Bearing Witness to the Nanjing Atrocities | Facing History & Ourselves
Survivors of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre pose for a photo during a ceremony in Nanjing on July 6, 2013.

Bearing Witness to the Nanjing Atrocities

Students confront the enormity of the crimes committed during the Nanjing atrocities by listening to survivor testimony.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Nanjing atrocities, and to help them bear witness to the experiences of those directly affected by the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. In this lesson, students will be introduced to some historical background about the march of Japanese troops into the city of Nanjing and the outbreak of the atrocities. They will then hear two testimonies from survivors—firsthand accounts from individuals who lived through the Nanjing atrocities—to help them more deeply appreciate and empathize with the human and inhumane dimensions of this important moment in history.

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

  • What were the Nanjing atrocities? Why is it important to confront the brutality of this history?
  • What can we learn from hearing the testimonies of people who experienced or witnessed wartime atrocities like those perpetrated in Nanjing?
  • Students will understand some of the factors that contributed to the war crimes committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanjing.
  • Students will bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during this historical moment in Nanjing.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 3 videos

The city of Nanjing (Nanking) did not hold the wartime strategic importance of coastal Shanghai 300 kilometers (almost 200 miles) to its east, with its central port and economic activity. But Nanjing did hold tremendous symbolic power. The establishment of the city can be traced as far back as the Spring and Autumn Period in China (722–481 BCE). At the start of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the city was explicitly named Nanjing, meaning “southern capital,” and was the dynasty’s secondary capital, along with Beijing (Peking), the “northern capital,” which was the main capital. Most of the towering city walls, built by the first Ming emperor in the fourteenth century, remain standing today. To date, they are the largest and longest city walls in the world, and they serve as a lasting reminder of China’s imperial past. During the 1920s, China transitioned from more than two thousand years of imperial rule into a new republic, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang established Nanjing as the capital of the republic.

Fighting initially broke out between the Nationalist (Guomindang) revolutionary forces (the army of Chiang’s Chinese republic) and Japanese Imperial forces in July 1937. The military skirmish, which took place at the Marco Polo Bridge nine miles southwest of Beijing, set the pretext for Tokyo to launch a full-scale invasion of Shanghai on August 13, 1937. Chinese leader Chiang threw his best divisions into service, fiercely fighting and resisting Japanese advances during the first battle of the war, the 90-day defense of Shanghai (August–November 1937). The Chinese losses, those killed or wounded, amounted to more than 250,000 troops, the nucleus of the Chinese Nationalists’ finest forces. Japan, too, suffered tremendously, with as many as 30% of its troops killed or wounded in this battle. This phase of fighting included the defense of the Sihang Warehouse, where Nationalist forces held off the Japanese army for an entire week despite being greatly outnumbered. 1

Following the Battle of Shanghai, by November 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army was marching west toward China’s capital city, aiming both to occupy strategic locations and to demonstrate their victory over the Chinese Nationalists—“[a] force they considered pernicious and alien to their vision of East Asia’s future.” 2 By destroying Nanjing, the Japanese wanted to deliver the message that China could not go on as an independent nation. The only future for China would be as part of a Pan-Asian Japanese empire.

When Nanjing fell on December 13, 1937, Japanese soldiers unleashed an assault consisting of wanton destruction, burning, rape, robbery, and the murder of thousands of civilians and noncombatants. According to historian Jonathan Spence, these atrocities must rank among the worst in the history of modern warfare. For almost seven weeks the Japanese troops, who first entered the city on December 13, unleashed on the defeated Chinese troops and on the helpless Chinese civilian population a storm of violence and cruelty that has few parallels. . . . 3

Some Japanese leaders were known to cite revenge for Chinese resistance in Shanghai and the loss of so many soldiers as a possible explanation for the brutality of their troops. Others believed that the lack of supplies was the trigger unleashing the violence. With no rational explanation available, the Nanjing atrocities stand as one of the greatest war crimes of World War II. 4

  • 1The defense of the Sihang Warehouse became the last assault before the Chinese began to retreat from Shanghai.
  • 2Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 126.
  • 3Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), 448. It is also important to note that the Chinese were not to declare war on Japan until December 9, 1941, after the Imperial Army’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
  • 4Rana Mitter (professor, Oxford University), interview with the author, March 11, 2014.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

