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Remembering China’s Forgotten Holocaust: The Nanjing Massacre
Note: While the proper spelling of the Chinese capital is Nanjing, Nanking is often used in the historic context of the city (for example The Treaty of Nanking and the Massacre of Nanking). Both spellings, depending on context, are used in this post.
Here War Is Simple by W. H. Auden
Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan
For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.
But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
The Rape of Nanjing
On Dec. 13, 1937, Japanese troops launched a massive attack on Nanjing, the newly established capital of the Republic of China. The next six weeks would be a campaign of brutal destruction, torture, rape, and murder. While the estimated number of victims varies widely, most historians say 200,000-300,000 people were slaughtered, many of them bayoneted, beheaded, and burned alive.
The carnage in Nanjing was of such magnitude that John Rabe, a leader of the local Nazi party, joined the handful of other foreigners who remained in the city and formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, offering shelter to about 200,000 civilians. Even so, Japanese troops frequently entered to rape women or remove people for execution. On one occasion, 50 Safety Zone police were executed on suspicion of allowing former Chinese soldiers to seek refuge inside.
The whole truth of the atrocities that occurred in Nanjing may never be known, even when news of the massacre continuously reached the global public as events unfolded. The New York Times, Chicago Daily News, and Associated Press had correspondents in Nanjing. Survivors’ stories and their photographs appeared in these major newspapers.
However, “The Rape of Nanjing” did not pervade the world consciousness in the same way as the Holocaust, although the poet W.H. Auden, on assignment writing about the war in China at the time, couldn’t avoid making a connection.
In the decades following the massacre, little was spoken or published about what occurred in the city. Cold War politics played a part in encouraging China to keep silent and try to forget; the events have been systematically denied or distorted by the Japanese government. It wasn’t until the 1980s and ‘90s when there was increased effort by groups, activists, and historians to uncover and acknowledge the massive scope and scale of the unthinkable brutality that occurred.
Acknowledging a painful past
The late author Iris Chang, a first generation Chinese-American, grew up hearing about Nanjing from her parents (she wrote that the Nanjing Massacre “remained buried in the back of [her] mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil"), but was surprised to discover almost nothing had been written about it. She spent most of the ‘90s doing research and conducting interviews with survivors and descendants for her best-selling 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.* While her work was both highly acclaimed and criticized, Chang is credited for bringing the massacre to the attention of the modern mainstream Western world.
A decade earlier, in 1985, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was established by the Nanjing Municipal Government in memory of the victims who lost their lives. The museum, which was expanded and updated in 1995, exhibits historical records and objects and employs architecture, sculptures, and videos to tell the story of what happened during the Nanjing Massacre.
Also during the mid to late ‘80s, a courageous elementary school teacher from Osaka, Japan, Tamaki Matsuoka, began doing her own research into the Nanjing Massacre. Motivated to learn about the past and educate the youth of her country about this horrific history, Matsuoka sought out survivors with the desire to record interviews with them. She eventually interviewed about 300 survivors, most of whom have since passed away.
Matsuoka additionally set up a phone hotline to track down former Japanese soldiers who participated in or had information about the massacre. She received over 100 calls within a month and went on to interview about 250 ex-soldiers, though only a few were willing to admit their role in the killings and rapes.
In their own voices: Testimonies from survivors
In June 2016, USC Shoah Foundation staff visited Nanjing, China, to record about 20 testimonies of Nanjing Massacre survivors.** The USC Shoah Foundation’s Nanjing Massacre collection was initiated in 2012 by a partnership with Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. According to the Shoah Foundation website, 30 Nanjing testimonies are already integrated into the Visual History Archive and another 20 were recorded in December 2015.
The average age of survivors in these interviews is 85 years old. According to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, only 133 survivors are still living.
One of the first survivors interviewed during the recent trip was Jing Zhizhen. Born in 1928, she and her family fled to the safety zone before Japanese broke into the city. Japanese soldiers killed one of her uncles who stayed in the countryside, which led to her grandmother's madness. Japanese soldiers arrested her father with the charge of helping communist guerrillas. He died later in prison.
Zhou Zhilin was also among the survivors recently interviewed. Zhou was born in 1923 to a farming family. When Japanese soldiers began slaughtering people on the streets of his village, he pretended to be dead and survived, but his uncle who was with him was stabbed to death. Zhou’s wife is also a survivor and appeared with their son on camera during the testimony.
In addition, the USC Shoah Foundation also traveled to New Jersey in April 2016 to film the testimony of Tamaki Matsuoka, who remains a passionate advocate for remembrance and recognition of the Nanjing Massacre. Matsuoka’s testimony will be the first non-survivor testimony in the collection.
*The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II is available through ProQuest’s Ebook Central.
**ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies. See how video testimonies are enhancing learning and research at academic institutions around the world. Sign up now for "The Power of Video Testimonies: The Visual History Archive" webinar on August 18 featuring Douglass Ballman from the USC Shoah Foundation.
Learn more and see the testimonials.