My co-worker and I took guests through the Nanjing Massacre Memorial yesterday, which we do several times each year. It is a place where the past serves a distinct political purpose for the present. Groups of Chinese tourists are shepherded through by guides who make sure they don’t miss a single grisly detail, murals depicting slaughter on an inhuman scale stretch over open graves filled with ten-thousand bodies, and signs remind visitors that this is an important place for political education. The memorial is essentially a monument to the Party’s narrative of history. Even though I have visited the site several times, I still find something new each time in the massive complex.
This, however, was the first time that I had accompanied one of my co-workers through the memorial. “It’s because of this my friends don’t buy anything from Japan,” she told me as we passed by a depiction of experiments being done on Chinese prisoners. I braced myself for what I expected to come next, something like “Those Japanese Devils still want to destroy China.” Instead, she whispered, “People from Hunan don’t really feel the same way, we didn’t have a massacre.”
“You know though, Japan left many things out of their textbooks,” she said a few moments later. “China and America have left many things out too,” I added, which doesn’t excuse Japan, but I think it gives some perspective. To my surprise she said, “Mao killed many people, but we still don’t talk about it.” I nodded and glanced around to make sure no one else had heard her. She didn’t seem to care and pointed to a poster of Chiang Kai-shek celebrating the victory over Japan, “Every year the government talks about democracy but it never comes. They always say later, later.”
“You know,” I replied, “whenever I talk with Chinese people one on one, they often complain about how bad the government is. But when I talk with two Chinese people, they will never say anything bad about the government, even if they think exactly the same way. Many of your co-workers have told me the same thing.”
“I could never tell my co-workers, I would never say these things at work,” she said before leaning in to whisper, “But online, we are free.” I knew that wasn’t completely true, but if she was finding people to discuss democracy and free media with, even in the censored Chinese cyberspace, it meant that perhaps there were even more people like her than I had ever imagined. “What about Fenqing (literally “angry youth”, but refers to nationalists) and Wumaodang (people supposedly paid by the government to “guide” online discussions)?” I asked.
She giggled, “We would say ‘你知道太多了'(Ni zhidao tai duo le), you know too much.”
We walked a little further and the conversation changed with the exhibits, the particular section we passed always bothers me. It presents foreign involvement in the war as peripheral, and if you knew nothing beyond it’s description, you would think that it was solely through Chinese efforts that the war ended.
As we continued to the next building that housed one of the open graves I told her that the last group of foreigners I had brought to the museum felt that it was wrong to leave these people without a proper burial. “In China, a person must be buried,” she said, “the government only cares about politics, not people.”
I wish that when it came to the Rape of Nanking I could say that this wasn’t true, but unfortunately I know otherwise. According to accounts given in the diaries of people like John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, bodies were buried in many parts of the city, but those places have no signs marking the tragedies that happened there, and the graves have been desecrated in the rush to modernize (I know this has also happened with several graveyards throughout the country).
Usually I leave the museum feeling somewhat hopeless, that without a clear view of the past, China is doomed to return to the kind of nationalism that led to WWII. Yesterday though, I felt a sense of relief. Despite spending millions each year on propaganda and censorship, the Party seems to be further than ever from the people’s hearts.