Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    Remembering Tragedy in Nanjing

    Art and architecture at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall remind us not to forget — and hint at ways to forgive.

    On this day in 1937, at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Japanese Army captured Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China. In the ensuing 6 weeks, large numbers of Japanese soldiers perpetrated horrific acts of violence against the defenseless local population, looting, killing, and raping at will. On the anniversary of this dark event in modern Asian history, we naturally mourn the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. But what is the best way to remember tragedy? How should people deal with their traumatic pasts?

    In his famous essay, American philosopher Arthur Danto wrote that we “build memorials so that we shall never forget.” Memorials are artifacts that play a crucial role in shaping how we remember our shared past. Contrary to monuments, which generally celebrate a nation’s heroes and victories, memorials are tributes to the fallen. They are somber respites from the haste of our daily concerns, when we contemplate the sacrifice, trauma, and tragedy which — along with triumph — make us who we are as a nation or a community.

    The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is one such artifact, honoring the memories of those who fell during the 1937 invasion and stating unequivocally that such horror shall not be forgotten. Inaugurated in August 1985, the memorial was designed by Qi Kang, a Nanjing architect. It underwent two major expansions in 1995 and 2007, which both considerably extended Qi’s original design. In its present state, three main elements constitute the overall structure of the memorial: an exhibition hall of historical documents, an area of so-called graveyard grounds sheltered by church-like architectonic structures, and an outdoor art exhibition.

    The moral tone of the memorial is set even before entering the hall’s main structure. One of the exterior walls of the exhibition hall leads to a walkway taking visitors around to the main entrance. The sides of the path are dotted with statues representing scenes from the Nanjing Massacre. A towering figure of a wailing mother holding her dying baby makes clear exactly who are memorialized therein: They are the innocent women, children, and elderly who lost their lives in a war they never chose to fight.

    Walking along the L-shaped path into the complex, we eventually come to the entrance of the memorial. At the gateway to this place of memory stands a monumental stone. Dark in color and with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the tragedy, it is cracked down the middle. The aperture is wide enough for visitors to pass through and suggests a peek into a vast grave that lies beyond. 

    As we move through the opening, we enter into the emotional space that Qi sought to create. We come to a square revealing one of the memorial’s most impressive sections: “Disaster in the Ancient City.” A sculpture of a head is lying on the ground, severed from its owner’s body, which is still half-buried in the sand. It has been cut by a Japanese knife whose menacing silhouette can still be seen looming over the corpse. Behind it, an ancient-looking wall carries the marks of a battle, riddled with holes and cracks from bullets and bombs.

    Turning to their right, visitors can access the exhibition, which includes photographs and witness testimonies depicting the atrocities of the massacre. To get in, we need to descend a flight of stairs, an action which reinforces the feeling of figuratively stepping into a grave. Among the many artifacts of the war, explanations of the events of the massacre, and reconstructions of its most tragic moments, we glimpse a moving installation placed toward the end of the exhibition: a pool, into which a single drop of water falls every 12 seconds. This is a symbolically powerful way to signal the average amount of time between killings during the six-week massacre.

    Up to this point, the memorial has presented the massacre in stark terms, without much hope for a bright future or for the possibility of reconciliation. There is, however, a further path often neglected by visitors who focus solely on the exhibition. Taking this path reveals that the memorial hall is also about healing wounds and adding a modicum of hope in humanity to the arresting scenes around us.

    The path is accessible through the “Bridge of History,” which cuts across the wall of the work entitled “Disaster in the Ancient City.” The bridge takes us to a courtyard where we find a group of sculptures called “The Footprints of Witnesses to History.” It includes bronze casts of the footprints of 222 massacre survivors and a few representational sculptures depicting dramatic scenes from the days of the Japanese invasion. 

    Now we are walking alongside those who made it out alive, those for whom life simply had to go on. We are literally leaving behind the tragedy of war and seeing the possibilities that the future offered — a future that the survivors have helped to build. At the end of this path, the Peace Garden embodies the desire for reconciliation, the desire to create a new world where perpetrators and victims alike can see justice served and live together in harmony. 

    It is important to emphasize that Shikinsou Garden, a smaller section of the Peace Garden easily recognizable by its sculpture of a little girl holding a flower, has been sponsored by a fund organized by 83-year-old Hiroshi Yamaguchi, whose father, Seitaro, worked for the Japanese army in the aftermath of the massacre. 

    Seitaro was in Nanjing in 1939, amid the visible destruction that the army had wrought. He was surprised to see Nanjing’s Purple Mountain bedecked in violet flowers — what locals call “February orchids.” In the striking contrast between the beauty of those flowers and the desolation of the urban landscape around him, Seitaro saw the brutality of his compatriots’ actions. When he returned to Japan, he took with him a handful of orchid seeds. He planted them all over Japan, naming them “Flowers of Peace.”

    The Shikinsou Garden also touches on other gestures of repentance and restitution by the massacre’s perpetrators and their descendants. Among these acts of kindness, the Kumamoto Japan-China Friendship Association particularly stands out. Kumamoto, a prefecture located on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, was the home of the Japanese Sixth Division, a unit that carried out the Nanjing Massacre nearly 80 years ago. For the last 20 years, members of this association have regularly visited the Nanjing Memorial in order to express their support for Chinese victims. Moreover, every December members invite survivors of the massacre to speak at events in Japan at the members’ own expense. As a visible symbol of their ongoing outreach, the association has sponsored the planting of trees in a dedicated area of the Peace Garden. 

    These are tangible testaments to the possibility of a different future — to the fact that we need not be mired in hatred against those who have wronged us. Like the flower that the little girl is holding in the Shikinsou Garden, more tolerant ways of existing together can bloom. We can, therefore, add a further thought to the philosopher Danto’s remarks: While it is true that memorials allow us to never forget, they can also show us a way to forgive.

    (Header image: A man walks past a sculpture at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Dec. 13, 2007. Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images/VCG )