A Private Grief

07:19 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

The first time I boarded the Nanjing Metro, I was struck by the clamour and chatter. Confined spaces often hush gathered crowds but here in Nanjing, the chitchat continued undisturbed. As we approached Yunjin Lu station however, a collective silence passed through the carriages. In the ground above us, hundreds of bodies had been discovered in mass graves - All victims of the Rape of Nanking.

I departed at Yunjin Lu to visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. The Rape of Nanking massacre was committed by invading Japanese forces  in the winter of 1937. The Japanese Army lay seige to the city of Nanjing, subjecting both Chinese military and the city's civilian population to weeks of torture. There were more than 300,000 victims left dead and countless rapes, assaults and lootings were committed. For comparison the population of the city of Manchester is today around 123,000. Another chapter a horrific and often brutal history between two Asiatic neighbours.

Before entering the memorial, I had a walk through the surrounding residential area. I picked up some breakfast and wandered through the narrow alleyways.  Children laughed together and a woman combed her freshly-washed hair. A scooter shot passed me and I followed it deeper into the community. The scooter flew round a blind corner and when I turned, the scooter and path were lost to a dead-end. I turned around and headed towards the Memorial.
The Memorial is a series of gardens, monuments and exhibitions. It is located on one of the actual sites at which the mass graves were discovered. Out of respect for the deceased (and the rules of the Memorial) I didn't take pictures inside - the Chinese continued to take pictures though.

The action exhibition hall is dramatic and moving. Lighting, audio and narrowing spaces all manipulate your emotions alongside the often heartbreaking exhibits. The exhibition is titled "A Human Holocaust: An Exhibition of the Historical Facts of the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese Aggressors". The title leaves no room for subtlety or objectivity. The exhibition is undoubtedly bias, but then which exhibitions are not free from subjectivity or personal opinion?

A huge hall naming the 300,000 victims leads onto a series of rooms with recreated scenes, exhibits, photos, videos and testimonies (in Chinese, English and Japanese). The narrative of the whole massacre was presented alongside individual stories of victims and 'martyrs'.

There were horrifying stories of men hiding in the mass graves beneath dead bodies whilst Japanese soldiers bayoneted and burned the bodies. Screams surrounded the few survivors, who could do nothing but wait and listen until the soldiers moved on.

Mistakes by Chinese command aren't mentioned in the exhibition. The Chinese Government themselves closed the city walls so that the residents might protect their city. Instead, the residents were just prevented from escaping the ensuing massacre. I was also amazing that the cities defensive wall actually facilitated the Japanese invasion. Once the Japanese had taken a Gate on the wall, they were able to quickly surround the city.

The exhibition then moves onto the first of several exhumed mass graves. The building's floor is peeled back to reveal the twisted and shattered skeletons of countless victims. Some of the skeletons were of similar ages to my students at school - many littered with bayonet and bullet holes.

I found the exhibition almost heartbreaking. The Chinese visitors seemed less moved. Firstly, this is a well worn story amongst the Chinese and if frequently drawn upon for 'motivational' needs. More importantly however, it is important within Chinese culture to not display excessive emotion, especially if it is negative. The nurture and preservation of ones 'face' is paramount. I stood looking at a picture of a beheaded civilian feeling distraught, whilst the Chinese compatriots beside me were stoic. A private grief. They did stop taking pictures though. I known they must have been torn apart inside, it was just an unusual atmosphere. If this were the west, people would have been tearful and would have reinforced each others sorrow.

I was pleased to see some of the exhibition was dedicated to foreign humanitarians. It would be very easy to portray all foreigners as 'devils' but this had been avoided. However for every sensible curative decision there were crass, crude and blatant faux-classical paintings of blood, piled-bodies and crying babies.

As the exhibition drew to a close, I was amazing (and a little relieved) to see quotes such as "We must remember history, not hate". The exhibition could easily been an exercise in patriotic bigotry, especially with recent Sino-Japanese political issues. It is true that some parts of the exhibition strike this note but the overall message is of peace. No mention of forgiveness though. The peace statue and dove aviary were nice touches to reinforce the message.

Afterwards, I told a Chinese friend of my visit. My gentle and otherwise harmless friend replied "Now you understand why we hate the Japanese so much". I have to disagree. I can understand the sorrow and the anger but I could never understand hatred. I will never hate a German for what their compatriots were compelled to do during the 20th Century; just as I would hope an Indian (or African, native American, etc) would not hate me because of the Imperialistic crimes committed in the name of England. When unfathomable atrocities strike us, we are all victims.

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