In Lu Chuan’s new film Nanjing, Nanjing!, the camera lens reveals cruelty to an extreme rarely seen in Chinese films; I had nightmares repeatedly the night after I watched it.
In its hellish scenes, women are raped to death, men are massacred in every possible manner. The darkness of humanity, or perhaps it is just a flicker, explodes out of people with suffocating intensity. Clearly, Lu Chuan is doing his best [to show] this tragedy from seventy years ago originally was common people faced with fate and the extermination of souls in the midst of historic calamity, and from this show affirmation and respect for the value of human life.
It’s a pity that the promulgation of Lu Chuan’s art still won’t overcome the enveloping inertia of reality. Jewish Sinologist Vera Schwarcz published an essay in 1995 called “World War II: Beyond the Museum Lights” that discussed how today we often say Nazis killed six million Jews, the Japanese killed 300,000 in Nanjing, but actually using these numbers and terminology makes massacres into abstractions. “Abstraction is the most fanatical enemy of memory. It murders memory because it advocates distance and, moreover, aloofness. We must remind ourselves: what was massacred was not the number six million, it was a person, then another, then another…only in this way can we understand the meaning of ‘massacre’.”*
With regards to the 300,000 killed in the Nanjing massacre, at this time of remembering the great catastrophe seventy years later, Mr. Zhu Xueqin once wrote: “The Nanjing Massacre was, for a long time, intentionally or unintentionally evaded, the masses were not allowed to discuss it. After this, the political situation improved: people were allowed to make demands for compensation to Japan, and the local government went into action without delay, building a Massacre Memorial, this definitely deserves praise. But in one day allowing everyone to speak, as soon as they begin it’s 300,000, why not “300,000-odd” [instead], and [then try to] pull out a conclusive number? Today, China is one of the few countries that still has census registry and supervision…before this, this system has been used to do countless things, why hasn’t it been used in this important case so that instead [of a real number] there’s just a “3” and then five zeros? I’ve toured the Pearl Harbor Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, they all have names and last names, its very detailed. The Boston Jewish Memorial, perhaps because it had no way of gathering detailed information on so many people, they carved the concentration camp numbers of the dead, one next to another, densely packed and soaring to the sky, such that visitors looking 90 degrees upward still can’t see to the top. Those ice-cold arabic numerals are even more shocking than names. Because of this detail, placing people first, it really reflects the value of individual human life. Killing 300,000 is a massacre, killing 200,000; 100,001 or 2 is not a massacre? That 1 or 2, isn’t that a life? The 300,000 in front of us is an ambiguous concept , not a detailed number, and concepts cannot convince people. Instead, they create doubt and even give Japan an excuse to quibble. [We] should use a conclusive number, the best thing would be to carve specific names, only then can we awe others and win honor in public opinion.”
Yes, 300,000 looks startling but actually through abstraction and generalization, it’s like Vera Schwarcz said: it’s easy to use a kind of “advocating distance and, moreover, aloofness” to sum up history. Only by recovering memories one by one, looking for people one by one, can we show the meaning of ‘massacre’ and make it clear to future generations how this suffering cannot be repeated. If one wishes for “China cannot die”, first one must have “China cannot forget.”** This not forgetting must be not forgetting and losing the specifics of even a single life, and nothing else.
Ai Weiwei, a respected Chinese citizen, began a “Wenchuan Earthquake Deceased Students” public investigation on December 15, 2008, and in connection with volunteers, he verifies the situations of those students who were killed. He is preparing to publish this investigation on the anniversary of the earthquake in 2009. He wants to oppose the government’s intentional abstraction and the forgetfulness already oozing throughout the public. He says, “Those kids, they have fathers and mothers, they had dreams and laughs, they had their own names. This name belongs to them, in three, five, ten, nineteen years perhaps they will all be remembered.”
So, all netizens should support this “active citizen” and refuse the two heavy iron gates that surround us — refuse lies, refuse to forget. Seek out every student’s family name, and remember them, because “their true tragedy is not just in the deaths of family members, but also the coldness of all of society, the refusal of all of society to respond to their problems, believing they’ve already been forgotten.”
Do not make the children who died in the earthquake die again!
[*I was unable to find a copy of the English original article online, so I’ve just translated the Chinese quotation. Undoubtedly, Vera Schwarcz’s original prose is much prettier than my own.
**These are parallel rhyming couplets in Chinese.]