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Black Sun: A Visit To The Nanjing Massacre Museum

Thursday, January 13, 2022 | Frightful Destination


Content warning: historical cruelty, violence, and sexual assault

Six weeks of hell on earth. The Nanjing (or Nanking) Massacre was the biggest atrocity committed in China during WWII, resulting in a death toll ranging from 40,000 – 300,000. It started on December 13, 1937, when Nanjing, the former capital of China, was seized by the Imperial Japanese Army after they marched from Shanghai and broke through the city’s walls. Once in Nanjing, the Japanese soldiers looted, raped and slaughtered the residents of Nanjing (they were said to have done the same during the march to Nanjing as well) while committing arson and other war crimes.

The Nanjing Massacre Museum (formally called the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders) is a compound meant to educate visitors on this piece of war history. Constructed in 1985 under the vision of architect Qi Kang and curator Zhu Chengshan, it is an immersive facility, with each facet of the area designed with the intent to illicit feelings of sorrow, awe, disgust and melancholy. The location of the museum is significant, being located in the southwestern corner of the city in a spot where thousands of bodies were buried. These unearthed bones are on display within the walls of the facility, though the experience starts outside.

The Sculptures

There is a sense of gravity that takes hold when walking up to the angular building which contains the memorial hall. The first things people see is a line of sculptures depicting the horror and anguish of the victims of the massacre. A woman holding her dead baby is the largest and is the most striking – an image you won’t soon forget. Another, a child looking at its dead mother and a baby still trying to get milk from her, is also horrifying. A poem on the sculpture reads “Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby! Poor thing. Not knowing mum has been killed. Blood, milk and tears. Have frozen, never melting.”

The sculpture beyond this one acts as a doorway for the courtyard. It depicts a man reaching out in anguish on one side and defiant citizens making an uprising on the other.

The Grave Courtyard

A large cross with the dates 1937.12.13-1938-1 is the looming centerpiece of the courtyard area outside of the memorial hall, which itself feels like a giant gravesite. The names of victims wrap around the wall lining the outside perimeter, while another wall is more graphic, showing how they died. It’s a mosaic of horror made from stone, featuring beheadings, grieving children, and scenes of rape and torture. It is deathly quiet, though occasionally there is the faint sound of a bell – this is the “Peace Bell” on the far side of the yard, which is rung occasionally by guests.

A large plaque displays the number 300,000, making it known that China infers that the record was much higher than the 40,000 deaths that many sources typically report. A large sculpture of a hand gripping the ground exemplifies the six-week struggle to make it out of this hell alive, as some did. There is a memorial walkway displaying the footprints of survivors, as well as some statues representing their likeness. There is also a statue of Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, whom committed suicide years after writing the book – another victim of the massacre.

The “Mass Grave of 10,000 Corpses”

The first exhibit inside of the museum is perhaps the most haunting. The museum was built around this burial site, the “Mass Grave of 10,000 Corpses” made of victims of the massacre. The skeletons are still there, surrounded by soil, with an elevated walkway placed above them for viewers to see. The text at the front of the room reads:

“Jiangdong Gate is the site of mass slaughter in the Nanjing Massacre and the group burial ground for 10,000 victims. Since the first discovery of heaps and bones of the victims, 208 skeletons had been evacuated on an extension of 170 meters in April 1998 and December 1999. These bones were scattered in disorder, some in serious distortion, some wearing bullet shots or bayonet wounds. The group burial of men and women, old and young, with a lattice of interweaving placements, represents the characteristics of hasty group burial after abnormal death. The site was characterized by low-lying topography with no grave cavity, most without burial containers, from which were also excavated four Japanese army shell casings (bullets) and the personal belongings of some of the victims. On the basis of comprehensive investigation, including forensic, medical, historical and archaeological experts and instruments, it was ascertained that the remains are the skeletons of victims of the Nanjing Massacre.”

The Memorial Hall

Going down into the memorial hall from the mass grave feels like going into an underground bunker; the lights are dimmed and there is the sound of an air-raid siren. Along with information about the history of the massacre, photographs of atrocities by American priest John Magee, paintings, and artifacts, there are also dioramas of scenes from this time, featuring shabby houses with civilians inside dead on the ground after being attacked by Japanese soldiers. Accounts say that around 20,000 women were raped by Japanese soldiers going door-to-door, who killed the women afterwards and sometimes mutilated their bodies with bayonets. The hall gives visitors a vivid sense of the harrowing conditions that befell the raped and pillaged Nanjing.

The Sword Contest

Perhaps the most notorious atrocity of the Nanjing Massacre was a killing contest between two Japanese officers, Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda. This contest was a race between the officers to see who could kill 100 people first, using only a sword. Beheadings were prevalent in the Nanjing Massacre, with a hall displaying photos of victims pre and post decapitation via sword. The swords used by Mukai and Noda are displayed underneath a photo of them from Tokyo’s Nichi Nichi Shimbum newspaper with the numbers 105 and 106, their death tallies. Another sword is on display in Taipei. Both were executed later for their war crimes.

John Rabe

John Rabe is known as the Oskar Schindler of the Nanjing Massacre. A Nazi party member, his work for Siemens AG brought him to China, where he found himself in Nanjing during this period. The Nanking Safety Zone was established by Rabe and helped to save around 250,000 civilians from certain death. “[…] There is a question of morality here […] I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me,” said Rabe on his decision to provide Chinese refugees with food, water and most importantly, safety. Rabe was witness to many of the atrocities committed in the massacre, and in the memorial hall, there is a statue of Rabe that commemorates his efforts.

Survivor Wall and Peace Garden

At the end of the memorial hall, there is a video display where a person’s name fades away every 12 seconds, while a star and a drop of water fall down, symbolizing that during the six weeks of the massacre, one life was extinguished every 12 seconds. Like the footprints outside, there is an area for the survivors here as well, with a photo wall showing the 100 registered survivors of the massacre who are still living, with lights on the photos that dim as each passes away.

As horrific as the Nanjing Massacre was and how heavy the experience of visiting the museum is, there is still some hope at the end of the tunnel. As an effort to ease the mood after going through an exhibition of hell, the final part of the museum leads back out into the courtyard area, where at the end of a long fountain is the “Sculpture of Peace,” depicting a woman holding a baby and a dove with “Peace” etched on the bottom. This sculpture gives visitors hope that nothing like this will ever happen again. But we know better.

Recommended Films:

Men Behind the Sun 4 – Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995)
Nanking (2007)
Purple Mountain (2008)
John Rabe (2009)
Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)
Black Sunshine – Conversations with T.F. Mou (2011)
The Flowers of War (2011)


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