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Nanjing Remembered

By Monique Burns

“Family Ruined,” Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Photo Monique Burns

Great capitals go in and out of fashion.  Take Nanjing.   For decades, the city has been eclipsed by Beijing,  China’s political capital, 600 miles north.   Shanghai, China’s ultramodern business capital, 200 miles east, has stolen the spotlight, too, with 21st-century skyscrapers and 19th-century European landmarks along its riverside Bund.   As China actively promotes tourism among Westerners, Nanjing  is finally re-emerging from the shadows.

Incredibly,  Nanjing has been capital of 10 dynasties and regimes over 1,800 years.   As Ming Dynasty capital, Nanjing–or Nanking–was the world’s largest city between 1358 and 1425, boasting a population of 500,000.  Capital of Jiangsu Province since 1949, Nanjing is a leader in economics, education, politics and transportation. 

As for tourism, attractions include the 11th-century Confucius Temple, the 14th-century Ming Palace, and the 15th-century Porcelain Tower, rebuilt in 2015 and often listed among the world’s Seven Wonders.  On Purple Mountain,  the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum honors the “Father of Modern China”  who established the republic in 1912.

Like many older cities,  Nanjing has a certain grittiness.  But these days, Nanjing  is cleaning itself up and preparing for its international close-up.   Contemporary wonders  include new luxury hotels like the Jumeirah Nanjing, designed by the late Zaha Hadid, and stylish eateries like Frenzy Fountain Teahouse Restaurant,  a frothy-pink, Brit-accented fantasy serving up huge seafood platters and lots of bubbly.  There’s even a craft brewery, Master Gao, named for the  charismatic brewer who created Baby IP and Jasmine Tea Lager after honing his art in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the Pacific Northwest.

Skeletal remains from 1937 Rape of Nanjing PHOTO Monique Burns

Yet  Nanjing remains forever identified with the horrific Rape of Nanjing, an event retold at the contemporary Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.  

On December  13, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War,  Nanjing–then China’s capital–fell to the Japanese.   Over the next 6-8 weeks, what followed  was a nonstop orgy of arson, looting and violence.   Some 300,000 Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers were murdered in mass executions.  Machine-gunned and bayoneted, they were thrown into the Yangtze River or huge pits.   Many were buried alive.  

As for women, Japanese  soldiers went from house to house, systematically raping tens of thousands of them, including nuns, pregnant women and the elderly.   Not even small children were exempt.  Some were even cut open to facilitate penetration.  Many Japanese soldiers left sticks and bayonets protruding  from their victims’ sexual organs.

The Rape of Nanjing became known as the “Forgotten Holocaust,” a phrase from the 1997 book, The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang.   But Chang’s reference doesn’t diminish Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews from 1938 to 1945.  Rather, it recognizes the Nanjing Massacre as another act of unspeakable horror and genocide.

In 1985, nearly 50 years later, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall opened in the southwest  Jiangdongmen area where thousands of victims had been murdered and thrown into mass graves.  Built over the ” Pit of Ten Thousand Corpses,”  the complex is part-memorial , part-museum, part-graveyard, part-peace garden. 

Poignant sculpture of raped woman PHOTO Monique Burns

The Sculpture Plaza, it’s lined with bronzes by sculptor Wu Weishan  who studied at Nanjing Normal University and  Washington University Graduate School of Art in St. Louis, Missouri.   His artistic influences include German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz whose Pietà-like “Mother With Her Dead Son,” inspired by the loss of her teenager,  Peter, during World War I, forms the centerpiece of  Neue Wache war memorial in Berlin.

Fittingly, we first encounter “Family Ruined,”  a 40-foot sculpture of a mother and child. Her body curiously elongated, her hair disheveled, her mouth a silent wail, the mother holds her child’s limp, lifeless body.  It’s at once a reference to  women who lost children during the massacre, to the genocide that Nanjing suffered, and to “Mother China” and the loss of her great capital.  

Ranged atop a long, narrow reflecting pool, “Fleeing From Calamity” depicts a series of bronze figures escaping the disaster.   Half-clothed, a raped woman laments: “Only to die!  Only to die! Only death can wipe off the stain!”  An intellectual, bent under his wife’s limp body, bears the epitaph:  “How wretched she was!  My poor wife!  The devil raped you, stabbed you…We were together even though we died.”  

Disembodied head in courtyard PHOTO Monique Burns

Steps from a large brass memorial bell, in the adjacent courtyard,  a towering  stone cross lists the Nanjing Massacre dates: December 13,  1937 through January 1938.  Yet many historians believe the atrocities continued into March, extending  the Rape of Nanjing into a 12-week reign of terror. 

Stark black-marble walls show the number 300,000 in several  languages.  The generally accepted death toll, it’s considerably higher than the 40,000-50,000 count that the Japanese gave for the disaster they call the “Nanjing Incident.”   The toll will likely climb even higher in coming decades as more bones are unearthed.

A nearby sculpture makes me shudder.  Rising from the ground are a large disembodied arm and hand and, several feet away, a bronze head.  It’s a haunting symbol of victims buried alive during the Nanjing Massacre as well as victims still waiting to be unearthed.

Partially underground, the entrance to the Main Exhibit Hall was designed to evoke the feeling of entering a tomb, says Dr. Qi Kang, a professor at Nanjing’s Southeast University and the Memorial’s architect.

In a darkened room, large-scale sets depict  a destroyed city wall and ruined shops.   Overlooking  the scene are Nanjing’s victims, captured in sepia photographs.  Surrounded by the sounds  and flashing lights of gunfire and exploding bombs, I relive the Battle of Nanjing.   But just beyond is another ghastly sight: a sprawling pit strewn with skeletal remains. 

