University of Wisconsin–Madison

UW Global Gateway – Shanghai, China

On Saturday, we took our last weekend trip, and this time we visited Nanjing. We learned in class that Nanjing, means ‘southern capital.’ During the Ming dynasty, Nanjing was the capital, and the city was made the capital again in 1927. Its high status made the city a target for the Japanese army during World War II. This invasion and the horrific aftermath is what we spent the morning learning about at the Nanjing Massacre Museum. The bus ride from the train station to the museum allowed us to get a quick glimpse of the city. The streets were tree lined and children were playing games on the sidewalks and laughing all the while. With this sort of environment, it was hard to imagine a time when the city was in a state of chaos and terror. The Nanjing of today has very few indicators that it was once ravaged, and therein lies the importance of the museum. When we first entered the gates, we were greeted by a much more solemn atmosphere from the one I saw outside the bus. Large statues depicting suffering men, women, and children lined the pathway. The cold grey stone and the harsh, rough lines properly portray the victims’ anguish and pain. As we continued walking, we entered a large open courtyard. The walls were made out of the same imposing grey stone as the statues. Their height and thick nature obstructed the view and noise of the street so that we were fully immersed in the atmosphere that the museum was trying to create. A large cross with the dates of the massacre makes a prominent statement. In addition to the wall with 300,000 victims stated in multiple languages, I began to wonder if I was prepared for what I was to find once I actually entered the museum. The entrance itself had already made a powerful statement. Upon entering, we were greeted with an introductory paragraph explaining what the Nanjing Massacre was (See picture below).

Nanjing JPEG

After going through security, we officially entered the museum. The intense atmosphere created outside was replicated indoors with the dim lighting and dark colored rooms. One of the first areas had high ceilings and long dark walls. The floor was black and speckled with small lights. On the ceiling, a large glowing sign that says “300,000 victims” immediately catches the eye. Every inch of space on the walls is covered with the names of the victims. The walk past all the names seemed especially long and was almost emotionally exhausting. Such large numbers like 300,000 can be hard to comprehend, but I think the Nanjing Massacre Museum did an admirable job of attempting to solve that issue. For the six total weeks that the Japanese were in Nanjing, a person died every 12 seconds.



After having created the proper mindset, the museum began the formal exhibits. Never before have I been in such a crowded museum. Getting a glimpse of the displays was a challenge, but having been in Shanghai for three weeks, we were all used to navigating sizable crowds. I was impressed by how many people were interested in learning about their country’s history. People of all ages were there, even children whose parents were explaining the details to them. Also, everyone was walking through the museum in a very reverent manner. By watching people’s facial expressions, it was clear that learning about this event was taking an emotional toll. Reading about the victims’ lives and then their horrific end was challenging. The museum was very well curated, and it would be near impossible to walk through without getting emotional.

What interested me a great deal was the wording of the exhibits. The tone was harsh and biting towards the Japanese. I lost count of how many times the word “atrocity” was used. While we learned a great deal about the massacre from the museum, I think we were all aware of the bias. However, the bias teaches us something as well. The museum, which is very well attended, serves not just as an educational tool, but as a tool for promoting Chinese nationalism and patriotism. The wording and messages throughout make this clear. The Chinese government, by creating this museum is creating an official narrative for the country. It is easy to get caught up in the language and the atmosphere, but it is important to remember both sides of the story. So in this case, we should also consider the Japanese perspective. What also made this experience so interesting was that it directly related to one of the classes that we are taking here: China’s International Relations. We talked about the Nanjing Massacre in class because it is a point of contention between the Chinese and Japanese governments. The question of what role should history have and how it should be remembered is a point of debate. Japan wants to forget while China wants to remember. Both countries are promoting different official narratives of the event, and it will be interesting to see if they will ever be able to come to an agreement.

Overall, the Nanjing Massacre Museum was a fascinating trip that left us with a lot to think about. For perhaps the first time since day one, the bus ride afterwards was essentially silent. Even lunch was a quiet affair, because I think we were all trying to process what we had just experienced. The facts were horrifying, unsettling, and disconcerting. Seeing the event from the Chinese perspective was intriguing, and something I greatly appreciated. The museum itself plus talking to our Chinese teachers gave me insights I would have not been able to gain without this trip. When I talked to Ian, a teacher on this trip, his distress made it really hit home for me how important it is to remember history and how powerful the memory of the Nanjing Massacre is for the Chinese people. Additionally, the Nanjing Massacre Museum started many good conversations about history, memory, and comparing this museum to the holocaust museums we have visited in the past. If you are ever in Nanjing, a stop at this museum is a must.