Rescue and Resistance in Nanjing

Beginning in August 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army initiated an aerial assault of the Chinese capital city of Nanjing (Nanking). In response to this assault, thousands of Chinese able to flee left the city while the elderly, sick, and poor remained behind. Many that left continued to actively fight the Japanese. Others actively resisted. In Nanjing, like in other cities throughout China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Western merchants, missionaries, physicians, and educators had settled seeking economic opportunities or fulfilling religious or professional aspirations. Hundreds of these Westerners considered Nanjing initially their home.

Despite calls from their respective governments and organizations to leave China as the full force of the aerial invasion continued, a small group of individuals elected to remain to do what they could and provide aid to the remaining Chinese refugees. Their motives varied with their situations. Some businessmen had their company’s financial interests in mind while others, including missionaries, doctors, and teachers, felt intimately connected and held a sense of duty to the people of Nanjing who remained. In response to the onslaught of refugees to the city and the poor left to fend for themselves, the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone was officially formed on November 22, 1937. Inspired by the efforts of Jesuit Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange in Shanghai, who successfully established a similar zone in Shanghai in the summer of 1937, Westerners in Nanjing began to negotiate the details with city officials. Two days later the Chinese newspaper Hankow Ta-kung-pao reported on the formation of the Safety Zone in which a neutral zone would exist in Nanjing to protect civilian refugees from the Japanese occupational forces.1The Westerners hoped to use their privileged status as foreigners to coordinate relief and provide noncombatants with refuge as the Japanese moved closer.

Hang Liwu, chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Nanking, presided over the first meeting on November 22 to discuss the establishment and provisions of the neutral zone. One of the first orders of business was to compose a telegram to be sent to the Japanese ambassador in China by way of the American consulate detailing the Safety Zone’s purpose. A portion of the telegram reads as follows:

An international committee composed of nationals of Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, desires to suggest to the Chinese and Japanese authorities the establishment of a Safety Zone for Civilian Refugees in the unfortunate event of hostilities at or near Nanking. The International Committee will undertake to secure from the Chinese authorities specific guarantees that the proposed “Safety Zone” will be made free and kept free from military establishments and offices, including those of communications; from the presence of armed men other than civilian police with pistols; and from the passage of soldiers or military officers in any capacity. The International Committee would inspect and observe the Safety Zone to see that these undertakings are satisfactorily carried out....

The International Committee earnestly hopes that the Japanese authorities may find it possible for humanitarian reasons to respect the civilian character of this Safety Zone. The Committee believes that the merciful foresight on behalf of civilians will bring honor to the responsible authorities on both sides. In order that the necessary negotiations with the Chinese authorities may be completed in the shortest possible time, and also in order that adequate preparations may be made for the care of refugees, the Committee would respectfully request a prompt reply from the Japanese authorities to this proposal.2

While the Japanese embassy never publically supported the Safety Zone, they tacitly gave their consent as long as the zone remained solely for Chinese noncombatants and free of any weapons and Chinese soldiers—former or current. Chiang Kai-shek supported the idea as well, offering $100,000 to support their efforts (although only $40,000 of his pledge was paid out).3Once this agreement was made, several groups were initially formed and tasked with different responsibilities such as medical care, food distribution, and housing. As the city came under assault, the International Red Cross Committee agreed to care for the wounded soldiers and the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone agreed to administer the distribution of food and overall organization of shelter. Twenty-seven foreigners were reported to be in the city when it fell, eventually working together by coordinating efforts and creating what we now refer to as the Nanjing Safety Zone, or the Safety Zone.4 John Rabe, a German businessman and engineer working for the Siemens Company who was also a member of the Nazi Party, was elected the Safety Zone’s first chairman. Spanning approximately 3.4 square miles, the Safety Zone included the western district of the city from Nanking University to the northern gates of the city. This included Ginling Women’s Arts and Science College, the American embassy, and various Chinese buildings. This small contingency of individuals working within a very small amount of physical space eventually became the caretakers of tens of thousands of Chinese during one of the most violent episodes in the opening phase of World War II in China.

Alongside offering safe refuge to upward of 200,000 Chinese during the occupation of the city from mid-December through its eventual dissolution at the end of February, the Safety Zone Committee served several other critical functions. After committee members met with the civic leaders of the city at the end of November, it quickly became apparent to the Safety Zone Committee’s leadership that they would be shouldering many more civic responsibilities than originally imagined.5 A week after this initial meeting, the entire city leadership and staff of the Nanjing government left the capital city, leaving behind both a large civilian population and a large number of Chinese soldiers to fend for themselves. With the absence of any civic leadership, Safety Zone Committee leaders stepped in and served as the city’s temporary government, organizing vital services of police, utilities, fire department, food supply, and sanitation. It also allowed for critical institutions to remain open, such as the three remaining hospitals led by the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Finally, the Safety Zone Committee fastidiously documented the events and misconduct of soldiers through detailed documentation and letters. The first letter, sent by John Rabe to the Japanese commander in Nanking on December 14, begins this invaluable documentary record. As the Japanese soldiers’ conduct quickly turned unlawful and violent, Safety Zone Committee members sent daily letters of protest directly to the Japanese embassy in Nanjing and to international organizations detailing numerous incidences of mass violence and rape. They also recorded every incident of Japanese misconduct as they heard it or witnessed it firsthand and delivered them regularly to the Japanese consulate. Records of food supply and security matters were also kept alongside compiling a chronological listing of atrocities committed. This extraordinary effort created a body of firsthand accounts published in newspapers and journals in the United States and Europe. In July 1938 the American publication Reader’s Digest published two stories detailing what was occurring in Nanjing and by 1939 three bodies of materials and evidence were assembled and published by Chinese political scientist Hsu Shuhsi.6

