Conflicts of National and International Memory at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

By Lewis Tatt

For the people of China, The Nanjing Massacre requires no introduction. In the Chinese mind-set this event is as significant as The Holocaust is in the European consciousness. However, international understanding of this event appears to be lacking – particularly in Europe where it is often overshadowed by tragedies closer to home. In East Asia, memory of Nanjing remains a barrier to Sino-Japanese relations more than seventy-five years on.

In late 1937, the Japanese army, intent on crushing the Chinese National Government (KMT) closed in on the capital, Nanjing. The KMT were forced to retreat following weeks of air raids and Nanjing was left weakly defended. When the city was finally captured a bloodbath ensued with “mopping up” operations being carried out along with the mass murder and rape of civilians. It is estimated that somewhere between two hundred and four hundred thousand people were killed in Nanjing over a six week period. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall (侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆), constructed in 1985, can help us begin to understand how memory of this event is presented to the Chinese people.

The agenda of the site becomes clear on approaching the museum –  a large sign proudly proclaims this “Grade four A” tourist attraction (国家AAAA级旅游景区), an unusual accolade for a memorial site to the victims of a massacre. The tone is further set by a series of graphic sculptures lining the path towards the main entrance – mothers holding dead babies, dead children lying on the ground and babies suckling on the breasts of their dead mothers. However, these scenes were the product of the artist’s imagination and offer little more to the memorial experience than an opportunity to stir emotion and to take photographs.

A sculpture of a child crying while a baby suckles on it's dead mother
A sculpture of a child crying while a baby suckles on it’s dead mother

While the museum itself is clearly the main attraction, it must be remembered that it is located within a wider memorial site consisting of sculptures, memorials and several other smaller exhibition halls. The first floor of the museum depicts events through the use of graphic images, objects and information boards. The overwhelming impression given by The Nanjing Massacre Massacre Memorial Hall is that the emphasis is on the visualisation of Japanese brutality rather than the meaningful memorialisation of the victims.

One particularly striking eyewitness description details how two women had been “gang raped to death, then had a perfume bottle and a walking stick inserted into their vaginas” (轮奸死后,下身分别被插入一个花露水瓶子和一根竹手杖). It is difficult to believe that either the victims of such a crime or their relatives would want to have their deaths described in such brutal detail to the general public. What is perhaps more shocking is that an almost life-size mock-up of the scene has been constructed in the museum for all to voyeuristically observe. This, despite an eyewitness claiming that the scene was “too horrible to look at” (令人惨不忍睹). The whole experience is more akin to an interactive attraction, like The London Dungeon, than a memorial or museum.

A reconstructed scene at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall
A reconstructed scene at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

The second floor provides a historical background to The Nanjing Massacre – essentially a narrative of Japanese incursions and aggression against China from the Meiji Restoration onwards. Histories of China’s “Century of Humiliation” (found in textbooks or at other memorial sites) tend to use the Opium War as a starting point, however, The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall choses a more Japan orientated perspective.

Japan is described as the “the main force” that invaded China, following the Boxer Rebellion in 1902 (日军充当八国联军侵华主力). This perspective seriously downplays the role of Western powers. British and French forces ran amok in Beijing and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, famously encouraged the German forces to act so brutally that “no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German”.[1] However, this context of Western aggression in East Asia, which unquestionably shaped Japanese foreign policy, is often overlooked.

The Nanjing Massacre Museum, and the majority of current Chinese historiography, places events firmly within a national historical context. The implications and motivations for this are in line with the Chinese patriotic education system. On the way out of the museum this sentiment is reinforced with a prominent quote from former president Hu Jintao that “This is a good place to carry out patriotic education. We must never forget the patriotic education of the young.” (这里是进行爱国主义教育的好地方,任何时候都不要忘记对青少年进行爱国主义教育)

To the enlightened outsider, it becomes clear that the museum places events within a narrative of Chinese victimisation at the hands of the Japanese. A more objective historical framework would perhaps include the First and Second Opium Wars, the Sino-French War of 1885, the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and the eight power intervention of 1902.

Another international aspect that is neglected by this museum is Japan’s war time aggression against other Asian countries. For example, the Manilla massacre was carried out in equally brutal fashion. For a Filipino visitor, these events would fit into a broader context, not simply a tale of Japanese aggression against China. China was not the only victim of Japanese aggression. In this respect the museum epilogue, describing how “the Japanese militarists launched an aggressive war against China” (日本军国主义发动[…]侵华战争), with no mention of Japan’s other victims, captures the sentiments of the whole museum. Collectively acknowledging all of the victims of Japan’s war time aggression would dilute the sense that the Chinese were purposefully victimised and make the museum less useful as a site of patriotic education.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall repeatedly enforces the view that “lessons learnt from history must not be forgotten […] the Nanjing massacre proves that war is a catastrophe for human civilisation.” (历史的教训不要忘记[…]南京大屠杀事实证明,这正是对人类文明的浩劫). In contrast, most western war memorials, as Jay Winter describes, are often as much about forgetting the past as they are about memory, “a way of remembering which enable the bereaved to live with their losses, and perhaps to leave them behind.”[2]

A recontruction of a mass grave located nearby, the grave itself is also open to the public
A recontruction of a mass grave located nearby, the grave itself is also open to the public

Regrettably, The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall serves more to re-open old wounds than to help them heal. At times the museum literally refuses to bury the past. The museum itself is located on the site of a mass grave discovered in the early 1980s and there is a hall where visitors can view an excavated pit in which the skeletons of the victims have been reassembled. This removes the victim’s right to an honourable burial, a right usually afforded to victims of war at war memorials and war cemeteries in Europe. All in all, this is a disorientating visitor experience shifting from a site of patriotic education to a memorial for solemn reflection and at times becoming nothing more than a gory “tourist attraction”.


[1] Julia Lovell, The Opium War.

[2] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History.

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