On Nanjing

06 May 2002

Well, I just got back from Nanjing. I saw the city as well as my friend Ray. A lot of people have told me that Nanjing is a boring city and not worth seeing, but I still wanted to check it out. It didn’t wow me at all, but I did think it was a nice city. It’s bigger amd more modern than Hangzhou, but without some of the touristy “West Lake and surrounding green mountains” charm.

So I got to hang out with Ray and his friends Yunfei and Xiao Zhu. It was an interesting experience. We saw the place where they work, a sort of weight loss clinic. Weight loss by machine, that is. Check out the photo section for pics of some of this.

Nanjing doesn’t have a lot to see… “Purple Mountain” and Sun Yat-sen’s tomb (along with some scattered attractions of scant interest), the Ming Wall around the city, museums, The Yangtze River, and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. This last one was of greatest interest to me, as my studies have gotten me caught up in both Chinese and Japanese culture, and the relation between the two as well. I read The Rape of Nanking a few years back, and it left a deep impression. So I got to see the memorial to the estimated 300,000 victims recently.

It was definitely shocking. The memorial was built on the excavation site of one of the mass graves where the Japanese dumped the bodies of Chinese soldiers and civilians. This excavation site is on display, the bones of the victims laid bare for all to see. You can see skeletons of 3-year-old children, decapitated skeletons, skeletons with gauges in the bones and holes in skulls from Japanese bayonets and iron nails. It was really disturbing, realizing that these are the actual bones of those poor people I was looking at. There were plenty of photos and textual documentation within the museum as well, but the skeletons in the excavation pit hit hardest.

It was very moving. The horror, the plight of the Chinese. The bravery of those that tried to help. A letter written by a Japanese schoolkid who learned about everything for the first time on a visit to Nanjing. (It was on display, and I read it, but it was all in Japanese, without even a Chinese translation!)

But in some ways it was disappointing. Although some items, like the letter mentioned above, were not translated, most displays were in Chinese, Japanese, and English. However, I couldn’t help but compare the Nanjing Massacre Memorial to the two memorials to the atomic bomb victims I have visited in Japan. I can’t name many specifics, but those Japanese memorials just left overall impressions of very well-composed memorials (even taking into account that the Japanese displays make absolutely no mention of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or the rest of the wartime context — they’re presented like war crimes committed in a vacuum!). Perhaps part of my disappointment was linguistic; captions for Chinese exhibits have a habit of telling you how you should react emotionally to what you’re seeing, and that’s definitely distracting and tacky to Western sensibilities.

I’m not going to make a laundry list of complaints, though. Overall it was done tastefully, the smoldering animosity the Chinese feel to this day over war crimes that still have not been atoned for or even fully acknowledged was withheld from the text of any of the displays.

It makes for a very depressing and draining several hours, but I feel like it’s something I have a human obligation to see. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial is a part of my China experience that will stick with me.

Share

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *