Sunday, 12 June 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, China (December 2008)

The most poignant of museums

I’ve been to a few Chinese museums, and I have to say that, from the perspective of an English museum curator, they tend to conform to a stereotype – anything that could have money spent on it (eg buildings, display cases, AV presentations, lighting effects, computer reconstructions) look amazing, seriously the equal and more of anything the west has to offer.  However, they tend to fall short when it comes to the underlying function of a museum as we would understand it – to engage with audiences. To teach visitors about a subject, yes, but also to expand their horizons, to get them to think more deeply, to view things from a different perspective and to begin to ask their own questions about the past and present of the world around them.  These are lofty ambitions to be sure, and I’m not saying for a second that all western museums get it right, but the basic premise that museums exist for their audiences is lacking in China.  Instead, Chinese museums exist to tell the story that the top brass wish to be told.  There is no conjecture, no open debate.  This is how it happened, and it shows how glorious China is.  End of story.

So how surprised I was that the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, a place that should be the Mecca of Chinese nationalist propaganda and ‘foreigner hate’, managed to somehow to rise above the rest and present a harrowing human story without making me feel that I should be waving a little Chairman Mao flag and singing the Chinese national anthem.

The Nanjing Massacre is quite simply a chapter in history that we should all be made familiar with.  If it had happened in Europe or America, it would be on the history curriculum of every schoolchild in the world.  The fact that it happened in China is no excuse for the world to forget one of the most horrifying atrocities ever committed.  I’ll give my brief overview of the events in a moment, but I feel that I should plug one of the most moving books I have ever read, Iris Chang’s ‘The Rape of Nanking’.  The researching of the book tragically sent Chang into a depression that led her to take her own life, but the work she left behind is a true testament to the victims of the massacre.

So what happened?  In 1937, the Japanese army invaded China, and quickly took Shanghai.  At that time, Nanjing was the capital but it was decided that it could not be defended.  The Chinese armies withdrew deeper into the country to plan their defence and force the Japanese to overstretch themselves.  The General in charge of Nanjing, Tang Shengzhi, was not prepared to capitulate so easily, however, and gathered around 100,000 men to lead the defence of the City.  Sadly, these were not crack troops, but men with little training and the scattered remnants of soldiers who had fled defeated from Shanghai.  Citizens were prevented from leaving the city through the burning of boats and surrounding villages.  The Japanese army arrived in December 1937 and the makeshift defence quickly crumbled due to low morale and the collapse of discipline.  The Japanese were airdropping leaflets demanding the city to surrender, and eventually a general retreat was ordered.  However, rather than an orderly withdrawal from the city, the Chinese army routed.  Commanders abandoned their men, soldiers stole clothes from civilians in their attempts to disguise themselves, and the streets were littered with discarded weapons and uniforms.  The Japanese army entered the city, and the event that would become infamous began.

Once the City had been taken, the Japanese army engaged in what can only be described as 6 weeks of war crimes, as the soldiers committed mass murder, rape, arson and theft on an inhuman scale.  The true scale of the carnage may never be known, but it is estimated that 300,000 people, mostly civilians, perished.  20,000 women are thought to have been raped, often with brutality and mutilation that I won’t enter into in this blog.  Civilians were rounded up in their thousands and machine-gunned, their bodies falling into pre-prepared mass graves.  Others were beheaded, and there is even Japanese newspaper coverage of a competition between two officers over who could behead the most Chinese.  The winner sickeningly achieved a ‘score’ of 106.  Ordinary Japanese soldiers rounded people up and used them for bayonet practice.  Those thought to be Chinese soldiers hiding as civilians were particularly sought out, and ‘evidence’ such as helmet strap marks under the chin guaranteed a grisly end.

Amid the backdrop of this almost incomprehensible carnage were a small group of Europeans trying to maintain a safe haven for civilians, and who were undeniably responsible for the saving of many thousands of innocent lives.  By a curious twist of fate, the man most responsible for leading the efforts was a German business man, John Rabe, who was a member of the Nazi party and therefore supposedly an ally of the Japanese.  Fortunately his humanist sensibilities overrode political alliances.

