China's Trauma Seventy Years after the 'Rape of Nanking'

The brutal massacre of up to 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanjing took place 70 years ago. But the aftershocks of the attack can still be felt today in Chinese-Japanese relations. And the collective memory of the slaughter remains vital for the country's cohesion.


When the Japanese entered Nanjing, China's ancient capital city on the southern banks of the Yangtze River and a good 250 kilometers west of Shanghai, Xia Shuqin was eight years old. "Suddenly, the soldiers burst into the house. They gunned down my father without a word," she recalls. Then they raped and killed the women of the household, leaving only Xia and her young sister alive.

The Nanjing Massacre remains central to Chinese patriotism.

The Nanjing Massacre remains central to Chinese patriotism.

Sho Mitani was 18 at the time, 10 years older than Xia Shuqin. He was serving in a gunner team on the Japanese warship "Umikaze." When he arrived in Nanjing, the killing was already underway. "There were bodies heaped everywhere, in parks, on tennis courts," the old man recalls from his home in Osaka. Day after day, the army brought whole truckloads of Chinese to the banks of the Yangtze and mowed down the defenseless prisoners with machine guns.

This week saw the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Nanjing, then called Nanking. It was one of the bloody peaks of the Japanese invasion of China which finally ended with the defeat of Tokyo in World War II, after the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In Nanjing alone, the Japanese killed at least 100,000 Chinese civilians; China talks of up to three times that number of victims. The Asian neighbors still disagree today on the exact figure and sometimes on whether the slaughter even took place. Many Japanese nationalists deny the massacre -- often referred to as the Rape of Nanking -- ever happened.

Nanjing and Chinese Patriotism

But the Chinese are just as determined to keep the memory of the bloody massacre of Nanjing -- a metaphor for war crimes the world over -- alive. Relations between Beijing and Tokyo may be more relaxed now than they have been in a long time, but hardly a day goes by without a show on Japanese war crimes being aired on Chinese television. The heroic fight to throw off the Japanese yoke is, after all, an important element in the Communists' effort to keep their 1.3 billion people united behind them, especially in today's essentially capitalist system. Only the Taiwan issue is as important. Nanjing remains vital to Chinese politics even today.

The memorial on the site of the horrific slaughter is currently under renovation. Museum Director Zhu Chengshan, 53, displays a wooden model of the new design. The form, that of a ship, will be over three times as large as the current museum. The workers had to take extra care during the renovation, he says, because countless skeletons from the massacre still lay under the site. The number 300,000 -- representing the number of those killed -- is chiseled into a concrete wall.

In Nanjing, the past is omnipresent. Almost every spot is politically symbolic, including the house that belonged to John Rabe, the "Good Nazi" of Nanjing, who protected thousands of civilians from their Japanese tormentors. The Siemens employee and Nazi Party official established a safety zone for around 250,000 inhabitants together with other Western foreigners. There, acting to all intents and purposes as mayor, police chief and judge, he defied the Japanese. The Chinese revere the German as a "living Buddha." Two of those he took in were the young Xia and his sister, who has referred to him as a "saint" since then. Rabe's journals remain of inestimable value to the Chinese: The former Siemens employee is an important foreign voice lending credence to the Chinese position in the debate surrounding Japanese wartime atrocities.

The Japanese Far East in World War II.

The Japanese Far East in World War II.

The diary is a gruesome compendium of shockingly evocative imagery and is currently being turned into a movie by Oscar-winning director Florian Gallenberger. "Every 100 or 200 meters we found new bodies," the Nazi noted. "One is left breathless with disgust by finding, time and again, the corpses of women who have had bamboo stakes driven into their vaginas. Even old women of over 70 are constantly being raped."

Swastika Flag

Rabe's former villa has been renovated with financial assistance from Siemens and the German government; the garden is adorned with a bust of the Hamburg businessman, who was a fervent supporter of Hitler. The statue stands on the spot where Rabe had a shelter dug to protect his neighbors. It was covered with a swastika flag -- the Japanese respected the Nazi symbol, having entered into a pact with the Third Reich against the Soviet Union in 1936. Nanjing was the exception -- where the insignia of Hitler's Reich actually prevented Axis fighters from furthering their World War II orgy of violence and terror.

Rabe's villa is used today as a center for peace studies. Project financers in Berlin, though, have been wary of the place becoming a place of pilgrimage for right-wingers; approaching "China's Oskar Schindler," as the New York Times has referred to Rabe, requires extreme diplomatic caution. On her recent visit to Nanjing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel avoided the memorial because her itinerary took her on to Japan.

Nanjing, after all, remains largely taboo in Japan and many politicians gloss over the imperial invasion as part of the Asian fight for liberation from Western colonial powers. In reality, however, the Japanese were partners with the West in accelerating the partition of China.


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