  • In this lesson, students will confront the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the city of Nanjing. While they will engage with the subject matter intellectually, studying some of its historical, social, and political causes, it is also important to acknowledge students’ emotional responses to this history. Even for historians who have devoted their lives to studying it, the Nanjing episode, like other mass atrocities, can elude understanding and simple explanation. For this reason, be sure to provide space for students to express anger, uncertainty, or confusion about the causes of what happened in Nanjing, during the activities or at any point in the lesson. In addition, you should clarify to students that studying some of the factors that contributed to horrific events like the Nanjing atrocities is not the same as excusing the behavior of the perpetrators. You may also want to note that students will be continuing their examination of human behavior during the Nanjing atrocities, including perpetrator behavior, in the next lesson.
  • You should also carefully consider each of these suggestions before engaging with this material:
    • Teachers know their students best. Preview each resource in this lesson before you share it with your students. Let students know in advance when they are about to encounter material that some may find upsetting. If necessary, omit resources that you believe will be too emotionally challenging for your students.
    • Briefly review the class contract with students before beginning the lesson. This will help to reinforce the norms you have established and underscore the idea of the classroom as a safe space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.
    • Many students report that their journals provide a safe space where they can begin to process their emotions and ideas. Therefore, we recommend that students be invited to write in their journals at many points throughout this lesson.

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Lesson Plans


  • While the primary goal of this lesson is to provide students with the opportunity to bear witness to personal stories and primary sources from people who experienced the Nanjing atrocities firsthand, it is first necessary to briefly give students a framework to understand what happened.
  • Show students a clip from the video The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War (5:08–11:55). Apply the Two-Column Note-Taking strategy. On the left side of a piece of binder paper, students should record information about the Japanese invasion of Nanjing. On the right side, students should record their reactions to this information: a question, a comment, a feeling, or a connection to something they know about or have experienced. You may want to watch the video clip twice so that students have enough time to process the material.
  • Once students have watched the video, ask volunteers to share from their notes. Be sure that students take away the following key points from the video:
    • Nanjing was a strategic city for the Japanese to capture because it was the capital of the nationalist government in China, led by Chiang Kai-shek.
    • Historians have speculated that Japanese soldiers were particularly brutal during the occupation of Nanjing because they had endured long battles in other parts of China before entering the city.
    • Japanese commanders did not give any explicit instructions about how the Japanese army should conduct itself, which in turn gave Japanese soldiers license to do whatever they wanted.
    • The atrocities in Nanjing lasted six weeks and exceeded anything that could be considered within the bounds of acceptable wartime conduct.
  • Once students have shared their ideas, ask them to reflect on the following question in their journals and then as a class, connecting the material in the video to what they have learned in the past two lessons: How did an attitude of "us" versus "them" contribute to the conditions that made these atrocities possible?
  • Make sure that students are connecting to the previous lessons’ themes of racism, imperialism, and militarism.
  • Tell students that they will now watch two clips of video testimony from survivors of the Nanjing atrocities. Show the clip of Guixiang Liu's Oral Testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation. The clip recalls the day that seven-year-old Liu witnessed Japanese soldiers raiding his family’s home and the feelings of helplessness he experienced in response. Liu’s father and two-month-old baby brother were both killed by Japanese soldiers, who also burned down the family’s home.
  • After students have watched the clip, give them a few minutes to write a response to his testimony in their journals, using the S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling teaching strategy.
  • Then show the clip of Shuqin Xia's Oral Testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation, ,in which she describes the events of December 13, 1937, the day that Japanese troops entered the city of Nanjing. On that day, Japanese troops killed her father, her mother, three of her sisters, and her grandparents, leaving eight-year-old Xia alone with her four-year-old sister.
  • After they watch the testimony, ask students to write a response in their journals using the S-I-T teaching strategy.
  • Once students have finished journaling, hold a class discussion on the following questions:
    • What about Guixiang Liu’s or Shuqin Xia’s testimony (or both) is most striking to you? What did it make you think about or feel?
    • What is the value of hearing this kind of firsthand account? How does it change the way you understand the atrocities in Nanjing?
  • To close the lesson, ask students to respond in their journals or on an exit ticket to the following quotation from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel about the purpose of hearing survivor testimony:

[T]he idea of telling [survivor] stories is to sensitize people—that you should become more sensitive: to yourselves, to your friends, even to strangers . . . become sensitive not only to the story of what we try to tell, but about what happens even today—because what happens even today is always related to what happened then.

Have students reflect on this quote. You may choose to prompt them with one or more of the queries below:

  • What is Wiesel’s message?
  • What does it mean to “become sensitive”? How can we become sensitive to the stories of people who experienced the Nanjing atrocities—and extend that sensitivity to our lives outside the classroom?
  • Students can share their responses in a brief Think, Pair, Share discussion. If they wrote their answers on exit cards, you can collect and review them to gauge how students are responding to the troubling stories in this lesson.

Materials and Downloads

Explore the Materials

These are the videos that students use throughout the Bearing Witness to the Nanjing Atrocities lesson plan.
Guixiang Liu's Oral Testimony
USC Shoah Foundation
Shuqin Xia's Oral Testimony
USC Shoah Foundation

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