How the Rape of Nanking inspired a Chinese-American graphic artist's new novel

Ethan Young's work, 13 years in the making, shows the horrors from the perspective of individuals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 6:37pm

In Ethan Young's new graphic novel, Nanjing: The Burning City, the 32-year-old American-born Chinese comic book artist tells the story of two fictional Kuomintang soldiers trying to escape Japanese-occupied Nanking during the second world war.

The visceral and intricately drawn black-and-white novel - 13 years in the making - begins with historical context for December 13, 1937: "The day before the city's capture, Chinese military officials began fleeing Nanjing in chaos. Many commanders abandoned their own troops without giving any orders for retreat. This is a story about the forgotten ones."

Estimated death tolls range from 40,000 to 300,000 during the six-week sack of the city, a horror known as the Rape of Nanking.

"As much as I used the book to bring more awareness to China's involvement in the second world war, the book is ultimately an anti-war statement," says Young. "I am showing war through the lens of individual people and how it affects them; the larger narratives of war, good and evil, are stripped away when we are talking about pure individual survival."

Dark Horse comics published the 224-page graphic novel in August and has licensed the book to a Chinese company, Post Wave, to release an edition in simplified Chinese. The Chinese publication date has yet to be confirmed.

Young says his research for Nanjing helped him to better understand China's struggles during the 20th century. In turn, he gained a better understanding of his own parents' worldviews. They endured the Cultural Revolution and migrated from Guangdong province to the United States in 1982. Young was born and raised in New York.

"It's hard to escape my heritage. I'm reminded of it every single day," he says. "So even though I don't speak Cantonese that well, [my Chinese identity] is still something that is really important to me." Young has never visited China.

He grew up in a traditional Chinese family by American standards on the lower east side of Manhattan, two blocks from Chinatown. His father ran a herbal medicine shop and had been a prominent doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in his hometown.

Young's father would bring home bootleg Cantonese and Hong Kong-made movies in the 1980s and '90s. "My introduction to Chinese culture was through a Hong Kong lens," he says. In the same way, Young learnt of Japanese aggression against China during the second world war.

Reading Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking during his first and only university term inspired him to create a comic about the historic event. He began scouring bookstores for more inspiration, and researched historical military uniforms, photography of the old city and diaries from the period.

Then life got in the way. Young turned to freelance illustration work to pay the bills. He took commercial assignments and began drawing advertising storyboards. "In my early 20s, I was jotting down ideas, and trying to do the book, but I was just not prepared for how in-depth and mature the project needed to be," he says.

Young continued experimenting with comics, with Nanjing on hold. He published a web comic, Tails, about his life as an animal rescuer and struggling artist. The Tails project continued for roughly 10 years and he concluded the series this month.

He resumed work on Nanjing in early 2013 when his wife discovered a photo book of Imperial Japanese military uniforms. "She was telling me this would be great for research," Young says. "I was like, 'I don't know,' and she really convinced me."

So he revisited stacks of old research. He bought more books. And he found further inspiration in recent films, such as Chinese director Lu Chuan's 2009 film The City of Life and Death and Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War from 2011.

Young's final product - 13 years after first conceiving a comic about the Rape of Nanking - reveals a level of nuance and sophisticated irony that is best encapsulated in Young's sympathetic characterisation of a Japanese soldier, Yoshi, who dies after expressing disgust at a fellow soldier's brutal rape of Chinese women.

Dark Horse editor Jim Gibbons helped secure a contract with Young in 2014. Gibbons eventually edited the graphic novel, too.

"As soon as I saw Ethan's pages, I was blown away. Ethan's artwork is lush, thoughtful, and beautiful, and I was immediately impressed," Gibbons says. "Then I gave the story a read and it was evident very quickly that this was going to be an amazing book."

The more Gibbons learned about the Nanking Massacre, the more he felt that Nanjing: The Burning City "was one of those books that needed to be published to make more people aware".

Eugenia Beh, a former president of the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, agrees.

"Chinese and Chinese Americans have been trying to raise awareness of what China suffered through both film and print, with limited success. That is why a work like Ethan's is so important - it addresses a tragic part of history in a format that is very accessible to a wide range of readers," she says, noting that comics had played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

"[For example] a comic about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in part the inspiration for the graphic novels March: Book One and Book Two," she says. "It's my hope that a work like Nanjing can have the same kind of effect."

Young has already begun his next project, a work of science fiction that will build upon the Chinese folk tale about Mulan and will also refer to China's one-child policy.