I've heard that Auschwitz in Poland has been preserved intact as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of people who died there; and that thought conjures images of a dirty, realistic reminder of past atrocities that is a stark contrast to the slick, professional presentation of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. But how DOES one fittingly commemorate such a dark chapter in history, in which 300,000 people were butchered (or worse) in one city in barely over a month?
Despite the facade of the world-class-museum look of the NJMM, much of the necessary symbolism and messages to convey this are intact. Although some of the language is unmistakably bias (referring to the Japanese invaders as "the devils" before you even enter the gate), the horrors of the 1937 massacre are irrefutable.
A couple of general things about the museum is that it's big...for instance, there's a large photo gallery section, which has information and photos of the massacre as well as the foreign people behind the "International Safety Zones" established in the CBD during the month-plus-long slaughter (I'll mention these zones later). Somehow, I managed to completely bypass this section on my first visit by just following another route. A second feature is that there's a continual soundtrack everywhere on the grounds, sounding like the music from a gothic horror film. It's fitting.
The reality of the massacre hits home in two main ways - firstly, the fact that these events happened in 1937, ie this is not ancient history. In fact, some of the witnesses and survivors helped in the excavation of the "Mass Grave of 10,000 Corpses" in 1984, and some survivors gave their footprints to a memorial walkway within the museum as recently as 2002 (on the 13th of December 2002, on the 65th anniversary of the invasion, to be exact). So this reinforces the notion that these events happened merely a couple of generations ago.
And the second sobering revelation is given via a courtyard path adorned with large stones, each one commemorating victims who died in certain areas of Nanjing during the massacre...areas which, to someone living in Nanjing like me, are instantly familiar. For instance, thousands of people apparently died at Wu Tai Mountain, or Wutaishan (???), which today is an unashamedly upmarket area with restaurants, outdoor stadiums, bars and even a golf course...and barely a block away from where I live. Thousands more died at Qing Liang Mountain, or Qingliangshan (???), which is barely a half-hour walk from my front door. Again, this makes reality hit home - this isn't fiction. (In fact, there's another small, modest but important museum hiding on Guangzhou Lu, near Wutaishan, which was not only one of the aforementioned International Safety Zones, but was also the residence of John Rabe during the Japanese occupation. John Rabe, along with Minnie Vautrin, were two foreigners in Nanjing during the massacre, and are now highly revered characters in Chinese history because of the hundreds of thousands of lives they managed to save. Visiting this other museum, barely ten minutes walk from Wutaishan, gives a realistically sobering reminder that roughly seventy years ago, the bustling corner of Shanghai Lu and and Guangzhou Lu was one of the epicentres of the one of the worst massacres in modern history. This museum is on the corner of Guangzhou Lu and XiaofenQiao (???1?).
Back to the primary massacre museum, the most macabre attraction here is, of course, the display room of skeletons. Neon-lit legends around the pit directly and intentionally point out the skeletons of young women, children and elderly women, and informing us what forensic evidence shows was done to them. Yes, that's intentionally bias to point out only the women and children, but the message is made totally clear nonetheless.
Following the skeleton display, there's a room pitch black save for candle-like lights suspended from the ceiling, with a reconciliatory poem writ large on the far wall (the background music changes from goth film to contemplative piano in this room). A 30-metre-high statue dedicated to peace awaits you in the courtyard following this, completing the conceptual symbolism. This emotional transition is a simple thematic device, but simple ideas are often the most effective.
A last interesting point I'll make is that all the information in the museum is given in three languages - Chinese, English and Japanese. Interpret what you want from that.
It's so unfortunate that the Japanese invasion of Nanjing is one of the main reasons the world knows about the city - Iris Chang's 1997 book "The Rape of Nanking" told the world (however subjectively) of "the forgotten holocaust".
But, I think, the bottom line is that you can't visit Nanjing without paying your respects to the victims of this truly barbaric invasion.
Ashley Brown is an Australian arts journalist currently teaching in Nanjing.
- Chinese name: 侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆
- Address: 418 Shui Xi Men Da Jie, Nanjing
- Chinese address: 南京市水西门大街418号
- Telephone: 86-25-86612230 / 86610931