December 13, 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. That morning, soldiers and officers from the Japanese Imperial Army entered the gates of Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China, and embarked on a nearly two-month orgy of rape, looting, killing, and savagery that is shocking even for a war which killed over 50 million people, saw the systematic and premeditated slaughter of Jews, gypsies, and others in Europe, and ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Tuesday, a ceremony to honor victims of the massacre is one of several events planned for this week in Nanjing and around the country.

The Nanjing Massacre is a poignant example of how history and memory can become contested battlegrounds, even decades later. The efforts by ultra-conservatives in Japan to discredit and deny the atrocities which occurred in 1937, abetted by the general squeamishness of Japanese officials to adequately address the massacre in textbooks or public statements, remain a flashpoint in the already tempestuous relationship between China and Japan.

The Nanjing Massacre is a poignant example of how history and memory can become contested battlegrounds, even decades later

 

This still happens, despite the efforts of writers and historians in Japan to remind the Japanese public of their country’s guilt during World War II. Notably, journalist Honda Katsuichi has, for many decades, written and published articles and books on the Nanjing Massacre and other Japanese atrocities, despite death threats from right-wing groups in his own country.

Recent disclosures that the Japanese Foreign Ministry may have financed a “public relations campaign” to discredit, among others, author Iris Chang and her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, have raised further suspicions — all too common here in China — that Japan’s leaders have not done nearly enough to atone for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers.

A statue of Iris Chang stands at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall (source)

Chang’s book — important, passionate, polemical, and methodologically flawed though it may be — was instrumental in raising international awareness of the Nanjing Massacre, at great personal cost. Whether the Nanjing Massacre is equivalent to the Holocaust, as Chang’s title provocatively suggests, is beside the point. As a teacher of history, I’m wary of reducing historical tragedies to Top-10 listicles. The same can be said regarding body counts. 100,000 casualties? 200,000 casualties? 300,000? Can we all agree that when we start rounding off human deaths to the nearest 10,000, that it’s all just shades of fucking horrible?

Can we all agree that when we start rounding off human deaths to the nearest 10,000, that it’s all just shades of fucking horrible?

 

Attempts by revisionist historians in Japan to lower the totals by making specious arguments based on historical census figures for the city of Nanjing at the time are both cruel and unnecessary. Chinese propagandists’ tendency to inflate figures is an injustice to those who did die, and provides unnecessary ammunition to those who would obfuscate or challenge Japan’s role in the events of December 1937.

Nor has it helped that the Chinese government has too often taken a utilitarian attitude toward this horrific event.

In the Mao Era, public memory of the Nanjing Massacre and similar atrocities was overshadowed by efforts to demonize the United States and the West. It was a time to celebrate the revolution and the Communist victory. Revolutionary heroes and martyrs were needed, victims of massacres need not apply.

During the Korean War, Party propaganda accused Western residents in Nanjing — many of whom at great personal risk helped to establish the International Nanjing Safety Zone, thereby saving thousands of civilians in the early days of the massacre — as actually having colluded with the Japanese invaders and aided the soldiers in their carnage.

In the 1980s, however, a new narrative of Chinese history emerged, one more suited to the era of reform, opening, and economic development. Rather than a huzzah of revolutionary victory, this narrative emphasized the need for China to overcome a legacy of victimization and foreign subjugation. The Japanese occupation of China from 1937-1945 and the Nanjing Massacre now stood at the apogee of a century of humiliation.

This also coincided with the Party’s shift away from Marxist/Maoist revolutionary ideology and toward a new legitimacy based on the Party as saviors of the nation. The Party’s armed resistance against Japan during World War II became the crucible for modern China: China’s rise cannot happen without a fall.

In the post-Reform era, the Party’s armed resistance against Japan during World War II became the crucible for modern China: China’s rise cannot happen without a fall

 

Xi Jinping’s dream of a nation resurgent and powerful has its roots in never forgetting the Century of Humiliation, or the painful memories of what happens when the State is too weak to protect the people. If these memories also undermine Japan’s moral standing as a rival power in East Asia, so much the better.

But ideological battles over history should never be allowed to overshadow what happened — even as the facts are debated, contested, confirmed, or denied. The Nanjing Massacre is one of history’s great tragedies. The number of deaths — and the manner in which so many died — are a harrowing reminder of what we are capable of doing to our fellow humans.

In a year, 2017, when we seem to be edging ever closer to the kind of “Total War” we engaged in 80 years ago, we cannot let politics get in the way of our collective memory. Historical obscenities like Nanjing are not atrocities one country does to another but are, in fact, atrocities we — as human beings — do against ourselves, a lesson it sometimes seems we are all too eager to forget.

Cover image: Still from City of Life and Death (南京! 南京!), Lu Chuan’s 2009 film about the Nanjing Massacre