A Lesson Manifested in Nanjing

As a junior in high school I was astonished by what I learned in my Chinese history class.  Each lesson seemed more and more foreign and I still remember having nightmares about one particular lesson from the gruesome stories I heard: The Rape of Nanjing.  I remember coming home and telling my family all about the Japanese and how they wanted to conquer China, describing all of the atrocities I heard that day in class as if they were elements of a horror story made up in someone’s head.

This weekend I traveled with Fudan’s School of Social Development and Public Policy to none other than Nanjing itself.  We visited the National Museum for the Nanjing Massacre and saw both abstract and very concrete depictions of what had happened during the few weeks in 1936 and 1937 when the massacre took place.  There were explanations of the events and descriptions of people who had killed, been killed, and had helped save the lives of many.  It was more than eerie to be inside that room, reading every plaque and seeing the faces of many of the deceased as well as some of the survivors and knowing that some of them are still alive today living with the heavy burden of the memory of this event.  This experience brought to life what I had learned in a textbook a few years ago and taught me about people’s feelings and reality, but also about the way history plays out and is remembered.

There were signs and plaques throughout the museum that referred to the future and how ordinary people need to remember history in order to avoid conflict and the unnecessary loss of human life in the future.  There was a very paternalistic tone that reflected on peace around the world and ending violence; it implied that everyone should be part of that movement.  Even though this moment in history is taught as an embarrassment for China that could barely defend itself from the small island of Japan, the museum’s rhetoric turns that idea around and points out an embarrassment for a heartless Japan.  It is important to mention that every plaque in the museum was translated into three languages: Chinese, English, and Japanese.  It was clear that through this museum and China’s stance in general that Nanjing was warning Japan, and other countries in general, never to try anything like this again because China is prepared to fight.  The anger and pain that the Nanjing Massacre created toward the Japanese and among the Chinese may truly be “Forgivable, but unforgettable.”