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Nanjing Massacre: Where Did the 300,000 Death Toll Come From?

The 300,000 civilian death toll was credited to an anonymous source, employed by a known propagandist, and not even made in relation to the Nanjing Massacre.



Japanese forces capture Nanjing, China. The Chinese troops were in chaos after the commander fled, December 1937. (From the collection “Battle of Nanking Photographs” of the Center for Military History, National Institute for Defense Studies.)

As anyone who has ever been a part of a crowd within a large sporting arena can attest, 300,000 is an extraordinary mass of humanity. It is the equivalent of five packed-out Saitama Stadiums, four Old Traffords, three Melbourne Cricket Grounds, or fifteen Madison Square Gardens. That figure has come to be associated with the civilian death toll during the initial six weeks of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, China, which commenced on December 13, 1937. It is insisted upon by Chinese President Xi Jinping and carved into stone at the Memorial Hall in Nanjing. 

On its face, the 300,000 figure seems farcical. What is the origin of that stated total?

The 300,000 figure is credited to a single reference by an unnamed source within first a telegram, and then a publication. The title of the publication is What War Means: The Japanese Terror in China. It was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, in May 1938, a few short months after the occupation of Nanjing began. 

Nanjing Memorial in China during a memorial service in December 2017. (©Kyodo)

KMT Propaganda

What War Means was compiled by Harold J Timperley. He was an Australian national and China Correspondent of The Manchester Guardian, but he wore additional hats. In "An Overview of Propaganda Operations of the International Information Division of the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Nationalist Party from 1938 to April 1941," a document archived in Taiwan, it clearly states that What War Means was propaganda produced in the interests of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT). 

This contention is supported by the fact that despite his apparent expertise, Timperley was not called upon by the Allies to testify about the Nanjing Massacre at the Tokyo Trial

The man himself is described by Chiang Kai-shek aide, Ilona Ralf Sues, in Shark Fins and Millet. She writes that he was in possession of a "handsome young face, white hair, blue eyes, lithe elegance, and refined tastes," of looking "like a marquis from the court of Louis XV, who had dropped in on this brutal century by mistake." 

Sues, however, suggests that Timperley fully understood the court of Chiang Kai-shek. When "you go near Headquarters" she quotes him as admonishing, "you've got to reckon with caprice, caprice, nothing but caprice."

Chiang Kai-shek in 1943 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Book

What War Means is essentially a compilation of letters written by unnamed Western residents of China, based in Nanjing and elsewhere, with additional commentary from Timperley. The 300,000 figure is stated on two occasions, once in the introduction on page 13, and additionally on page 84. The page 84 notation is credited to an unnamed "foreign observer" whose "careful estimate" concludes that "at least 300,000 Chinese civilians have lost their lives as a result of the Sino-Japanese hostilities in the Yangtze Delta." 

The page 13 reference is a summation by Timperley. It reads: "At least 300,000 Chinese military casualties for the Central China campaign alone and a like number of civilian casualties were suffered." 

The Telegram

The telegram reference of 300,000 was written by Timperley. It reads, "… in Nanking and elsewhere … [Not] less than three hundred thousand Chinese civilians slaughtered, many cases [in] cold blood."

The 300,000 figure, therefore, refers not solely to Nanjing nor even Nanjing and its surrounds, but the landmass between Shanghai and Nanjing. The two cities are situated 270 kilometers (168 mi) apart. The single foreign observer is not named. And no details are provided on the methodology. 


In short, 300,000 is a guess rather than an estimate. Or perhaps more accurately, a large round number pulled out of the air. 

References Within 'What War Means' that Refute the Chinese Position

Ironically, there are many references contained within What War Means that cast doubt on common perceptions concerning Nanjing. 

The Nanjing Massacre was predominantly of Chinese soldiers who discarded their uniforms and attempted to blend in with civilians within a safety zone. They were removed by the Japanese and not uncommonly executed. 

The civilian component of the massacre comprises "collateral damage" sustained during the military engagement. A significant number were crushed underfoot at bottlenecks when attempting to reach the docks and escape upriver on shipping. 

A similarly weighty number were fired upon by KMT soldiers to prevent them from swamping the KMT requisitioned shipping. A limited number were killed due to Japanese soldier violence. Many among this number were mistakenly or opportunistically deemed to be Chinese soldiers during the Japanese sweep of the safety zone.

Photos taken less than a month after the Nanjing Incident show the broadcasting and communication facilities of the Kuomintang. This particular photo is from near the Yangtze River in the vicinity of Shimonoseki. In contrast to testimonies of "piles of bodies even after several months," the area appears deserted. (©Sankei)

Civilian Death Toll Closer to 10,000

A figure of around 10,000 total civilian deaths is supported by the present available evidence. A sociological survey conducted by Dr Lewis SC Smythe, an American professor of sociology at Nanjing University in early 1938, established tallies of 2,400 killed and 4,200 taken away and not yet returned.

