians, and this was reciprocated. No lingering resentments, then, no denials. The Japanese attacked the US, and the US dropped two bombs on Japan. Quid pro quo, think the Japanese and the Americans. China was not in a position to exact symmetrical revenge, and its many grievances remain.
    It is hard to see how an apology from Japan, unlikely though it may be,
    could really help.

    I am glad that the young Japanese people I teach nowadays are better infromed about the war in Asia than those I taught in the 1980s. The Chinese and the Koreans seem to get on v well with their Japanese fellow-students, and are able to discuss their common historical national experience, with an international perspective. This gives me hope.

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