Nanjing has temples. Nanjing has palaces. Nanjing has pagodas. Nanjing has all the typical cultural landmarks common in every other city in China. Yet, this burgeoning metropolis in east China’s Jiangsu province sets itself apart because of its role in China’s modern history.
I visited Nanjing, which means “south capital”, in early October during China’s National Day celebration. Opting to skip Nanjing’s standard tourist fare (once you’ve seen one temple, palace or pagoda, you’ve pretty much seen them all) I made my way to the Nanjing Massacre memorial.
The site, officially called the Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression, honors the estimated 300,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians killed during the Japanese occupation that started in 1937. More than 20,000 women were also raped by soldiers of Japan’s Imperial Army. The incident still haunts China. It’s one of the reasons, if not the reason, animosity exists between the two Asian nations today.
The atmosphere around the memorial was cold, quiet, dark. Even with the afternoon sun beating down on me, I felt a chill.
A giant statue of a slender woman holding her dead son stood outside the memorial’s entrance. Her face looking to the heavens in anguish, as if to beckon “Why?” Leading up to, but positioned as if running away from, the memorial where smaller sculptures of victims — mothers, fathers, children and friends — each with a different expression of horror on their faces. Their hollow eyes cried out for help; their faces were twisted by pain and fear.
Once inside the memorial, it only got chillier.
One of the first things I saw when entering was a massive slab of black marble with the number 300,000 carved into it. For the victims. In another area was a long wall with the names of the dead or missing inscribed on its shiny, gray surface. A plain of football- sized rocks marked the spot where a mass grave of 10,000 bodies had been discovered after the Second World War. Near the end of the memorial a torch burned steadily — the spirit of the city and perhaps a symbol for a new tomorrow.