On Dec. 13, China will mark the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre. That day in 1937 was the beginning of a Japanese attack on the ancient capital and more than six weeks of murder, rape, looting, and destruction. At least 200,000 people were killed and 20,000 women raped.
The massacre was one of the last century’s greatest crimes. But few in the West remember it as such because it happened during a conflict that also included one of humanity’s greatest crimes. China’s reluctance to grapple with it tells us a lot about the risks and rewards of revisiting massacres, lessons that resonate from Armenia to Rwanda, Poland to Myanmar. Delving into the dark moments of the past can be empowering but the politics of the present often re-frame, and sometimes distort, the past.
Comparisons between the Holocaust and the Nanjing Massacre have been increasingly common in the 20 years since American journalist Iris Chang titled her best-selling book “The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” Whether or not the historical comparisons are appropriate, the description is part of China’s attempt to join in the global rise of victimization narratives. As Ohio State professor Kirk Denton argues, connecting Nanjing to other atrocities allows the Chinese to make public this shameful chapter from the past. It also gives legitimacy to their historical claims — if it’s not acceptable to deny the Holocaust, it also cannot be acceptable to deny the massacre or other Japanese barbarities, such as medical experiments on live victims by Unit 731 in Harbin.
The Chinese waited decades to discuss the Nanjing massacre. At the time of the attack, the horrors were widely reported in Chinese and international media. But soon after, coverage faded. Nanjing had been defended by Nationalist soldiers, many of whom tried to assimilate into the civilian population as their leaders fled.
But when the Communist Party took power in 1949, the government had little interest in talking about the Nationalists, the war with Japan, or a string of other humiliations that stretched back to the Opium War of the 1840. China was the only Asian country that didn’t seek reparations from Japan.
There were sporadic mentions, usually blaming the bloodshed on betrayal. In 1952, a Chinese magazine condemned foreigners who had established a civilian safety zone in Nanjing, falsely claiming the foreigners sent Chinese to be executed. In the 1960s, Nanjing University historians produced an eight-chapter manuscript that criticized the safety zone and used memoirs to attack Nationalist generals for not protecting the city. The manuscript was classified.
As China grew its economy in the 1970s, the government established ties with the United States, Japan and other countries. The first Judaic Studies program in China was established at Nanjing University in the late 70s. The “Jewish massacre,” as it was called in Chinese, became part of the conversation.
But economic expansion was uneven. The widening gap between rich and poor, as well as widespread corruption, threatened the economy and social stability. So the government promoted nationalism and patriotism to distract its people and revived discussion of Japanese atrocities.
Communist leaders created a committee of academics to research the Nanjing massacre. They interviewed more than 1,700 survivors and recorded their testimonies. Small monuments were constructed throughout Nanjing.
Articles and films told the story of the massacre. The public learned of long-suppressed details of the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing and other cities. And the Chinese diaspora community, particularly in the United States, advocated remembering the massacre.
The government funded national museums to address the past. The “Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders” first opened in 1985. The architect, Qi Kang, based some of his design on the Holocaust museums in the West, particularly Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The memorial is somber and bleak. The main exhibition hall included the bones of victims from the massacre. Qi said he wanted visitors to feel they were entering a tomb. Later renovations added an exhibit of memorial lights. In Nanjing, the lights represent families; at Yad Vashem, the lights represent individuals. The hall also was expanded to include a walkway of sculptures next to a reflecting pool — including a mother carrying the limp body of her child — an exhibition hall, a peace garden and a courtyard with bronze footprints of survivors. A memorial wall with names of victims resembles the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Japan first apologized in 1972 for their actions in World War II but various officials and academics have repeatedly denied or diminished Japan’s atrocities. And visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 war criminals are enshrined, enrage the Chinese. The anger peaked when some Japanese school textbooks were revised to delete any mention of the massacre. In 2005, Chinese demonstrators throughout the country attacked Japanese embassies, consulates, and businesses. Similar protests have erupted in more recent years over the disputed islands off the coast of Japan claimed by China.
As China continues to embrace a market economy, the Hall has become a popular tourist destination. Exhibitions were added to show how foreigners protected Chinese in the international safety zone. Japanese historians provided artifacts, videos, and testimonies about the atrocities. More than 8 million people visit the hall each year.
In 2014, Dec. 13 was declared a national memorial day in China. President Xi Jinping used that occasion to offer a small olive branch to Tokyo at a time when tensions over disputed islands were particularly heightened. “We should not bear hatred against an entire nation just because a small minority of militarists launched aggressive wars,” he said.
The anniversary this week will also feature a speech from Xi, fresh off a Communist Party congress that was marked by assertions of confidence and a newly muscular Chinese foreign policy. At the congress, Xi described China’s rise and road ahead with a famous saying: The last leg of a journey marks the halfway point.
The struggle to save the Nanjing massacre from the forces of forgetting has a similarly long road ahead.James R. Ross is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University.