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Taking Time To Remember: The Invasion in Nanjing
July 22, 2000

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Political leaders lead nations to war but people suffer the greatest losses
Nanjing, whose name literally translates, "southern capital," has seen great success and terrible hardship. Founded in 1331 by Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty, the city was riddled with decay. Hongwu successfully rebuilt it and Nanjing flourished for centuries under his successors. In the years to follow, however, China fell into a disastrous tailspin as the nation faced political threats from all sides.

The Ming Dynasty, which reigned until 1644, was followed by China's very last emperors, the rulers of the Qing Dynasty. Their fall led to internal strife during which warlords and various political factions raged for control of the nation. The Kuomingtang and the Communists fought bitterly, making it difficult to focus attention on international fronts. The strife made China weak and vulnerable in the face of advancing Western powers who were gaining more and more interest in the "sleeping red giant," as China was called.

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Students read the names of victims on this rock memorial
Britain made the first move with the Opium War in 1840, which eventually led to British control of the Chinese island of Hong Kong. The Portuguese took Macau. And Japan wasn't far behind; forcing Chinese occupation out of Korea and taking control of the Chinese island of Taiwan in 1895. China was being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey and all of the West wanted a slice.

Now that we have a little history down why don't you join me for a field trip back into 1937? We'll pick up where we left off, with bits and pieces of China going to the country with the strongest military and Japanese forces on the rise.

Yu Ming, a sweet and quiet girl, was the first to answer with a cute smile. "1937 is a year the people of Nanjing, and China, will never forget."

She smiled in response to the tall strange-looking foreigner kneeling and smiling at her (that would be me), but as she turned to point at the memorial the sadness in her eyes was apparent.

"The Japanese killed many people here," she explained.

Our field trip, you see, doesn't literally transport us back to 1937. It brings us to a war memorial built in remembrance of the victims and the time. Let's take a look around.

"This memorial depicts the brutality China endured during the Japanese invasion."

Tour the Nanjing Massacre Memorial

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Remember, the Japanese had taken Taiwan in 1895 and had since been increasing their attacks on China. It had been over 40 years by 1937 and they'd finally declared all out war on China. Shanghai was the first in a number or cities captured as they headed towards the capital city of Nanjing. When the dust settled, almost a year later, over 300,000 lives had been lost in Nanjing alone.


embodies - to give a body to (a spirit)
symbolism - using objects to represent abstract or intangible ideas or objects
catastrophe - a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin

The Memorial itself is built in very modern cement grays, a solemn scene that embodies the heaviness of great sorrow. The very artsy design gave it the feel of a contemporary art museum. Every display was full of symbolism and captured the essence of China's loss in a moving way.

The very first piece was a huge outdoor scene. A bridge crossed over a sprawling lake of small cobblestones. To the right was a wall riddled with bullet holes and a head lying on the ground. Next to it were an arm and a tall pillar with the number 300,000 carved into it.

I asked Bing what he thought the monument meant and he explained that the cobblestones represented the broken bones of those who died, 300,000 in number, and the arm represented their struggle. "Many died like that," he said, pointing to the huge stone head that lay on the ground before us with a gruesome expression of pain and suffering.

"Why 1937?" you ask.

Well let's ask any of the 40 sixth graders who are also taking a part in our field trip.

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Students read about the torture their grandparents endured. Few lived to tell the tale
Students read about the torture their grandparents endured. Few lived to tell the tale.

I was surprised at how familiar they seemed with the incident. But if you do the math you'll find that this is not such a distant memory. Many hear the story first-hand from grandparents who somehow survived this holocaust. I followed closely behind my new sixth grade friends. At the memorial's entrance when we'd all introduced ourselves the group was a bubbly bunch. But the lively crew had since grown very quiet and made their way through the museum almost in silence.

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Except for the gasps and sighs as they read captions and looked at pictures of the horrifying results of the invasion most were quiet. We entered the actual museum, which is built half sunken into the ground, symbolic of a coffin, because it is the actual site of one of Nanjing's many mass-grave sites. Layers and layers of skeletons lie there as we pass through trying to imagine the faces of the victims. Small baby skeletons, some with broken bones, tell the tale of the tragic death they suffered.

Most of the deaths occurred during the six weeks after the capture of Nanjing. Japanese soldiers rounded up Chinese captives and civilians, executing many in mass-killings. Others were beheaded. Women were raped and babies were left to starve. The city was looted, burned and destroyed. The ancient city of Nanjing experienced an unprecedented calamity as the Japanese heartlessly tortured their victims.

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The message this memorial sends to the world is one of peace
Shanghai, which was captured on November 12, 1937, and the cities along the way to Nanjing all suffered a similar fate. These cities included: Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Jangying, Zhengjiang, Guangdo and Wuhu. The Japanese had successfully, brutally, gained control over most of Eastern China. The Chinese Kuomingtang armies had retreated to the West despite encouragement and support from the US armed forces who needed to tie down Japanese forces to protect US soil. It proved unsuccessful. In less than three years, Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor.

It's often hard to imagine the catastrophic results of war, especially for our generation, but staring into the watery eyes of young Ming-Ming, whose parents watched her grandparents die at the hands of the Japanese, brought the message home.

She and her cousin, Xiao Zhao, both shared that it pains them greatly to think of the suffering but they would not respond in anger.

"Anger caused this," said Liu Wei, a small boy standing nearby.

"We must have peace," said Wang Mao, "Things are better now."

Speechless and heavyhearted I did what I could to muster a smile in response. As we made our way to the exit I thanked them for inviting me to come along and sharing their stories with us. The words at the memorial exit explain that this museum was built to promote international peace and unity, a reminder of the high costs of war and division. Still we live in a world that is spending more money on defense funds than education. Nuclear technology is widespread and China is stepping up its strategies as well.

As they boarded their bus I waved, my heart burning as I imagined the reality we all face if world peace doesn't become more than a political slogan. I could still hear Wang Mao's small hopeful voice ringing in my ears.

"Things are better now," he'd said.

I hope so, Wang Mao, I hope so.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Related Links:

Nanjing massacre monument
More information on Taiwan


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Yang-Yang - Conquering Huangshan

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