“The Nanjing Massacres and the Wenchuan Earthquake”

[This is an original translation of this article by Hu Yong, h/t to ESWN for the link. If there are mistakes here, it’s our fault.]

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.]

0 thoughts on ““The Nanjing Massacres and the Wenchuan Earthquake””

  1. Great piece, and I agree with what the author wrote. I think the presence of these types of monuments in the US plays a (small) part in our unwillingness to see even a few American soldiers die (which I think is good, and is something everyone should have). Anyone that goes to the Vietnam War Memorial in the US remembers it.


  2. A trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is an excellent way to gain a bit of perspective. There’s something unspeakably compelling about a room full of shoes taken from Jewish prisoners as they were entering the camps. Near the end of the exhibit, there is a large room with chairs where people can sit and watch interviews with survivors. I’ve been twice, and there are always people crying everywhere. In fact, the hallways of the museum have many small recesses which were designed to provide privacy to those people who are overcome by what they see. One exhibit includes photographs of every Jew killed in an exclusively Jewish town in Poland. No one in the town survived.

    Now, I’d like to preface what I’m about to write by saying that I am no apologist for the Japanese. Indeed, they commited unspeakable atrocities in China during the 1930s and 40s.

    Having said that, I’d like to say that this number thing is very interesting – and political. While I can’t speak intelligently about the number of Jews who were victims of the Nazi’s so-called “Final Solution,” I do feel comfortable suggesting that the figure 300,000 that is given for the number of dead in Nanjing is entirely unsupportable. The sad fact is, no one really knows how many people died. The Red Swastika Society (the swastika was a Buddhist symbol long before Hitler got hold of it), which buried many (though not all!) of the dead, disposed of 43,121 bodies between December 1937 and April 1938. While the dead in Nanjing numbered more than 43,121, no one knows exactly how much more. As historian Timothy Brook writes: “[Japanese] regime apologists who seek to minimize Japan’s responsibility for the atrocity at Nanjing now consistently invoke this number as incontrovertible evidence that the scale of killing was not in the hundreds of thousands, as Chinese claim…The Red Swastika number is a shockingly eye-catching fig leaf for the atrocity, offered almost as though 43,000 were both an understandable and an excusable figure. But this has become the standard final offer from those who desire to counter the popular Chinese estimates that run over 300,000. The high estimates may well be too high, yet 43,000 is too low. Whom the Red Swastika counted, and whom they didn’t, is unclear. Most observers agree that the society’s burials could not represent a complete record of how many died in the Rape of Nanking. Whether this figure excludes soldiers, for example, whether it excludes those who died beyond the immediate vicinity of the city walls, whether it excludes those whose corpses were burned or submerged: these are the sorts of questions that continue to provoke fierce dispute between those who desire to take the tarnish off Japan’s reputation for military brutality and those who wish to add another layer. The historian may contribute by bringing forward data that narrows the range, but not by cutting a deal between the two sides.” (see Timothy Brook’s book *Collaboration,* Harvard Univ Press, 2005 – pp 141-2)

    So, however many people died in Nanjing, it was too many. Even so, the debate of the number of people killed has as much to do with politics and nationalism as it does with the desire to provide an accurate accounting.

    As far as Ai Weiwei’s efforts go, I completely support him. The handling of this by the CCP has been a shameless fiasco. The idea that parents are being threatened while the criminals who profitted from the shoddy construction of schools walk free is a travesty.


  3. I really don’t agree with what you are trying to relate, a “Massacre” is the intenting killing of a lot of people, a earthquake is not a “Massacre”. You cannot relate the two together.


  4. @ Stinky: With the caveat that I haven’t read it in a while and don’t have it in front of me at the moment, I’d suggest you read this book, an exhaustively-researched account of the whole thing by a Japanese journalist. As I recall (and the Amazon summary confirms this, but like I said, it’s been a while since I read it), he agrees with the veracity of the 300,000 number, although that might not refer to Nanjing itself as he provides a TON of evidence that the massacres started as soon as Japanese troops landed in Hangzhou Bay at the beginning of that campaign.

    Either way, it’s a fascinating book, and much more well researched (and less biased) than Iris Chang’s.


  5. I think “not related” is a bit strong. Certainly, they aren’t the same, but the authors point was mostly that when large numbers of people die (which happened in both instances) general numbers without specific information can have the effect of making something horrific seem abstract.


  6. Because no one else has yet quoted it:
    “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
    – Josef Stalin


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