Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in The Nanjing Massacre

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The Nanjing Massacre[edit]

Memorials in Nanjing claim there were 300 000 victims, including the Nanjing Massacre Museum[1]

The Nanjing Massacre was an incident which occurred during World War II, where Japanese soldiers allegedly looted, raped and murdered their way through Nanjing.[2] However, there are few facts about the Nanjing Massacre that are universally accepted as truth.[3] The time frames claimed for the massacre ranges from three weeks, starting December 13th,[3] to three months between December 1937 and February 1938[2], and neither the geographical extent of the conflict, nor the number of victims have been agreed upon.[4] The number of victims claimed ranges from 100[2] to 300 000[1].



The purpose of history as a discipline is generally seen as finding the truth about the past.[5] However, it's debatable whether it's actually possible to find an objective, historical truth, or if such a truth exists. The Nanjing Massacre is an example that presents a challenge to "positivist empiricism"[4] in history. Different sources claim different facts about the event and due to both Chinese and Japanese suppression of the event at the time, there's a lack of primary sources.[2] This is problematic, since primary sources are key in historical research and constructing a historical narrative.[6] An additional aspect to the problem is that large amounts of propaganda was produced at the time, particularly in the form of photographs, which means the sources that do exist need to be critically examined and evaluated, with the possibility remaining that they might be false.[7]

Historian Daqing Yang argues that the closest one can get to a historical truth is through convergence in the arguments made by historians. He identifies four points on which there's convergence about the Nanjing Massacre:

However, using convergence as a method to determine truth is questionable. Historians are only likely to converge on general points, as seen from Yang's examples. When trying to determine specifics, convergence is of limited use. A case in point is the limited convergence on the number of victims. Part of that is due to the lack of evidence, which limits the research and opens up to more speculation.[6] Additionally, the sources that do exist tend to be biased or incorrect, hindering historians from finding the true number of victims. The other part of the problem is the inherent bias of the researchers, particularly strong in the case of the Nanjing Massacre, which will influence how they interpret the evidence available. In summary, the Nanjing Massacre provides an example of historical pluralism, wherein there exists many different versions of the truth and none can really be determined to be more true than the others.[8]


Memory and Truth[edit]

A crucial point in the primary sources that exist is the authenticity and truthfulness of the memories recounted. Sven Bernecker outlines the theory that authenticity refers to how accurately a person's memory corresponds with their individual experience, while truthfulness is defined by how accurately a person's memory corresponds with the objective events that occurred.[9] A key question is then whether victims of the Nanjing Massacre's accounts are only authentic, or if they are also truthful. While authentic memories are useful for providing the subjective experiences of the victims, a lack of truthfulness, caused by misunderstanding, misconception or lack of context, can cause issues when determining the truth of the event.

Coherence vs. Correspondence[edit]

There are two important theories on truth in philosophy. Coherence theory defines truth as an individual's subjective set of beliefs without validating an objective truth.[10] In this view, both the accounts from the Chinese victims and the Japanese aggressors would be deemed true. Correspondence theory instead posits that truth is defined by how accurately it relates to a universal set of laws and facts.[10] By this theory, there would be an objective truth of the Nanjing Massacre, with a determined time period and number of victims.


Truth is defined differently by various schools of sociology. The two most well-known definitions are positivism and interactionism. Positivism claims that truth exists externally and can be obtained through scientific methods[11]. Interactionism claims that truth is a social construct which needs to be understood emphatically [12].

A Phenomenologist's View[edit]

Phenomenologists, also known as symbolic interactionists, believe that reality is constituted by people’s view of it. Hence, there are indefinite versions of truth in the universe[13]. Applying this idea to the Nanjing Massacre, truth would be defined by the soldiers, victims and civilians who were affected. Thus, there would be no definite truth for the event, as everyone would have had their own experience and interpretation of it, especially so because of the disruptive and chaotic nature of war.

Challenges in Obtaining Truth[edit]

Max Webber claims the only way to obtain truth is by “verstehen”: empathising with people who lived through the experience[13]. Implementing phenomenological methods in research[14], accounts ought to be gathered from the eye-witnesses, in qualitative and detailed forms to retain their authenticity. However, this can pose a practical issue to researchers[15]. Given the sensitivity of the incident of Nanjing Massacre, witnesses can be reluctant to reveal their personal experience[16] and recalling the incident could be particularly traumatic for the victims[17]. On the other hand, the aggressors can be more hindered in speaking about the incident. They could either be in denial, or feel too guilty and ashamed to admit their actions[18].

Different Truths in the Nanjing Massacre[edit]

Exploring the Nanjing Massacre from the perspective of different disciplines raises the question: is it possible to find an objective truth about an event that is ultimately an aggregate of subjective experiences? Does such a truth exist?

Intuitively, there should be some aspects of the Nanjing Massacre that have an objective truth. For instance, there should, technically, be a determined number of people who died during the Nanjing Massacre. Death is rooted in a biological fact, as opposed to more generally being a victim, which is determined by culture or the state[19]. However, in order to determine how many people died in the massacre, there would first need to exist a time-frame for how long the massacre went on, and the geographical extent of it. Otherwise, it isn't clear which deaths should be counted.

History suggests that consensus will lead towards truth, however, ultimately each historian will construct their own version of the historical narrative[6]. With sufficient evidence and sound reasoning, their narrative can be accepted as truth, but this truth will be subjective. Sociology and philosophy provide different perspectives on truth and interpreting evidence, which also suggest that no objective truth can be found.

The potential lack of an objective truth does not mean the Nanjing Massacre should not be studied. There is value in exploring the different subjective truths and historians, as well as others, making interpretations of the information available, as this provides a richer understanding of the event and, ultimately, of us as humans.


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