One of the most difficult issues that quickly arose within the Safety Zone, and the one that led to very dire choices, was the state of noncombatants and combatants within the boundaries of the Safety Zone. Of primary concern for the Japanese forces was the harboring of Chinese soldiers (combatants) within the boundaries of the zone. With thousands of refugees fleeing into the Safety Zone as the city came under siege and only a handful of foreigners administering the day-to-day tasks, it was difficult to ensure a foolproof filter. But John Rabe’s agreement with the Japanese commanding officers was based upon the understanding that Imperial forces would leave the Safety Zone alone so long as the committee would not knowingly harbor Chinese soldiers. Once the city came under occupation some Chinese soldiers discarded their uniforms and arms and appealed to the committee to enter the zone, many pleading for their lives. When told by Safety Zone Committee members that they could not be protected, and in fact if identified they would be lawful POWs, the soldiers understood their circumstances. At the same time the committee members explained that if arms were surrendered, the Japanese would hopefully treat them mercifully by upholding the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs and the soldiers would be given shelter and treated humanely.

Upon suspicion that some Chinese soldiers were, in fact, living within the Safety Zone boundaries, Japanese forces entered the zone and frequently rounded up old and young men indiscriminately, including some soldiers but many civilians as well. Often the suspicion alone of soldiers within the Safety Zone was used as an excuse for Japanese forces to enter the zone’s boundaries and commit rape or kidnap women and commit rape outside the zone’s perimeter. Despite these acts, and what some consider the porous nature of the refugee zone, the Nanjing Safety Zone sheltered thousands who would have otherwise been left vulnerable and without any assistance whatsoever.

In the end, the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone achieved two great feats—preserving the dignity and life of thousands of Chinese refugees during the height of violence in Nanjing and leaving an authoritative body of material behind to be used as evidence and as a firsthand historical record. The varied documentation was used as vital evidence during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and several committee members testified as key witnesses in the prosecution and indictment of Japanese leaders for the atrocities committed in Nanjing. (See Source 1: Brief Time Line, Nanjing Safety Zone, August 1937–February 1938.)

Members of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee pose for a photograph at the Safety Zone headquarters in December 1937. Left to right: Mr. Zial, Mr. Hatz, Mr. Rabe, Rev. John Magee, Mr. Cola Podshivaloff.


  • 1 : Takashi Yoshida, “Wartime Accounts of the Nanking Atrocity,” in The Nanjing Atrocity 1937–1938: Complicating the Picture, ed. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 249–50.
  • 2 : John Rabe, The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 28.
  • 3 : Mitter, Forgotten Ally, 128.
  • 4 : Timothy Brook, Documents on the Rape of Nanking (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 3. The recorded members were 17 Americans, 6 Germans, 2 Russians, 1 Austrian, and 1 British. This number is incomplete but is the one stated by John Rabe, quoted in Brook.
  • 5 : On November 27 the committee met with Chiang Kai-shek and General Tang Shengzhi, the general in charge of defending Nanjing. Several days later on December 1 the committee met with the mayor of Nanjing, Ma Cha’o-chun.
  • 6 : “The Sack of Nanking,” Reader’s Digest (July 1938): 28–31; “We Were in Nanking,” Reader’s Digest (October 1938): 41–44; and Brook, Documents on the Rape of Nanking, 4. According to historian Timothy Brook, Hsu Shuhsi’s slim volume of documents “is still the best source of what happened to the people of Nanking between December 1937 and February 1938”

Related Content

Genocide & Mass Violence

A Question of Morality: John Rabe

John H. D. Rabe’s story presents a paradox. He is remembered as a great humanitarian despite remaining a loyal member of the Nazi Party. Born in 1882 in Hamburg, Germany, Rabe first came to Shanghai in 1908. He began working for the Chinese branch of the Siemens Company in 1911 and 20 years later in 1931 transferred to Nanjing and served as director of the Siemens branch office with his wife and two children. Siemens was largely responsible for building the Nanjing telephone lines and supplying turbines for the electrical plant and equipment for the city’s hospitals.

The Nanjing Atrocities

Safety Zone Committee and Refugees at Ginling College

Minnie Vautrin (front, third from left), Tsen Shui-fang (front, fourth from left) and others from the Committee that organized religious work for refugee women and girls stand in front of Ginling College. The Safety Zone was a demilitarized zone for Chinese civilians set up on the eve of the Japanese breakthrough in the Battle of Nanking (December 13, 1937).

Genocide & Mass Violence

Wrestling with the Reality of War: Tsen Shui-Fang

While most Chinese with a higher social standing chose to leave Nanjing, there were a handful of Chinese nationals who chose to remain and help. Some were well educated and helped manage and serve as translators while others helped prepare and distribute food, helped with sanitation, or served as police.

Genocide & Mass Violence

Notice for Chinese Refugees Issued By The Nanjing Safety Zone Committee

Notice for Chinese refugees issued by the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.