A visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall proved to be a moving experience. // © 2011 Skye Mayring
I never thought that visiting a massacre-themed museum would be a highlight of my trip to Nanjing, China. However, an afternoon spent at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was not only an eye-opening experience -- it was also a rare opportunity to learn about a historical event from the perspective of the victims and their survivors through mixed media, reportage, sculpture, war artifacts and historical records.
Preceding World War II, the Nanjing Massacre took place from December 1937 to January 1938, during which the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Nanjing, the capital of China at that time, killing and ravaging Chinese citizens by the masses. According to the investigation of the Nanjing Military Tribunal, the Japanese army committed 28 major massacres, murdering approximately 190,000 people. The total number of deaths has been under debate for quite some time, with most estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than 300,000.
"The Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanjing, is a very bad memory for the Chinese people, particularly for those from Nanjing," our guide told our group. "My grandmother hid in a cave for more than two months to avoid the Japanese occupation."
No cameras are allowed inside the museum, but the exterior of the main building and the surrounding grounds are quite photogenic. Huge sculptures with sobering subjects, such as a family fleeing an oncoming bomb raid or a mother holding her dead child in her arms, are as absorbing as they are formidable and a good indicator of what we would find once inside.
Taking the shape of a coffin and buried halfway into the ground, the museum itself is a memento mori. Dark and cavernous with exposed brick and stone walls, the memorial hall makes visitors feel as if they are hiding underground. The atmosphere is enhanced with the occasional, hollow sound of water dropping.
Possibly the most impressive section of the museum, an actual excavation site of skeletal remains, drew a large crowd. Our group learned that the excavation was not actually part of the original plans for the memorial hall. Rather, it came as quite a surprise when the skeletons were accidentally unearthed in April 2006 during the construction of the museum. The site remains exactly as it was found on that day. While 19 skeletons protrude from the dirt floor, experts suspect that several more skeletons are buried beneath the exposed layer.
We took our time walking from one exhibit to the next; it seemed as if everyone in our group found a compelling artifact, artwork or story that they wanted to spend more time studying at his or her own pace. I came across a display case of firearms, supplies and ammunition, including Type-98 grenades, canteens, helmets, rifles with sabers and Type-88 shells. From a plaque, I read that the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division of the Japanese Imperial Army received a command to "kill all Chinese, no matter [if] they are women or children, and burn their houses down." Large-scale black-and-white photographs of dead bodies hung on the walls.
Famous photographs, many of which were published in Life magazine, resonated with me and were difficult to remove from memory. One image showed an old man carrying a child who was killed during a bomb raid. Another photograph showed a Chinese man's decapitated head with a cigarette placed in his mouth. His head sat on top of a Japanese roadblock for all passing soldiers to see.
Nearby, a video showing injured children in a hospital, some with missing limbs, others with burnt faces, ran on repeat.
There are two floors to explore, although I found that touring the first floor was more than sufficient ó the more I learned about the Nanjing Massacre, the more nauseous I became. In fact, I found myself having to take a break from the harrowing stories and disturbing images, collecting my thoughts as I sat near the exit. I did, however, briefly browse the second floor, which details Japan's invasion of other parts of China, the surrender of the Japanese on Aug. 15, 1945 and the trails against Japanese war criminals.
Upon exiting the museum, visitors will walk past a meditation hall, tranquil gardens and an area for prayers and offerings. These sights were especially comforting after learning about the atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation and the hundreds of thousands who suffered or perished in Nanjing.
While I left the museum with a heavy heart, I found solace in knowing that, partly due to the efforts of the museum, the victims of the Nanjing Massacre and their families will not be forgotten.