The Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops killed thousands of Chinese citizens in what was then the nation's capital in 1937, has been the subject of several recent Chinese and co-produced films, each of which has included the character of John Rabe, a German businessman who helped save hundreds of Chinese refugees.
"I met Christian in America and was impressed with his serious book research for the role," director Yimou Zhang said.
Christian Bale will play a priest called John who helps a great number of Chinese escape certain death.
The script is based on a short story by Chinese author Yan Geling called "13 Prostitutes of Jinling", using the old name for Nanjing, now the capital of Jiangsu province on China's east coast.
Yimou Zhang will begin shooting the film on January 10 in a Republican Era (1911-1949) replica church built near Nanjing.