Essay: Ethan Young on the Duty of Documenting One of China’s Darkest Episodes in Nanjing: The Burning City

Comics Features

Chronicling one of the most devastating episodes in 20th Century history, Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City is a sucker punch of emotion and fury. The graphic novel dissects the Nanjing Massacre, the 1937 atrocity in which the Japanese army tortured, raped and murdered a city abandoned by the military, claiming over 300,000 lives. Young (Tails: Life in Progress, A Piggy’s Tale) takes the sheer size and import of the event and distills it through the lives of soldier Lu and his Captain as they seek escape after the Japanese take their city.

Though Young renders the book in a stark monochrome that recalls the line work of Joe Kubert, Nanjing: The Burning City sifts through spectrums of tumultuous gray. Lu and the Captain trek through a battlefield of disenfranchised victims, blind survivors and philosophizing warriors. More disturbing, the pair also confronts the dawning realization that its fighting for a country that left its city in the most vulnerable of states.

With this seminal work debuting tomorrow in comic stores and September 1 in book stores, Paste is proud to present an exclusive essay from Young on the creation of Nanjing: The Burning City


Small confession: I enjoyed Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor when it was first released. I was 18 and enjoyed a lot of terrible things. The film hasn’t aged well, but it was a modern World War II film that acknowledged China’s involvement in the war, however briefly. That always satisfied me, the way Ben Affleck couldn’t.

The actual Chinese-Japanese conflict is referred to as the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Republic of China spent the entire war effort on the defensive. A desperate Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek practically surrendered the then-capital, Nanjing, and flooded Henan Province in an attempt to halt the Imperial Japanese Army (this was ineffective and resulted in millions of deaths from starvation). It was a war of attrition, but it was in America and Great Britain’s best interest for Chiang Kai-Shek to continue fighting—to keep half a million Japanese soldiers preoccupied. China spent eight years under Japanese occupation, but its contribution to the Allied effort is relegated to footnotes in American textbooks.

Nanjing: The Burning City Interior by Ethan Young

In high school my non-Asian friends would ask, “So, why do different Asians hate each other?” Their childhoods weren’t steeped in the toxic animosity that our parents and grandparents worked to instill in us. My parents’ formative years took place during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and anti-Japanese sentiment was still very palpable. Chinese kids were taught to distrust the Japanese, even if we were born in America and had no immediate connection to the events of the past. Then there were my Korean friends, who weren’t too fond of China. (The Korean War was essentially the US versus China, with both Koreas as pawns.)

Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than pure, unadulterated hate, because everyone’s cultural identity was at stake. You could see it in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, where he rains poetic justice on the Japanese sovereignty in Shanghai. The movie ushered in a new era for martial arts flicks, but it also solidified Lee as a Chinese icon because he was rectifying a historical wrong.

After high school, I read the late Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the kind of book that fills you with remorse, anger and sadness. Unlike Fist of Fury’s propagandistic, comical representations of the Japanese, Chang’s book employed coded anti-Japanese sentiment along with the gruesome descriptions of the atrocities. It kindles all the wrong attitudes toward Japan.

Your emotional side goes, “Screw Japan! They hurt and humiliated us, but now my favorite actor is kicking a demonstrative Japanese caricature through the dojo. Hurray!”

Then your rational side goes, “Well, what the Japanese military did doesn’t represent the people or the culture of Japan. Calm the fuck down. Put away the nunchucks. You’re not Bruce Lee.”

Yes, I owned nunchucks.

In my 20s, I started work on what is now Nanjing: The Burning City. Much like Bruce Lee, I felt a cultural duty to inform the world of what had happened to our people (said while raising fists). China’s involvement in World War II deserved more than a footnote. Unfortunately, 20-year-olds lack the maturity to handle such a sensitive topic. I rightfully shelved the project after several failed starts.

Nanjing: The Burning City Interior by Ethan Young

Time passed. I turned 30, and the book was calling to me again, but not without hesitance. I assumed people were more informed about the Nanjing Massacre than they were a decade prior. Filmwise, there was Nanking, where actors read from the diaries of the Westerners who protected Chinese civilians. There was City of Life and Death, which feels like a hybrid between a Kurosawa film and a Malick film. Then there was The Flowers of War, in which Christian Bale falls in love with a Chinese courtesan amid the chaos. All three films I just mentioned were told from an outsider’s perspective, and in some cases, dealt more with the outsider’s redemption.

“Yes, the tragedy in Nanjing is sad, but thank goodness Christian Bale got laid.”

There’s definitely more awareness now, but the Second Sino-Japanese War is still treated as an obscure topic to most Americans, including my friends (who are fairly well educated). It’s something for the history buffs to discuss, rather than being general knowledge you obtain after four years of high school.

So in early 2013, I made the decision to pick up Nanjing: The Burning City again. Next, I mulled over the narrative approach. I wasn’t a well-traveled journalistic cartoonist like Joe Sacco (I hate flying), and I wasn’t a gifted veteran like Shigeru Mizuki. My story would lack that legitimized personal stake, for better or worse. The book had to be informative and honest, without being vindictive. The keyword was nuance.

Nanjing: The Burning City Interior by Ethan Young

On the surface, the conflict looks very clear: a stronger country invades a weaker one, and tragedy ensues. But dig deeper, and all the gray areas complicate your emotions. It was the Chinese government, after all, that essentially sacrificed Nanjing as a strategic move. You go from being galvanized to being depressed, confused, and somewhat torn. And ultimately, that is what I aim to capture with my book. That feeling of helplessness.

Using the structural narrative of a western, I built the story around archetypal characters, with stoic glares, ambiguous morals and desperate situations. I soaked up all the books (go read Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter) and photo reference I could. The neurotic part of me is constantly afraid of being outed as a fraud, that someone is going to recognize the photo reference of Shanghai as a stand-in for Nanjing. But when you create a graphic novel, you surrender yourself to the process, and ultimately, you let the result speak for itself.

Completing the book took its emotional toll. That’s what happens when you envelop yourself in a tragedy for 18 months: you have plenty of time to reflect on how awful humanity can be. But it was my cultural duty, or so I tell myself. At the very least, I hope readers will walk away a little more informed. It’s better than just being a footnote.

Nanjing: The Burning City Interior by Ethan Young

Ethan Young was born in 1983 in New York City to Chinese immigrant parents. The youngest of three sons, he took to drawing at the age of three. After attending the School of Visual Arts for one semester, Young left to pursue an illustration career. His first graphic novel, ‘Tails: Life in Progress’, was named best graphic novel at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards. In addition to comic book work, Young is also a prolific freelance illustrator, and lives in Ithaca, N.Y. with his family and a lot of cats. His newest graphic novel, ‘Nanjing: The Burning City’, is set for a September 1 release.

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