Showcasing the pain of Nanjing

Times Staff Writer

As a siren wailed across the city in remembrance of the dead, the revamped Nanjing museum opened with thousands enduring waits of up to two hours in the cold. Once inside, there was little time for reflection, however, as guards chided visitors to keep moving.

This month, this former Chinese capital observed the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, when tens of thousands of civilians and fleeing soldiers were killed by Japanese soldiers.

History is a sensitive subject in north Asia, and this is ground zero in China’s bid to counter the small number of Japanese right-wingers who downplay or deny that the rampage took place.


The anniversary gave China an opportunity to revamp its rather dowdy Nanjing massacre museum, placing it more on a par with Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials and the many Holocaust remembrance centers around the world.

With growing wealth and power comes a push to better showcase its pain and, by extension, to lay a stronger claim to history.

The refurbished museum is leaps ahead of its predecessor, which was poorly organized and largely devoid of the personal stories that help bring history alive. The $33-million upgrade includes multimedia exhibits, survivor accounts, dioramas of bombed-out buildings and a glass bridge over a partially unearthed mass grave -- not pretty viewing, but powerful.

In places, less would have been more. On the approach to the building along a sloping wall reminiscent of Washington’s Vietnam memorial, statues of victims rise from a reflecting pool to evoke the horror, but the captions -- such as “Flee, flee, flee” and “Run, the devils are coming, run” -- arguably weaken the effect. The museum also loses focus a bit when it broadens its gaze beyond Nanjing to perceived Japanese aggression extending back into the 1800s.

The crowd of mostly younger Chinese on opening day was interspersed with a few survivors, including Lin Guofu, 74, dressed in a stained brown Mao suit and cotton shoes. As a small circle of onlookers crowded around, Lin recounted how his grandparents raised him after Japanese soldiers killed both of his parents. “I was too young to understand how they were killed,” he said slowly through his few remaining teeth, “but I remember all the bombs falling.”

Japan’s reluctance to apologize for or fully acknowledge past atrocities, and high-profile official visits by a former Japanese prime minister to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where 12 top war criminals are memorialized, have rankled many Chinese.


“There are a lot of different views about what really happened” in Nanjing, Mitsuo Sakaba, Japan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said recently.

This has spurred something of a numbers game. The Chinese say 300,000 people were killed and 20,000 women raped in the city during a six-week period starting in late 1937 as the Japanese surged across Asia. Some Japanese sources put the figure at about 40,000. A wartime tribunal placed it at 142,000.

Inadequate records and wartime chaos mean the truth probably will never be known, but there is little evidence of ambiguity at the museum, where giant “300,000 Victims” signs in 11 languages dominate the entrance.

Yet Beijing also is walking a fine line amid efforts to craft a rapprochement with Tokyo.

“I don’t think they want too much attention on this right now,” said Chen Shiwei, 40, a taxi driver whose father survived the massacre.

Economic links with Japan are a vital part of a Chinese bid to reduce regional tensions and focus on “harmonious” domestic development. About 150,000 Japanese live in China, and President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit Japan next year.

Beijing, which can set the tone with a few calls from its propaganda department, sent few central government leaders to mark the anniversary and has given muted support to memorial events. This stands in marked contrast to 2005, when it initially tolerated rioting in several major cities over Japanese history extbooks.


But Nanjing, a walled city of beautiful parks and stately boulevards, is no stranger to Beijing’s changing moods. In the decades after the Communists took over in 1949, the city faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination for its role as former capital of the hated Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan.

Nanjing’s many residents from families linked to the Nationalists were persecuted in “struggle sessions” during the Cultural Revolution. The American missionaries and European businessmen who saved thousands of Chinese during the Nanjing massacre were condemned during the height of Mao’s upheaval as foreign spies. And Beijing was for many years stingy with development money, Nanjing residents say, even as the city’s neighbors grew rich with China’s opening to the outside world.

More recently, however, Beijing has found the city increasingly useful. “A negative can become a positive,” said Jing Shenghong, a history professor with Nanjing Normal University.

Nanjing has played a role in boosting nationalism as communism has become a less credible ideology. “The government has emphasized Nanjing in its patriotic education,” said Huang Dahui, a professor at People’s University in Beijing. “This helps bring people together, which every country tries to do.”

Middle- and high-school history textbooks have near-identical wording about the massacre, said Wen-Chuan Dai, a Yale graduate student who has looked at its treatment in the Chinese curriculum, centered on China’s intense suffering and Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge the event.

Since 2005, Nanjing also has become increasingly useful as a place to bring Taiwanese politicians eager to see the former capital, as Beijing has concluded that Taiwan’s once-hated Nationalists are far preferable to their independence-leaning rivals.


The museum and the massacre also have helped portray China as a victim, a helpful counter to foreign uneasiness with China’s rapid rise and a way to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Taiwanese by emphasizing the adversaries’ shared pain in the face of Japanese aggression.

Nearly a dozen films on the Nanjing massacre are playing or in various stages of production.

As Ma Shanshan, a 20-year-old college student, prepared to lay a flower at the memorial in honor of her great-grandfather killed in 1937, she reflected on the complex emotions raised by the anniversary.

“We have a Japanese teacher,” she said, surrounded by her classmates. “Some Japanese are good, some are not. You can’t generalize. I just hope this museum reminds people not to forget the past.”