Chinese efforts to tabulate the names of victims have reached a total of 10,664. To this, we can add an account provided by Timperley from a "foreign member of the University faculty" (quite possibly an estimate by Smythe prior to his survey) on January 25, 1938. It reads: "Evidences from burials indicate that close to 40,000 unarmed persons were killed within and near the walls of Nanking, of whom some 30% had never been soldiers." This estimate of around 12,000 is broadly consistent with both the Smythe report and Chinese tabulations. 

Additionally, there is the following from John Rabe, the German-born Chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone on January 28, 1938, concerning civilian deaths. "There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of cases where the wage earner has either been taken away or killed," Rabe states. "Hundreds, if not thousands" clearly suggests a figure for wage-earning men in the low thousands at best. 

Questionable Mathematics

There is a further argument against the 300,000 figure. When the Japanese entered the city, Rabe claimed to have nearly all of the remaining civilian population sheltering within the safety zone. Around 200,000 are estimated to have been there, rising to 250,000 by mid-January 1938. How, critics of the Chinese Communist Party's position ask, can 200,000 minus 300,000, equate to a figure of 250,000? These population figures are confirmed within What War Means on numerous occasions. During one cited letter from John Rabe, on January 14, an even larger range of 250,000 to 300,000 citizens within the safety zone is given. 

Legitimate Concerns of the Japanese Military

It is routinely ignored that the Japanese had legitimate concerns regarding the presence of Chinese soldiers within the safety zone. No victorious army will tolerate a defeated foe discarding their uniforms and attempting to blend in with the civilian population. 

The scope of the Japanese challenge in clearing the safety zone of soldiers is made clear by Timperley. He includes a December 26 diary entry regarding a registration program being carried out by the Japanese. Ex-soldiers were given a chance to identify themselves. Around 240 did. Large numbers of soldiers, therefore, had managed to remain undetected for close to two weeks since the city had fallen. 


Wandering Groups Afraid of Being Identified 

Support is also provided for the contention that the crimes which occurred within the safety zone were not of an institutional nature. "Most of the trouble has come from wandering groups of three to seven soldiers without an officer" Rabe states, implying that the rapes and robberies were not a matter of policy. "We had to laugh to see those brave soldiers trying to get over a barbed wire fence as we chased them" a diarist also records. This indicates that the wandering soldiers were afraid of their identities being made known to their superiors or military police. 

Aerial Bombing 

A strength of What War Means is its accounts of Japanese aerial attacks. The Japanese bombing campaign during the Sino-Japanese War was the first sustained aerial bombing campaign in the history of warfare. The science of aerial bombing was nascent. The density and flammability of the Chinese cities were high. It is probable that most of the civilian casualties sustained within the Yangtze Delta can be attributed to this campaign. 

Bombing on the part of the Japanese, however, was not the only cause of the devastation between Shanghai and Nanjing. The retreating Chinese military enacted a scorched earth policy on their retreat to Nanjing's walls. That, too, is conceded within What War Means. "The countryside was depopulated and barren and the Japanese marched on," Timperley writes, "hoping to catch up with wealth or a disintegrating Chinese army to destroy. They found neither."

The Legacy of Harold Timperley

Harold J Timperley is a controversial figure who has come under attack within Japan. In 2001, a book titled The Politics of Nanjing: An Impartial Investigation, by Minoru Kitamura, outlined how Timperley had engaged in propaganda. It alleged that What War Means was published with KMT financial support. Timperley was defended in an article in The Guardian by John Gittings. He had never attributed the 300,000 figure to Nanjing, Gittings correctly claimed.

The present exploitation of the 300,000 figure by the Chinese Communist Party, however, can only be laid at Timperley's feet. One can't help but wonder what he would make of that. 

Timperley died in 1954 at the unnaturally young age of 56. It was five years after the fall of the regime of Chiang Kai-shek and decades before the 300,000 figure was embraced by the party of Mao. A propagandist he may have been, but not in the cause of Communism. 

The 300,000 figure, however, is not just touted within Communist China. It is widely known and passionately defended within the democratic West. The rationale is most surely a self-serving attempt to draw distinctions between Western and Japanese imperial behavior. 

Timperley was not blind to the conduct of the imperial West. However, he would most likely have initially approved of the figure being employed in this way. Within What War Means he equated the conduct of imperial Japan with the savageries of Europe from a "bygone age." He may have felt differently, however, after witnessing Europe rip itself asunder during the Second World War, or, indeed, the brutal attempts of the West to reimpose its imperial dominion during the postwar years. 


Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.


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