Infamous sword killing contest PHOTO Monique Burns

A thousand artifacts, including photos , documents,  charts, paintings and sculptures, trace the Nanjing Massacre.   Among them: Tokyo’s Nichi Nichi Shimbun newspaper clipping about  the contest between two soldiers to kill at least 100 Chinese citizens with swords.   Reported like a sporting event, the clip shows them posing with swords beside the headline “Incredible Record–Mukai 106-105 Noda. Both 2nd Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings.”  

The Nanjing Massacre also produced  heroes.  Especially interesting to Westerners are displays about Americans and Europeans living and working in Nanjing. 

Born in Hamburg, Germany,  John Rabe worked in Nanjing  as a Siemens executive and local Nazi Party leader.  In November 1937, as the Japanese advanced, Rabe, along with 22 other Americans and Europeans, organized the Nanjing Safety Zone, a two-square-mile area housing 250,000 Chinese civilians in colleges and foreign embassies.  Largely successful , the Safety Zone wasn’t always respected.   Three days after Nanjing fell, Rabe wrote letters about the rapes of 100 girls at Ginling Women’s College and two women from Nanking Theological Seminary.  

In Berlin in 1938, Rabe lectured about the massacre.  But, after sending a 260-page report to Hitler, Rabe was interrogated by the Gestapo.  The Führer had signed an alliance with Japan in 1936.   Rabe was forbidden to lecture or write further about Nanjing.  

Credited with saving 250,000 lives, the Hamburg businessman became known as the “Oskar Schindler of China” after the German industrialist immortalized in the 1993 blockbuster,  Schindler’s List.  Depicted in the 2009 movie, John Rabe, by German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger, his diaries were collected in the 1998 book, The Good Man of Nanjing

Minnie Vautrin, American Goddess of Mercy PHOTO Monique Burns

 American “Goddess of Mercy”  Wilhelmina Vautrin, a missionary from a small town outside Peoria,  Illinois, founded Ginling Women’s College, now part of Nanjing University, in 1913. Some 10,000 Chinese women sheltered there during the Rape of Nanjing.   A statue of Minnie Vautrin shows her lurching forward, arms outstretched, shielding her charges. 

The Nanjing Massacre profoundly affected Vautrin.  In 1941, on leave from China, she–like author Iris Chang in 2004–committed suicide.   Vautrin  received China’s prestigious Emblem of the Blue Jade posthumously.  The 2000 book, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanjing, by Dr. Hua-ling Hu, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also honors her.

Dr. Robert O. Wilson was another hero.  Born in Nanjing to missionaries and educated at Harvard Medical School, Wilson was a surgeon at Ginling’s Drum Tower Hospital.  Portrayed by Steve Buscemi  in the film, John Rabe, Wilson not only ministered to the wounded but recorded  atrocities.  “The slaughter.. is appalling,” he wrote.  “…Cases of rape and brutality [are] almost beyond belief….”

John Magee, an Episcopal minister and Yale grad from Pittsburgh, shot the first documentary about the Nanjing Massacre.  It was sent to the German Embassy and on to Nazi headquarters in Berlin.  The 16mm film had no immediate effect, but later proved of inestimable value.

Peace Garden PHOTO Monique Burns

Beyond the Main Exhibit Hall is a large grassy knoll, the Pit of Ten Thousand Corpses, where many victims were unearthed in 1985.  Atop the mound, a bronze sculpture of a mother searches frantically for her lost child.  Finally, we reach the Peace Garden with its long reflecting pool and statue of a woman holding a child in one arm and, in the other,  a dove of peace. 

Critics contend that the Memorial doesn’t really explain why the Nanjing Massacre occurred.  But that’s a complex question likely to be debated by generations of historians, sociologists and psychologists.   

Can atrocities be explained by the frustration and fatigue of Japanese soldiers who marched on Nanjing after the long, difficult siege of Shanghai? 

Were the soldiers caught up in the kind of dangerous “mob mentality” that gives groups tacit permission to act in inhumane (or illegal) ways without feeling revulsion, guilt or a sense of individual responsibility? 

Or was there simply a failure of leadership?

The Memorial’s International Poster Biennale for Peace. Photo Monique Burns.

Prince Yasuhiko Asaka gave the fateful order to “kill all captives.”   But responsibility for troops lay with Commander-in-Chief  Gen.  Iwane Matsui.  

Son of a Japanese scholar of Chinese classics, Gen. Matsui wrote Chinese poetry as a hobby, counted Dr. Sun Yat-sen among his friends and fervently believed in Pan-Asian cooperation.   Educated at the elite Army War College in Tokyo, Matsui was, by all accounts, a “general’s general.”

Aware that an occupying army posed a serious threat to Nanjing’s citizens,  Matsui gave strict orders to prevent excesses.  But they were largely ignored.   Weeping “tears of anger,”  Matsui chastised his younger officers for the atrocities, but they laughed at him.   Well-versed in the art of war, the honorable soldier understood how important courtesy and compassion can be in securing victory and, ultimately, rebuilding the peace.

Back in Japan, Matsui erected a statue in his garden of Kannon, Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and prayed twice daily for both Chinese and Japanese war victims.   Eventually, he converted from Shinto to Buddhism.

 In 1948, Gen. Matsui was sentenced to hang for war crimes.  In a final statement, he blamed the Nanjing Massacre, history’s “Forgotten Holocaust,”  on the moral decline of the Japanese army after the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.  He also expressed hope that his death would usher in reform.  

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall offers parting words, too, etched in gold on a long white-marble wall:  BEAR HISTORY IN MIND…CHERISH PEACE.


Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. 418 Shuiximen St., Jianye District, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province,  China. 86-25-8661-2230. http://www.nj1937.org

Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.
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