The massacre has ever since been burned into the Chinese psyche, and above all other events in the Sino-Japanese war has remained the single incident that sparks tension between the two nations, particularly due to the Japanese refusal to officially acknowledge or apologise for the events, despite the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal executing 4 officers for their actions, including the two who had competed in the beheading competition.

The Memorial Hall was opened in 1985 on the site of one of the mass graves, and it was enlarged and renovated in 1995.  The first thing that a visitor notices as they approach the museum is a huge bronze statue depicting an emaciated and tattered women, in despair over the dead child in her arms.  Visitors should be in no doubt at this point that this museum is about more than buying funny coloured pencils in the shop.

On the approach to the entrance are a further series of bronze dioramas and associated poems, but this time on a more human scale and each dealing with the death of a loved one during the siege.

At the ticket desk, I was asked to step aside by the security guard and answer a few questions.  My ‘China sense’ immediately started tingling, as I expected to be subjected to some ‘foreigner questioning’, but in fact he just asked where I was from, as they liked to keep a more detailed record of their foreign visitor demographic.  As the guard was very friendly, I made a mental note not to be so suspicious in future!

Inside the museum’s walls is a large open area, dominated by more large sculptural works, including a giant memorial cross and a wall with 300,000 written in many different languages.

The most disturbing of these sculptures were definitely the huge head and arm coming out of the ground.  The arm in particular is almost zombie-like, and is the only time I can remember that the museum gives a sense of a desire for revenge rather than simply mourning the dead and asking ‘why’?

The first half of the sizeable museum tells of the Japanese invasion and the political situation leading to the massacre.  The second half, however, dealing with the massacre and its aftermath, is harrowingly memorable.

I should say at this point that I’m used to handling human skeletal remains.  As an archaeological museum curator, the site of a skull or an arm bone is an almost daily occurrence to me, but I’m aware it might not be to everyone.  However, the sight of a mass grave of innocent people, murdered within living memory, is shocking and upsetting on a level I have never before experienced.  The images below show the ‘pit of ten thousand corpses’ upon which the museum is built.  Nothing the museum says in any of its text panels or displays can prepare you for the sight, or leave you with such a profound sense of sadness and anger.

The remainder of the displays tell of the war crimes tribunals and the anger that is still felt that no apology or even official recognition of the event has ever been made.  Comparisons are drawn between this and the new relationships that have been formed in Europe with Germany following the end of the war, because of the willingness of Germany to accept its guilt and rebuild.

There are fewer than 400 survivors of the massacre remaining, and efforts to record their testimony are underway.  In fact, while my wife was studying at Nanjing University about 5 years ago, she took part in a student project to record oral testimonies of survivors, which I know was something that profoundly affected her.

When the museum was renovated, they got as many of the survivors together as they could, and cast their footprints into a walkway running around the outside of the museum.

The experience ends with an attempt at reconciliation, with a large Classical statue of Peace and an eternal flame, both of which are simply but powerfully executed.

I have been to many museums on my travels, but few have had the continued emotional impact on me as this one did.  If ever you find yourself in Nanjing, or interested enough to find out more about the massacre, there are 300,000 very good reasons to do so.


  1. The Chinese government claimed the incident in 60's, 15 years after it was said it happened. At the time the incident was said to happen, a Japanese left-wing journalist stayed in the city. After returning from Nanjing, he didn't tell such an incident even to his family. Under US occupation such knowledge can be utilized, but no single report was written. He could have made money by writing such report.
    As you can see Japanese people right now, they're law-abiding and maintain high moral standard. In the Imperial Military, disciplines were more strict than current. Without written explicit order no soldier can kill anyone. If anyone didn't follow rules, military court would wait for him. No paper was found. Many left-wing writers tried to find one. But none exists.
    (For Nazi concentration camp a lot of written orders were found. Yes?)
    In addition, after the war the report of ‘score’ of 106 was found to be a fake report. Those soldiers were forced to cooperate for war-time newspaper. You can easily verify the fact by using a Japanese sword to cut 10 pieces of beef or pork meat with bones. The sword will have a nicked edge. You cannot kill even 10 pigs nor 5 human beings as they try to escape.
    I'm sure this museum was built for 100% lie. The Chinese government utilizes this issue against Japan.