Ask anyone on the streets of Nanjing what they think about Japan, and chances are you will hear some strong feedback. Even stronger words come in December as winter winds chill the former capital. China Central Television, the predominant broadcaster in mainland China, shows photographs and replays footage of Japanese war crimes committed on Chinese soil during the 1930s, the best-known one being a killing competition between two Japanese sergeants. The same images are seen every year, but the reactions are still visceral.
Also known as the Nanjing Massacre or the Forgotten Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing was the invasion and six-week occupation of Nanjing (formerly spelled Nanking) during December 1937 and January 1938, believed to be the most brutal episode in Japan’s invasion of China during World War II. Aerial bombings, random executions, rapes, torture, arson, as well as chemical and biological weapons testing left over 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers dead in a single city. Japanese officers were later tried and found guilty of war crimes, but there is still a fervent belief inside Japan that the accounts of survivors are embellished, and that it was impossible for the deaths to reach such a scale. Outright denial of the massacre is uncommon, but Japanese officials occasionally make the mistake of doing so on record, reviving old traumas across the East China Sea.
Resurgence of Interest
Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, said in her book that Mao Zedong decided to stay silent about the massacre to maintain an amiable trade relationship with Japan. As the economy of China became stronger and the government became wealthier in the 1980s, China became decreasingly dependent on trade with Japan, and there was a resurgence of interest in the Nanjing Massacre. Resources became available to give this chapter of modern history an official treatment. Mass graves were excavated, and historians were commissioned to produce essays and books on what happened nearly half a century before. A memorial hall was built in southwest Nanjing in 1985, over a mass grave where thousands of people were gunned down and buried. The mass grave is called Wanrenkeng, or “the pit of ten thousand corpses.” Visitors of the memorial hall can peer down into the graves and see the skeletons of former Nanjingites, some with bullet holes clearly visible. Photography is allowed, so Chinese tourists snap pictures and save them on their smartphones and tablets.
Every December 13 since the memorial hall’s opening, an official commemoration ceremony has been held there. These are solemn affairs: air raid sirens wail, Chinese military officers don dress uniforms and salute the dead, public officials offer gentle words to septuagenarian veterans, Buddhist monks chant prayers, and schoolchildren are brought in to witness the gravity of it all. Local reporters swarm around the survivors, who offer the same responses every year:
“There are fewer of us every time I come here.”
“I miss my sister, brother, friend.”
“I am proud to have survived.”
Ninety-three-year-old Cheng Yun is one of the veterans, and has become a bit of a celebrity in Chinese cyberspace. He is the last warrior of Nanjing—the last surviving native Nanjingite who defended the city in 1937. Each year, along with several other veterans, he is brought before cameras and offers his apologies to the nation for his failures as a soldier, for letting the country down and losing the capital to invading forces. He recounts that even though he and his compatriots were ill-equipped and out-gunned, they were duty-bound to engage the Japanese in combat. He pulls up his pants leg to show where a bullet hit him—the reason why he clutches a cane now. His words have a nationalistic flare, and his story is gripping.
They are lauded as war heroes or national treasures, but relegated to a meager existence when they are not in the Party-arranged limelight.
A five-minute stroll from the memorial hall, in the slum he lives in, Cheng adopts a different tone. “After the Communists took power, I was assigned to forced labor and re-education,” he says. In the process, he lost his rights to veteran status and all the associated perks, including his retirement benefits. Each month, he receives ¥300 ($50) in welfare payments, an amount insufficient to cover the bare necessities. He has shelter because his landlord waives his rent, and he has food because his nephew brings him three meals a day. Otherwise, he lives on donations.
The Official Treatment
One of the public officials seen frequently with Cheng Yun at press conferences is Zhu Chengshan, the curator of the Massacre Memorial Hall. When contacted to ask for assistance in locating survivors of the Rape, he indicated that this was possible, but only if certain expenses were covered. Over a banquet-style lunch, he claimed that this money would be spent on transportation and lodging, as the survivors did not live within the city and hence required rented cars and hotel rooms. An additional fee would be given to the survivors for their time. However, when several survivors were asked about this arrangement, they all indicated that they have never received compensation for sharing their testimonies, and their travel expenses were never reimbursed. Many actually lived within a few blocks from the memorial hall, well within city limits. When a member of Zhu’s staff was asked where this money really goes, the only response was a smile.
