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“But online, we are free”

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.


24 Comments

  1. I always worried that party-line sentiment at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and indeed other museums would exacerbate Sino-Japanese relations. Your observation is telling here. It’s healthy to hear a confident voice in your co-worker, albeit one she won’t share (in person) with others.

    I’m beginning to fear that even Hollywood is taking a liking to bloating poor relations by shooting movies like Flowers of War with Christian Bale.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    In your book, Tom, it would be interesting if you were to both deepen the analysis of the Nanjing memorial and to stretch it outward to consider national memorials more generally. I know you’ve written more about Nanjing elsewhere, so the “inward” depth partly exists already. Without this, readers might have the impression that there is no legitimate need for this memorial, e.g., public mourning. Other memorials in China have a similar dual character. I’m thinking of the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, for example, which is, in part, a memorial to precisely the kind of foreign help/internationalism you find absent in Nanjing. Simultaneously, like Nanjing, it is an incitement to national sacrifice and a reminder of the tragic loss of an individual person. Also, state-sanctioned memorials around the world are in all cases intended to perform all of these tasks. Sometimes the political education is excessively heavy handed, but the photos in the Nanjing memorial are no more so than, say, those in Dachau and, I would argue, equally justified. On this point, I would also like to speak for blunt representations of the brutality of war. Yes, these are also mobilized for less than noble educational purposes. But there is something quite disturbing about memorials that wrap the needless death of millions in endless layers of mystification such that the causes and crimes of war are forgotten. That such memorials tend to be awe inspiring rather than horror inducing ought not to be seen as step forward.

    • Tom says:

      I’m focused more on the rape of Nanking, because I’ve done more research on it. I have no problems with the photographs, but the oil paintings of mass murder seem like another step (especially since they are exaggerated in some ways, instead of being strictly historical). I’m in no way saying that memorials should hide the horrors of war, but I do think it’s troubling to literally call it a tool for political education.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I’d tend to agree with you, except to say that while using these things for political education is troubling, I find the open admission that political education is the goal almost refreshing.

      • Tom says:

        From Chinese, calling it a tool of political education doesn’t carry the same negative connotation as it does in English, so I’m not sure if it can actually be called refreshing if they didn’t intend to say it so clearly.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        True, propaganda/political education does not have the same negative connotation as in English. The same applies to the political tradition that gives rise to such uses of propaganda. As above, my point is that the additional layers of of mystification are missing in the Chinese case. As to it being “almost refreshing,” I use the word advisedly; there’s nothing particularly refreshing about the political uses of death and misery.

        The uses of ghastly photos reminds me of something else, specifically those “death photos” that are posted in some railway stations and truck/car stops on the expressways. I’ve often wondered if those photos, used for a more legitimate educational public education purpose, are in any better taste.

  3. I have been to this memorial once and was absolutely shocked and depressed by the brutality of the crimes Japanese soldiers committed over 60 years ago. Few places in the world may have suffered so much in the modern world as Nanjing, however, Hunan was also a major battle field after Nanjing and Wuhan had been controlled by the Japanese. It was KMT who fought with the invaders fiercely in several Hunan cities and this maybe partly a reason why your friend seemed not get ‘educated’ about it. Things do not change overnight, but there are signs showing a more balanced views may emerge in the years ahead like the recognition of KMT and international assistance.
    As for Wumaodang, well, not everyone speaks for the government (central or local) could be expected to get a paycheck from the authority. Taking a developmental perspective and put into the shoes of officials, many bizarre things may not looks that ridiculous at all.

  4. Lao Why? says:

    I was in Baoshan for a company function and was touring the Graveyard of the National Heroes. This memorial has a small museum and is highly complimentary of the American Flying Tigers, who assisted in the defense of southern China in WWII. It made me feel good and I felt that people were looking at me, as an American, with a trace of gratitude in their eyes.

    As we climbed the small cemetary hill to the obelisk memorial, my co-worker, a very quiet and cerebral guy, turned to me and whispered, “you know, the KMT were the fighters. The Communists were cowards and let the Nationalists do all the fighting.” I think he wanted to let me know that I should disregard the glorious edification of the Party at this memorial.

    I thought of the same situation if it were in the US. Clearly, there are many American iconic stories that are grossly puffed up. Davey Crocket, for example, indeed died at the Alamo, but was most likely unceremoniously executed. In the US, however, one would not hesitate to discuss this openly and even question the tour guide. I hope that one day in China, people will feel secure enough to openly discuss what really happened.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      I travelled in Yunnan in the spring of 2000, and visited Baoshan (保山)and toured exactly the same memorial! People in that area have fond memories of the Flying Tigers. I also toured the site of a new musuem of anti-Japanese war which had just been built and not opened yet. I talked to a government official in charge of historical record, and the record they referred to was mainly war-related documents and recollections. The most rewarding part of the trip was our visit, led by the said official, to an old man’s house. He lost his entire family in a bombing and he himself was spared because he was on a procurement trip to Kunming–his family owned a soap business.

      His entire court yard was filled with large potted camellias. Too bad they weren’t blooming. I would very much like to hear him talking about his flowers too.

      That trip left me with deep impressions. For one thing, different people–including the government–narrate the same episode of history somewhat differently, and it’s fascinating to parse the nuances. I have plan to write a short story about that trip and haven’t gotten around to do it yet.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        Yaxue: Please write the story! I have seen CCTV documentary about Baoshan 保山。I would like to read your version. Best wishes to you.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        美丽,I will.

