For those who are willing to learn, China’s Nanjing Memorial Museum offers lessons in overcoming the tyranny of the past.
Despite a history spanning over 2,000 years, the events that truly crystallise Nanjing’s identity took place in a mere six weeks. In the aftermath of its capture by Japanese forces in December 1937, Nanjing — once one of the four major capitals of ancient China — became the site of brutal massacres in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and captured soldiers were murdered and tens of thousands of women were raped by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Those six hellish weeks, painfully chronicled in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanjing and recently brought to the screen in Christian Bale’s Flowers of War continue to shape China’s national identity.
According to Chinese authorities, the death toll from the incident stands at a total of 300,000 and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimates that at least 20,000 women were raped. On the spot where a mass grave with 10,000 bodies was discovered now stands the Nanjing Memorial Museum, a sombre grey building where the citizens of Nanjing assemble every year on the anniversary of this Chinese holocaust. Surprisingly, rather than swearing retribution and vengeance for one of the bloodiest massacres in history, they take an oath of peace.
Young and old, Chinese citizens routinely visit the Memorial Museum to look at the skeletal remains of victims and other war mementoes, including photographs and videos of victims, the testimonies of survivors, and the diary records of foreigners who witnessed the atrocities. On any given day, among the local and foreign visitors, you can spot scores of students holding the Chinese flag as they visit the museum for study tours.
Regardless of which country you are from, a tour of the museum is an emotionally racking experience. As visitors view scenes depicting the atrocities wreaked on the unfortunate residents of Nanjing, they also read the thoughts of the survivors of the massacre.
“What we must remember,” exhorts one quote on display, “is history, not hatred.” This might have been poignant coming from any Chinese, but what makes this sentiment truly extraordinary is that its author, Li Xiuying, is one of those who suffered horrifically at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.
She was only 18 years old and seven months pregnant when Nanjing fell and when she was discovered hiding in an American mission school by imperial soldiers they slashed at her swollen belly with their swords. She survived thanks to the help of an American doctor, but her unborn baby died.
“Forgivable but not forgettable,” reads the inscription over the gate of the Memorial Hall, and it is clear that the sentiment runs throughout the museum where, alongside the moving scenes of war, are inscriptions that call for an end to hatred and the cultivation of peace between China and Japan.
In the Chinese narrative, Nanjing forms an inextricable part of national identity, and it is interesting to see the lessons imparted to the younger Chinese generations in their visits to the museum. In the memorial hall, along with other artifacts of war and the skeletons of scores of victims, there is a special section where every 12 seconds a drop of water falls and, simultaneously, the photo of a victim is briefly lit. This signifies that during the six weeks of the Rape of Nanjing, one life ended every 12 seconds.
But the anger that might be generated by such displays is tempered by words of conciliation. An inscription from Judge Mei Ruao, who was part of the International Military Tribunal set up to investigate Japan’s war crimes in China and the Far East reads: “I am not bent on revenge, and I have no intention to blame the Japanese people for the blood debt owed by Japanese militarists But I believe that to forget the sufferings in the past will incur disasters in the future.”
For the Chinese, these past sufferings have paved the way for a more peaceful future. A ‘Bell of Peace’ depicts the Nanjing Massacre in words and pictures, and sounds on December 13 every year, and a new hall representing a ‘ship of peace’ opened on the 70th anniversary of the massacre.
“Past experience, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future,” said former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, when China and Japan put behind two centuries of intermittent warfare and, recognising economic realities, resumed diplomatic ties on the 29th of September, 1972.
But just because it has opted for peace over aggression and hostility does not mean that China has forgotten what it suffered. To the contrary, China’s biggest takeaway from the tragedy is inscribed on the Wall of Calamity in the Museum: “We will never forget that weakness invites aggression that causes the whole nation to suffer.”
Consequently, in the years after Nanjing, China has determinedly made itself stronger by building up both its economy and its military and, ironically, close diplomatic relations with Japan have been key to achieving these goals.
“We may not have positive sentiments towards Japan but we have very good trade relations with them. The Japanese were much more advanced in technology when we established diplomatic relations, and we learnt a lot from them,” says a Chinese lady from Nanjing.
Despite political relations that tend to get fractious over historical issues, as well as the status of Taiwan, the two-way trade volume between the two countries reached $266.79 billion in 2008, with China becoming the biggest destination for Japanese exports in 2009. In Nanjing, where they had once overrun the city, the Japanese now invest in mega projects and shopping malls. It is in no small part due to this kind of cooperation that in 2010 China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy.
These two countries can provide Pakistan and India’s foreign policy makers with a pointer or two. After all, there are more than a few parallels in the two relationships: an inextricably linked history, a strongly shared cultural heritage, and contention over territory that has often led to violence. Sino-Japanese relations have been far bloodier and far more contentious than those of Pakistan and India, but that does not prevent the two countries from living in peace and working towards a mutual prosperity. If we could learn but one lesson from the dragon next door, it is that we should remember and commemorate our history, but not be slaves to it.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 10th, 2012.
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