I have many stories from my time in Nanjing, China that I have yet to write on publicly. It’s taken me a while to settle back in and get into a clear writing zone. Moreover, I believe these experiences deserve to be handled with a little more care. Today I am going to share my reflections on a place that moved me beyond compare and can definitely be characterized as one of the most important places I have visited in China.
On this day last year, I was able to go to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, which is considered an absolute must-see for those who claim to have spent a significant amount of time in Nanjing. The Nanjing Massacre of 1937 is a hugely important part of the history of this city — my city.
The path leading up to the museum was lined with sculptures of people fleeing, carrying children on their backs, or screaming in horror. A poem describing the atrocity was laid out in the stanzas under each sculpture. Even before entering the museum, I already felt the pain in my heart.
Close to the entrance stood a large pillar that had the number 300,000 plastered on it in huge print. This number represents the number of civilian casualties in Nanjing during the massacre. I shed my first tears while standing there, where our guide told us that the museum location was chosen because it was one of the killing sites used by the Japanese. It was entirely unexpected, but I think I had more of a visceral reaction standing there than when I visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp nearly three years ago. This is not to say the crimes of WWII in Europe were not horrific, but I had never been told the details of the Nanjing Massacre to that extent and had never felt so physically connected to the city.
Immediately after the entrance was a dark room with the wall of victims list. This was another point of tears for me. The rest of the group I was with sped ahead of me, but I scanned back and forth on the list, looking for my surname. While I wasn’t able to find any on the wall, the realization that I don’t know my original last name set in. Any of the names up on the wall could have been my family members.
The room after the wall of victims was extremely crowded and packed with both people and artifacts from the Massacre. I cried again when I saw the bomb shells used by the Japanese to destroy my city as well as the occupation of Shanghai, Zhenjiang, Huzhou, Si’an, Guangde, Wuxi, Changzhou, Suzhou, Jiangyin – setting fire, looting, and raping immediately.
I saw a Japanese flag with the words “everlasting military victory” on it. Contrasted with Chinese artifacts across the room, the tensions between the two countries could clearly be felt. A vase with the words “Sacrifice for saving the nation, resistance for defending the territory, the league of Sacrifice for Saving the nation” was placed next to another that simply said, “Beat Japanese Invaders.”
There were some personal narratives in the exhibits, but the museum focused heavily on the military and anti-Japanese sentiment of the city and China at large. The museum also plastered the number 300,000 everywhere. Looking back now, I see how propaganda-filled and biased the language was on the plaques and descriptions, but I think the museum overall did an adequate job producing the gut wrenching response they intended viewers to have.
In the middle of the exhibit is an excavation pit with the skeletons of some of the victims. 190,000 innocent civilians and disarmed soldiers were massacred by execution squads. More than 150,000 corpses were buried, but many were simply left lying all over the city. According to the Nanjing Military Tribunal for the Trial of War Criminals in 1946, there were 858 so-called occasional slaughters.
My heart also stopped when I saw a photo of a three-year-old child shot by the Japanese army. Who is more innocent, more defenseless than a three-year-old child? There was no reason for such horrible acts other than to show that they could and would commit them.
There were 20,000 some cases of rape and gang rape in the first month after the Japanese seizure of my city. There were several hundreds, even a thousand, instances of rape everyday, irrespective of the occasion or age. This senseless violence haunts Nanjing to this day.
Just when I couldn’t handle any more tears, pain, or heart-breaking history, things started to turn. I read about safety zones created (including Nanjing University), about the help of foreigners in the city, and about the kindness and good-heartedness of some people during adversity. The museum concludes in this semi-optimistic manner with the statue of a woman holding a dove. This is the symbol of peace for Nanjing, a city that has seen so much turmoil, violence, and brutality.
As I reflect on the meaning of this day, in which Christians celebrate and are reminded that joy can overcome sorrow, love can overcome hatred, and life can overcome death, my mind immediately turns to the tragic bombing in Lahore, Pakistan — a sobering reminder that peace is as much of a goal now as it was when this statue was erected in Nanjing. Let us go into the world with hopeful hearts and determined minds, so that peace may be achieved someday.