One of the other duties that the staff at the Massacre Memorial Hall are tasked with is the issuance of special identification documents to massacre survivors. The official tally of the number of survivors is about 200—that is, there are approximately 200 men and women who hold the survivor ID. To obtain the ID, which entitles the holder to “governmental assistance” and “preferential treatment,” an applicant must relate his tale to staff at the memorial hall, who evaluate the story for its authenticity. Numerous survivors have applied for it without success, so there may be many more stories about the occupation left untold. The lowball survivor count stands as an anomaly. Some unrecognized survivors seek official recognition solely as a point of honor, so as to give meaning to the agony they experienced.
Cheng Yun, the veteran mentioned earlier, holds the special identification document issued only to survivors of the Nanjing Massacre. Following the promise of government assistance, he has repeatedly appealed to local officials to have his veteran status reinstated, but his requests were ignored. The same officials invite him to attend press conferences and memorial events, where he does his part to keep the memory of the massacre alive, yet nothing is done to improve his standard of living. There are other survivors who live in marginally better conditions. They are lauded as war heroes or national treasures, but relegated to a meager existence when they are not in the Party-arranged limelight.
Even as the complete narrative of the massacre struggles to come to fruition, a rigorous academic pursuit on the topic does exist. Much was destroyed or lost during the days of Japanese occupation. There are academics in China who are slowly piecing together an accurate, in-depth narrative of what happened, but there is a catch. Professor Zhang, a historian based in Nanjing, says, “The materials available to researchers are limited. There are many photographs, texts, and other items kept by the government, but they are rarely released for viewing. These items are stored in a warehouse, but only historians who work for the [Communist] Party have access to them. We can submit requests to see certain materials, but there is a lot of paperwork. The requests that are approved take a long time to process, but most are denied.” The warehouse that Zhang refers to is The Second Historical Archives of China, one of the national archives, which is located in Nanjing.
A Beijing-based researcher, Mr. Jiang, claims the portrayal of the Nanjing Massacre by the Chinese government is not always accurate. He says, “There are records that show Chinese troops were fighting each other on the western side of the city. Retreat orders were issued to some soldiers, while others were told to stand their ground and defend the city to the last man. When the two groups encountered each other, the command structure broke down, and they fired upon each other. Over a thousand men died at Yijiangmen, one of the city gates on the western border of old Nanjing. But if you ask historians about it, most of them will not say it happened, or maybe that the Japanese killed them. They will only say that the country was united in fighting the Japanese.” This kind of adjustment of the historical narrative is one way to influence public opinion, and the Chinese populace has become increasingly antagonistic towards their Japanese neighbors.
Fueling A Dispute
At present, one of the highlighted disputes between the two governments is the sovereignty over the uninhabitable Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea. The quarrel over these islands has gone on for decades. As Japan looks to the U.S. and ASEAN for assistance in maintaining control of the islands, China draws on a historical claim that the islands have been under Chinese sovereignty since ancient times.
In August and September 2012, a series of anti-Japan protests took place in several Chinese cities. In Beijing, storefronts were vandalized and Japanese-branded cars were destroyed. In Shenzen, tear gas was deployed to disperse the crowd. On December 13 of this year, several civic organizations in Hong Kong, led by The Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, staged a demonstration against Japan. They chose the 76th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacres as the date of their protest. The symbolism was obvious. As the flag of the Imperial Japanese Army burned, it was clear that current disagreements are now irrevocably entangled with historical conflicts. An indescribably disheartening point in history has been hijacked to whip up anti-Japan fervor, and the ghost of World War II continues to threaten geopolitical stability in the East China Sea.
Two millennia of trade, diplomacy, shared culture, and armed conflicts between these two nations have created a schizophrenic relationship. Japanese denial of the atrocities that occurred is morally reprehensible, and using history to instigate anti-Japan sentiment in China is also counterproductive. The Rape of Nanjing was a gruesome affair in modern history, and its details should be brought to light. But when censorship and political interests get in the way of academic pursuit and historical record, only a distorted legacy remains.
Back in Cheng Yun’s shoebox apartment, he puts on a cap to shield his head from the cold. On the camouflage fabric is a pin inscribed with two English words: “No war.” That should be the lesson drawn from the rape of a city and the loss of so many lives, but it seems like no one is listening.
The real names of Professor Zhang and Mr. Jiang have been withheld to protect their ongoing research agendas.