Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

In late 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the city of Nanjing, the capital city of the Republic of China. With the Chinese Nationalist forces weak from weeks of aerial bombing, the Japanese quickly moved in and took over the city. What endured for the next six weeks is now considered one of the world’s worst massacres. Arson, looting, mass executions, rape and torture was carried out across the city, with official Chinese sources estimating the death of 300,000 men, women and children and a possible 20,000 women raped. This number is continually debated among historians and officials. 

In 1985, during the period of war memory revitalisation in China, the Nanjing Memorial Hall was built on the site of a mass grave known as the ‘Mass Grave of Ten Thousand Corpses’ in the southwest corner of Nanjing. Since then, the museum has undergone another two lots of renovations to reach its current form. Expanding substantially since its inception, the Nanjing Memorial Hall was designed by well-known Chinese architects Qi Kang and He Jintang.

Upon entering the grounds of the Memorial Hall, visitors are greeted with a large open square and to one side a long black marble wall, inscribed with the number 300,000 and the word victim in multiple languages - a stark reminder of the number who suffered throughout the ‘Rape of Nanking’. Large graphic sculptures of grieving mothers and dead children stand to one side of the square, while at the other end a tall cross and peace bell are positioned.

The museum building itself was designed to look as though you are entering a tomb – part above ground, part below. Constructed out of black and white granite and cinderblock, the building is a dull grey colour and evokes the feeling of moving within a depressed and lifeless space. Inside, exhibitions describe in detail in Chinese, English and Japanese, the events that led to the Japanese invasion, the atrocities that occurred in Nanjing throughout 1937, and also the stories of the foreigners who tried to help. Graphic first hand testimonies are paired with equally shocking photographs, while newspaper clippings, videos and collection items such as weapons, torture devices and the personal belongings of the victims, force viewers to engage with the content in a most visceral way.

In recent years, there has been some debate that the content of the museum focuses too much on the victimisation of the Chinese people at the hands of the Japanese, rather than the memorialisation of those who suffered. This kind of interpretation most certainly bolsters Chinese nationalism, however it may also, some argue, intensify the tense political relationship that already exists between China and Japan, rather than promote peace and understanding.

The overt display of Japanese brutality continues outside the exhibition space, in the outdoor Graveyard Square. Consisting of a large bare courtyard, the square was the original site of the mass execution of 10,000 Chinese civilians in 1937. Inside the square are hundreds of scorched pebbles, symbolising the remains of the people buried there and around the edge of the courtyard stand 17 raised stones – each representing a site within the city of Nanjing where a mass execution took place. The entire courtyard is enclosed within stone walls and etched upon are further images of the horrific scenes that took place in 1937.

Beyond the courtyard is a granite memorial wall that displays the names of all the known victims that died during the Japanese invasion of Nanjing. Inscribed in Chinese characters, the 10,000 names increase every year as more details are revealed through historical research and scientific testing. At the end of the memorial wall, visitors enter a room that displays the skeletons of those found buried on the site. Left in the positions they were found buried, the room has little to no description of the remains or the context within which they’re set. Instead, visitors are able to contemplate the suffering that war and hate produce.

With almost 5.5million visitors to the Memorial Hall each year, the museum is regarded as one of the integral war sites in China. Each year, a commemoration ceremony is held on the 13th of December to mark the anniversary of the invasion of Nanjing. Officially declared the ‘National Day of Remembrance of the Massacre’ in 2014, thousands of people visit the memorial hall on December 13th to pay their respects and lay floral wreaths.