Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall: An absence of reconciliation

“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

― Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code

Seeing a statue of a mother holding her dead child, followed by a long corridor of statues telling stories of mass atrocities that took place from December 13, 1937 until January of 1938, leaves no one indifferent. After passing though this corridor and still thinking of horrifying stories of “killing, raping, and looting” (three words that tend to appear in almost every room of the museum), a visitor finds himself in an open, large, and almost empty space. Only a large bell, a cross, a wall, and a sign “300,000 victims” translated into 10 other languages welcome the visitor at the main entrance of the museum.

 Despite the repeated conclusion that “what we must remember is history not hatred,” walking through the museum creates the opposite feeling. The Wall of Survivors who provided their testimonies, the stories of “ruined families,” skeletal remains, a powerful exhibit of a drop of water that takes place every twelve seconds, symbolizing a life that perished during the six weeks when the massacre took place, create a hateful attitude towards the “devils” (a word used to describe Japan throughout the museum).

Such an interpretation of the Nanjing massacre started taking place after the Cold War. Right after the massacre, only 45 Japanese soldiers were tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, out of more than thousands that initially had to face punishment. The fragile country promoted a narrative of forgiveness towards the Japanese troops. During the 1990s, the newly emerging economic power became ready to demand a new treatment of the Rape of Nanking. Such a 180-degree turn of the event interpretation is not surprising – as a powerful victim, China became able to control its own narrative.

 There are plenty of monuments around the world devoted to mass atrocities. As the events that take place during genocides, crimes against humanity, war crimes are equally horrifying, countries tend to present these often similar narratives differently. The first determinant of such a universal depiction is whether this country is a victim or a perpetrator. The second one is power.The case of China demonstrates that American famous writer Dan Brown’s statement should be modified: “History is always written by the [powerful].”

Nadiya Kostyuk


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