Almost 80 years ago, one of the worst atrocities committed in modern history unfolded in Nanjing (then Nanking), China. Then the capital of the newly-formed republic, Nanjing was a prime target for the advancing Japanese troops.
What happened after they took the city on December 13, 1937 is now know as The Rape of Nanking (more information here, but be warned that it is not easy reading at all and is NSFW in every sense).
World War Two came early to China, and brutally. This sculpture at the entrance of the Nanjing Memorial is inspired by a famous photo taken of a baby caught up in the bombing in Shanghai (1937). The bombing was at South Shanghai Railway Station, and hit a large group of women and children hoping to be evacuated to the interior. The child survived, but the mother did not. Shanghai South Railway Station is less than ten minutes from where I live.
The atrocities at Nanjing are some of the worst that I have ever read about, and I was not told about it until I was in high school. Many in the US and elsewhere have never heard of the place, much less of the mass murder, rape, and looting that took place there.
It was a bitterly cold January day when we visited. In 1937, the last week of the massacre was just beginning, having stretched six weeks from the original taking of the city in December. It was not hard at all to imagine what it would have been like, felt like, and even smelled like. The entryway to the memorial is intense and bleak at the same time, somehow magnified by the great gray above.
The entryway is moving, but the decent into the ground inside makes it feel as if you are going directly back to that time. The story is told in fair and mostly evenhanded terms, in Chinese, Japanese, and English. One moves from the conquest of Shanghai and Suzhou into the defence of Nanjing itself by a force largely made of civilians.
I knew about the general story, but I learned quite a lot from the memorial. There were many foreigners, many Americans included, who stayed behind even when the Japanese Army triumphantly moved in. They stayed to help civilians as possible, and to document what was happening in Nanjing. The one with a hugely impressive story and who I had not heard of before was Minnie Vautrin, an American who stayed in the city during the massacre and fought to protect women and children. By some accounts, she helped provide care for up to 9000 orphans of the massacre. She wrote when air raids on Nanjing began:
“I personally feel that I cannot leave… Men are not asked to leave their ships when they are in danger and women are not asked to leave their children.”
Due to the trauma of what she experienced during the massacre, she completed suicide in 1940.
There are many parts of the memorial I did not photograph out of respect. This includes the three mass graves that were found beneath it. One is called the ‘Ten Thousand People Pit,’ and is the largest. It is full of bones piled on bones, excavated and now preserved for everyone to see.
By far the most difficult part of the visit is looking at the many, many tiny skeletons among the adults. There are at least five visible infants in the mass grave, the oldest being about three. Some of my students are three. A nine-year-old boy shows evidence of long nails hammered into his legs and shoulders, before one through his head. I don’t believe I have ever been so physically close to evil.
A young boy of about three was with his parents, going about the same pace as us through the memorial. The contrast of his bemused face, full of life over his grandfather’s shoulder, and that of the three year old child dead and bayoneted in the photograph on a wall within the memorial was almost too much to take. He was blissfully unaware. An innocent in all senses of the word.
Here he is trying to find a perfect rock right in front of the Eternal Flame.
As I looked back and forth between him and the photo of the long-dead child, another image swam in between them. The image of Alan Kurdi from just last year, who fled similar war and atrocities to those in the Nanjing massacre in Syria. The horrifying similarity of these photos, taken nearly 80 years apart, speaks clearly:
We have still not learned the lessons of Nanjing.
People are still working, year in and year out, to find and name all of the victims of the Rape of Nanjing. It is a beautiful, welcoming, and thriving city in 2016. The resilience of people is truly amazing, and we can only hope that in 79 years my great-grandchild may go to an equally beautiful memorial in Homs or Aleppo.
The peace bell outside the memorial reads:
“The remembrance of the past is the guide for the future; take history as a mirror and create a better future.”