        I don’t know if the documentary makes a note of its weather. The city may as well be called the Balmy City, because there it is a perpetual spring. So plants grow gloriously there. The time I was there, there had been orchid growers and dealers, and it was not uncommon that a single orchid could fetch 10,000 yuan. Who were the buyers? The Japanese. We met with a grower who got rich selling orchid to the Japanese. When I later met with the camillia man who obviously knows a lot about growing flowers but would have nothing to do with the Japanese (he told me he didn’t buy any Japanse products), I tried to feel how he might have felt about the booming orchid business.

  5. James says:

    grisly, not grizzly (which means a bear or speckled grey)

    I’ve been through museums in Tianjin and Shenyang that made me feel the same.

    I’ll look forward to the book. I enjoy reading your site.

  6. Lindada says:

    Hey Tom,

    You’ve written quite an interesting and insightful article into people’s opinion of the Nanjing Massacre. I have not been to any of these museums but I do hope to go one day. Just one thing that bothered me towards the end of your article was the sentence: “…China is doomed to return to the kind of nationalism that led to WWII” I’m not sure what you mean by that. What nationalism are you referring to? If you are referring to the flare of nationalism and patriotism in China after the fall of Qing and rebellion of the people against foreign powers stationed in China, then it’s a bit misleading to say that this particular nationalism led to WWII. WWII erupted on mainland China when Japan invaded, regardless of whether nationalism was on the rise.

    However if you are referring to nationalism in Europe, particularly Germany, which was the root of a multitude of problems that led to rise of the Nazi party and thus WWII, then it’s problematic to draw comparison with nationalism of China. I’m not sure if China had ever developed the type of fervent nationalism championed by Nazi Germany. Whilst Chinese sentiment can be self aggrandizing at times, for most of the late imperial times, China has also been inward looking. Simply, she just never considered foreign lands to be worth the effort of invading. Thus no major warfare with foreign countries for a long time. That is not to say there weren’t internal conflicts between warlords and various factions because there certainly had been countless, however Chinese nationalism could have hardly instigated a war expanding over several continents and involving millions of people.

    So I have rambled on two paragraphs about something that is probably just semantics. But as you see, I care.

    • Tom says:

      I understand that the last sentence could be a bit confusing. I was referring to Nationalism as it was practiced in Japan and Germany, not as it was in China at the time. In the past few years and weeks there has been a fair amount of saber rattling in China directed at Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea.

      In Imperial times and recently, China was expansionist, which is how Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia came to be a part of modern China. Korea and Vietnam were also were invaded at various points in China’s past. While this was not a direct result of nationalism, their continuing rule over the minority areas is supported by nationalist fervor.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Well said, Lindada. Even if your beef is only semantics, that’s a curious thing to apologize for in an online forum. Other than semantics, what else do we have to lean on?!

  7. Lao Why? says:

    @ Lorin, Lindada and Tom

    I am all for the questioning of word usage. IMHO, any good writer or speaker should be happy to explain the meaning of their use of words. Having been in China for a number of years, I realize the power of certain words to emote and also obfuscate. Too often, when I ask the speaker to be clear, they react angrily. I have often heard it said that in the west, the burden of ensuring that communication is understandable is on the speaker/writer while in the orient, the burden is on the listener/reader. While generalizations like this are dangerous, I do find that it is quite often when I question what someone means by their statement, they get flustered, angry or they change the subject.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I’ve not had that experience, Lao Why, at least I don’t think so. Maybe you could give an example.

      • Lao Why? says:

        It happens all the time in business. Executives use words like healthy development and strict compliance and strengthening prudent reforms and comprehensive measures. But when i ask them what they mean by healthy, strict, prudent and comprehensive, they are at a loss for defining what they mean. They get very uncomfortable when discussing any details. To me, it’s as if i have violated some unwritten code; that everyone knows the executive’s words are bluster and meaningless, spoken just to give the air of providing leadership with no detail as to how to achieve those poetic goals. It’s interesting that you say you have never had such an experience when jsut about any Chinese leader’s speech is chock full of such vagaries and no one ever confronts them and pins them down on their meaning.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I see what you mean, but I guess I also wasn’t clear. What I meant is that I hadn’t had the experience of “speaker’s burden” in the way you describe it. In your follow up, you mention (meaningless) words that executives use, and I would tend to agree. But I think we’re back to an issue raised in an earlier discussion about differences between China and “the West.” Politicians and businessmen in democratic countries are experts at this kind of thing, too, not to mention less thoughtful journalists, university professors, etc. Given the universality of this phenomena, in your experience, what are the peculiarities of the Chinese case? Also, in your experience in China, when it is appropriate to call someone on their bluster? I’ve managed to get myself into trouble with a few people on this very blog for doing just that.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Correction: “…when is it appropriate to call someone on their bluster?

  8. M says:

    well, nanjing massacre is just drop in sea compared to millions of victims of cultural revolution, is there in China museum about them?

    with same attitude as chinese have towards japanese I guess nobody would talk to anyone in Europe as well, but it’s past so what is the point of bringing it back again and again?

    • Yaxue C. says:

      There has been calls for the last 30 years to build a Cultural Revolution museum, but the Party would not want to do that. Meanwhile, the newly refurbished Museum of Chinese History in Tiananmen Square devoted one sentence, no more, to the Cultural Revolution at a far corner of the building.

      Museums and memorials are for people to remember and to know. There are things the Party doesn’t people to know or to remember, and they are able to control what you know or what you remember.

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    “Lest we forget” – words on every war memorial in UK. In addition, schools here have a policy of sending at least two students a year to visit the museum dedicated to the Holocaust victims in Germany. Actually, a whole group of students make this trip together and parents report that it has a great impact on the kids.

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