Another quick graphic novel read and another review. This time, one of World War II’s most infamous atrocities gets a searing and heartpounding treatment from artist-writer Ethan Young in Nanjing: The Burning City.


The Particulars

Historical Setting: Nanjing (aka Nanking), then-capital of China, December 1937

Appearances by Historical Personalities: None

Historical Events Covered: The Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking

Timely Dialogue: “‘He who speaks without modesty will find it hard to make his words good.'”


Confucius: you can blame him for most fortune cookie “fortunes” not being actual fortunes

One of the characters cites this proverb by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher from the 6th century BCE. Confucius preached an ethical way of living that emphasized duties to the family and community as the key to social harmony. He was one of the first to espouse a Golden Rule: What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. He is also the unwitting author of millions of fortune cookie slips.

Which Historical Personality Is This Book?

Lu Xun, widely recognized as 20th century China’s greatest writer. Lu was a keen observer of the suffering of the Chinese people in the waning days of the emperors and the chaotic post-revolutionary period. He was also highly critical of the abuses of those in power. Often depressed by what he saw, he nevertheless relentlessly pushed for China to reform and adapt to the modern world. One of his most famous quotes, reacting to a massacre of Chinese protesters in 1926, could easily have been written about the Nanjing massacre and the frequent attempts in some quarters to downplay or deny the atrocity: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood.”

Is it “Nanjing” or “Nanking”?
For people wondering, “Nanjing” is the modern day official romanization of how to say the city’s name in Mandarin. “Nanking” is an older romanization possible derived from a southern Chinese dialect, since the southern Chinese were the ones in contact with European traders. It’s also quite annoying for most Chinese people to hear these days. Stick to “Nanjing.”

More than two years before World War II began in Europe, China was desperately fighting for survival against a Japanese invasion. By December 1937, the Chinese capital of Nanjing has fallen to Japanese. While the victorious soldiers embark on a rampage of murder and rape, two ordinary Chinese soldiers have only one goal in mind: to survive. For the hardened veteran Captain and the inexperienced Private Lu, the choices are grim. They can seek refuge in the “Safety Zone” organized by neutral Western powers, which offers little protection against being hunted down and butchered by an enemy that disregards diplomatic niceties. Or they can take the longer route out of the city entirely. Either way, they will need to slip through the ruins, sneaking past enemy patrols and suffering civilians alike.

I am so glad I read this graphic novel not long after having seen the movie Dunkirk. Both works are set in the context of a catastrophic defeat, focusing on ordinary soldiers finding the will to go on, casting survival as a victory of its own. They’re in a race against time, and Young’s stripped down, black and white artwork, making use of frequent close-ups, ratchets up the tension. The plot, taking place over a day and a half, is relentless. Hearkening back to watching Dunkirk, I felt as if I could hear Hans Zimmer’s tick-tock score as I read.

Although a very simple story at its core, it is set against the backdrop of a larger tragedy. Young uses the two soldiers’ journey to convey a message about the Chinese character and the nation’s experience of the war, particularly as the Captain’s viewpoint crystallizes.

Some Historical Background on the Nanjing Massacre

Ever since modernizing their country in the face of Western incursions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan was racing to claim its place as a great power in the world. To do so, it sought a colonial empire and the prime candidate for expansion was China, a vast but backward nation with a corrupt and incompetent government. After seizing China’s northwestern province of Manchuria in 1933 as a foothold, Japan launched an all-out invasion in June 1937.


A detail from the Memorial Hall for the Nanjing Massacre (taylorandayumi/

Rapid successes followed as the disciplined, well-trained and modern-equipped Japanese soldiers far outclassed their Chinese counterparts. The areas occupied by the Japanese fell under brutal occupation, where any misstep by the common Chinese inhabitants could result in instant beheading.

By December 1937, Japanese forces approached the Chinese capital of Nanjing. The government and, in many cases, the generals in charge of the defenders, fled to the interior, leaving the ordinary soldiers and people of Nanjing to fend for themselves. The situation was hopeless and it was not long before Japanese troops entered the walled city. What followed was a weeks-long orgy of slaughter and rape. While the exact toll is a matter of controversy, most scholarly research sets the number of deaths between 200,000 and 300,000 men, women and children. Untold thousands of women and girls were raped. Survivors and eyewitnesses, including some Japanese soldiers themselves, recount chillingly gruesome torture and mutilations on a massive scale.

Back to the Review

Like Dunkirk for the British, Nanjing has become the singular event that colours China’s experience of the war. China won no major victories during the war, relying essentially on the final surrender of Japan after the United States dropped the atomic bombs to finally be free of its invader. It follows that China views the events of the war through the lens of victimization. Coming at the end of its “Century of Humiliation,” the Nanjing Massacre fuels modern China’s push to take a preeminent place in the world order. The Japanese government’s record of downplaying and denying the massacre and other war crimes largely contributes to the fraught relations between the two countries today.

While Young does address aspects of the atrocity through somewhat broadly drawn scenes and characters, he also adds a statement about the spirit of the Chinese people. Like Lu Xun, he finds a message of resilience and hope despite the bleak story around it. When I saw Dunkirk, I couldn’t help thinking at the end that if I were British, I’d be pumping my fist and cheering. A similar feeling hit me at the end of Nanjing: The Burning City.

I’ve mentioned before that context can often impact my opinion of a book as much as its content. On it own, this graphic novel is a well-executed, but not extraordinary war story. It suffers from fairly one-dimensional characterization. But with few other accessible works written in English about this pivotal event of 20th century history, Nanjing: The Burning City stands out. By telling a gripping story through his art form, Young ensures the story of the massacre can find its way to a new audience. He imbues a national trauma with an element of optimism. Those are worthy achievements.

My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)

For those interested in reading further:

Probably the most comprehensive account of the massacre in English is The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, published in 1997. It is not an easy read. It is possible that the horrifying nature of the material she researched, along with death threats from Japanese ultra-nationalists, took their toll. Chang killed herself in 2004.

Despite lapses in historical research (Chang was not a professional historian) the fact that no other work of this stature is available highlights the need for the story of the Nanjing Massacre to continue to be re-told.