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Lessons from the Rape of Nanking

Today marked the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, and as I wrote last year, it is a day that for me is inescapable (you should read that post because I won’t be rehashing much of it). I am surrounded by the history of that dark time, but am also buoyed by the memories of those who risked their lives for the common people of China. Today I’d like to share a few lesser known facts from those six weeks.

One of the most important things to understand about the Nanjing International Safety Zone, is that the foreigners involved with it never lost their faith in the rule of law. Time and again they brought cases directly to the Japanese embassy and Japanese military command, and demanded that the soldiers involved be punished for their actions.

This led to mixed results. Often consular police would find a tiny detail in a witness’ story that was incorrect, like the placement of a lamp in a room, and discount their entire testimony. At other times they would publicly scold soldiers, which seemed to serve as a very mild warning to other soldiers. While this deeply disappointed the foreigners in the Safety Zone, they continued to bring daily reports to the consulate.

Ultimately these reports, along with testimony given by the Safety Zone members, led to the convictions of those directly responsible for many of the atrocities at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Even six weeks after the Japanese occupation had begun, it was not safe to leave the zone (six weeks is the length commonly cited for the duration of the Rape of Nanking). Families were ordered to return to their homes by Febuary 4th, but this order came as news of robberies, rapes, and murders continued to be reported. In many cases, the only thing that was powerful enough to stop Japanese soldiers was the presence of foreign faces.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 31st, Dr. Robert Wilson reported that just the day before, Mr. Rabe had actually lifted a soldier off a woman in the street not far from the hospital, and that on the 29th a truck had been seen abducting women. The women of Nanjing at that point were well aware of the dangers of Japanese troops. Letters available here and here (pdf)

Dr. Wilson’s other letters provide dozens of accounts of the atrocities that were committed on a daily basis during the months that followed the initial invasion. He refers to his own location as the “so-called Safety Zone” due to the number of incidents that occurred within its boundaries. The soldiers made no distinction between young and old, and murdered indiscriminately. Dr. Wilson alone attended to hundreds of cases in just the first few days, and it clearly took a toll on him and the other volunteers. Sadly, one year after the invasion, Minnie Vautrin ended her life regretting that she had not been able to do more to protect the women who had sought refuge behind her walls.

In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today). Even the doctors who work in Wilson’s hospital know little of his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. My co-workers today went so far as to complain about the noise of the air-raid siren meant to remind us of the tragedy. One said, “It was too noisy, I couldn’t work at all for thirty-minutes.” To which the other replied, “It’s OK, we just have to do this once a year.”

“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.

Santa Claus is coming to town?

Christmas in China is a really funny thing. Let’s call it 奇怪(qi-guai), a word that means “strange” but without any negative or positive connotations. You get a full month for quiet reflection, but miss all of the fun and merriment of the Christmas spirit. There are friends you spend special meals with, and there is still some shopping you have to do. After four years, I’m still not sure if I like it or dread it.

Christmas is still kind of new in China. During the missionary period up to the revolution Christmas was a quiet religious holiday. The hospital and local universities had many special Christmas performances to try and spread the Gospel. Then President Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Madame Soong, attended many of these events at the Ginling Girls School, where Minnie Vautrin served in the 30’s and 40’s.

Today Christmas has returned, but more in shopping malls and fancy restaurants than in the hospital or schools (I’ve had to remind them a few times which day it is). It is interesting to see what a holiday looks like in its early stages before the traditions are really in place.

In the malls here Christmas decorations have been up for almost a month now, which seems to be a little late compared to shopping centers in the US, but it will be another full month before those decorations will come down. One gets the feeling that many of the people don’t really know when Christmas is, and that Santa is just a winter thing that goes with Frosty the Snowman. Christmas in some ways has started to mark the early part of preparing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), much like the day after Thanksgiving is the time to put up the Christmas tree, and New Years is the day to take it down in the US.

Also sometimes people will try to emulate the American traditions, for example the other day one of my students/co-workers gave me a very nice Christmas card. The outside was decorated beautifully and when I returned to my office I eagerly opened it to see what kind words she had written inside. I was baffled by what I saw inside, nothing. She had simply given me a blank card for Christmas. Somewhere along the line one of our traditions seems to have been misunderstood in a big way.
Another thing that makes Christmas feel a bit off here in China is that everyone will be working on the 25th. Only foreign teachers are granted the day off, for some reason Christmas hasn’t made the Communist Party’s official list of holidays yet (an omission surely worthy of a place on Santa’s naughty list).

Then this morning, as I waited for the bus, a woman was handing out papers to everyone with some very basic information about Christianity with a brief introduction to the Christmas story. Only a few people took time to read them, but it was encouraging to see.