Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nanjing Massacre Museum

The last time I was in Nanjing (2007), the museum devoted to the "Rape of Nanking" was closed for extensive remodeling and reconstruction. I remember the museum as having had a very powerful effect when I first saw it in 2001, and since Jill had never been there, we decided to make the trip early last week. As many of you will know, the Japanese capture of Nanjing in December, 1937 led to a gruesome slaughter here, one which Japanese soldiers themselves documented with photos and movies. Additional materials, including records kept by John Rabe and others who participated in the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, have been used to describe the depth of the disaster as well as to honor the memory of the victims.


The remodeled museum was reopened December 13, 2007, marking the 70th anniversary of the occupation of Nanjing. Compared to the original, the present memorial is much enlarged, now occupying about 75,000 square meters. The Memorial Hall, which depends upon some 150,000 items, has been generously expanded, and redesigned. The Center for the Memory of the Victims has been added, along with a Peace Park, each utilizing much visual symbolism as well as numerous historical markers. There is no charge for entry, although the guard at the entrance asks to keep track of the number of visitors and their countries of origin. So, Jill and I counted for "2" from "USA."  But numerous groups tour the museum, including large groups of Japanese,  and all the displays feature explanations in Chinese, English, and Japanese.

The museum and memorial make for a very sobering site, effectively thought out and designed.  Qi Kang and He Jingtang, reportedly Chinese architects of distinction, are credited with  the overall design, but numerous sculptors and artists have contributed to the various parts of the memorial exhibition.

Emerging from the metro onto Shuiximen Street in southwestern Nanjing, one confronts an imposing, dark stone "ark," and all along the walk toward the entrance a series of sculptures introduces visitors to the trauma that the occupation represented to Nanjing.

"A Ruined Family" by Wu Weishan (2007)
Once inside the gate, the visitor confronts a black wall on which is inscribed the number "300,000"—the estimated total number of victims—in a dozen languages. Before the wall stands a huge cross, arranged at right angles to the wall, with numbers etched on the crosspiece: "1937.12.13—1938.1," the period of the seizure of Nanjing and the rampage that followed.


From there one can either approach the memorial museum or proceed directly ahead to the "Graveyard Square," the site of the remains of some 10,000 victims discovered in the 1980s at Jiangdongmen. A grassless square covered with masses of stones "signifies piles of remains and death," and all around this stone desert stand memorial markers to victims who perished at other sites throughout Nanjing.
A wall of some 10,000 names of victims (reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC) stands opposite the memorial hall itself where excavated human skeletons lie open to view by visitors who are asked to maintain silence in honor of the dead.
Wall of Names



The main museum exhibition is now greatly enlarged, and can be approached directly across a bare stone field lined on one side with an artistic installation reproducing one of the city's gates. The dark outline of the museum itself barely rises above sight-line.


The exhibition begins by having visitors descend into a reconstruction/diorama of the "Fierce Battle of Guanghuamen," the last defense of Nanjing before the Japanese took the city in December, 1937.  The many subsequent halls provide dramatic and incontrovertible proofs of the various tortures endured by the Nanjing Chinese: some material, as I mentioned above, came from the Japanese themselves, whereas the Chinese also conducted interviews with survivors, excavated numerous sites within the city, and collected additional material from all over the world (including, I was surprised to see, a copy of a Butte, Montana newspaper reporting on the Japanese attack of an American gunboat). John Rabe, whose diary provided an intimate account not only of efforts to protect Nanjing's civilians during the occupation, but also confirmation of some of the worst depredations, is given special attention in the museum because of his efforts. Other members of the international committee—like Minnie Vautrin who at the time headed Ginling College, the women's college adjacent to Nanjing University—also receive special attention. There is more to describe, including a moving "meditation hall," illumined only by candle-like lights, and, at museum's end, a huge wall—floor to ceiling—with shelves holding many hundreds of books in which are inscribed the names of victims of the Nanjing massacre. Looking at this last exhibit, I could not help but think of the wall of shoes in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC., which is one of the institutions with which the Nanjing museum is affiliated.

It is true, I think, that the very quantity of material on display sometimes undermines the designers' ambition to have people contemplate the inhumanity represented by the massacre. I saw many visitors whose eyes had glazed over strolling right past exhibits, their mental capacities for absorbing more information already on overload.  But saying this does nothing to undermine the importance of the exhibition; if you find yourself in Nanjing, you really should visit the museum. This is a story still too little known or appreciated by Americans, despite the 1997 book by Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, which helped spread the Nanjing story (by the way, Chang, who died tragically by her own hand in 2004, is also memorialized here in sculpture).

Inasmuch as our visit coincided with the tragedy now unfolding in Japan, I could not help but wonder how  Chinese visitors to the museum were responding, and whether they could sympathize with the Japanese today, given what they had just witnessed at the memorial. Although the museum exhibits conclude with several rooms reporting on the normalization of relations with Japan in 1972 and subsequent developments between the states that emphasize cooperation and friendship, the wounds  on Chinese historical memory inflicted by the massacre are deep and not easily repaired.


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