Why did China downplay the Nanjing Massacre?

Why did China downplay the Nanjing Massacre?

Earlier this week, during a visit to Nanjing the mayor of Nagoya, Japan expressed doubt that his nation’s troops had slaughtered tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens in 1937. The event, known as the Nanjing Massacre, remains contentious in Sino-Japanese relations, with many Chinese feeling that unlike Germany and the Jews, the Japanese have not done enough to apologize for the massacre. Yet China’s post-war response wasn’t exactly open, either.  

Here is a guest post from historian Tony Brooks, who has studied China’s post-1949 relations with Japan:

Today Nanjing is a confident, thriving Chinese provincial capital, located 190 miles west of Shanghai. According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Nanjing ranks eighth globally for fastest GDP growth between now and 2025, ahead of New Delhi and Moscow.  

This confidence masks the turmoil over the city’s past. In 1937 invading Japanese forces rapidly converged on Nanjing, and after a short intense battle, the city fell into enemy hands. According to Chinese accounts, there followed a six week orgy of killing, looting and mass rape, which resulted in the deaths of three hundred thousand Chinese citizens. Yet in the years when Mao Zedong ruled China, from 1949 to 1976, the massacre has been virtually ignored in official records. Why is that?

Because it was formerly the capital of the Nationalists, the side fighting the Communists in China’s civil war, very few Communists lived in Nanjing in the 1930s.

Ever since defeating the Nationalists and unifying China in 1949, the Communists have claimed that they won both the Anti-Japanese War (the Japanese war with China during and before World War II) and the Civil War, and therefore have the right to rule China. If the Communist Party saved China from the Japanese during the War, then why did they do nothing to prevent the Nanjing Massacre?

The Party appears to have sidestepped this conundrum during the Mao era by ignoring the Nanjing Massacre. Instead, they concentrated on highlighting the (minor) role that CCP forces played in beating the Japanese. For three decades after the Second World War, it was not possible to openly discuss the Nanjing Massacre in mainland China. In a similar way, much else was forcibly airbrushed out of Mao era debates on the War, such as Chinese traitors and the role of non-communist forces in beating the Japanese.

The People’s Republic of China didn’t ignore the war during the Mao years. The press discussed and debated the war in Marxist terms, and anniversaries saw staged anti-Japanese demonstrations of up to one million people. Like the proverbial elephant in the corner of the room, the Nanjing Massacre, which took place in Nationalist held territory in the Nationalist capital, was off-limits until the early 1980s.

During the 1950s and 60s, Japanese delegations visited Nanjing, often with the aim of trying to improve bilateral relations. Nanjing archives record that on these visits, the Japanese visitors frequently asked whether they could visit sites relating to the massacre (of which there are hundreds dotted around Nanjing, mainly just outside the city walls). The Chinese refused. Instead, they took their guests to see the fruits of Communist rule, such as the new bridge across the Yangtze River at Nanjing, or model state owed concrete factories. The Nanjing Massacre did not fit into Mao era narratives of a Communist led victory in the War. One feels that there was a deep feeling of shame that such an atrocity took place on Chinese soil. While the state wanted to ignore the atrocities in Nanjing, this does not mean that the masses wanted to forget.

Declassified archives from the 1950s and 60s show that during rehearsals for visits by Japanese to Nanjing, there was considerable Chinese disquiet. Comments such as "My mother’s arm was blown off by the Japanese in Nanjing, why should I welcome them here!" and "the devils burnt our village to the ground, how dare you welcome them to Nanjing now!" suggest that there was a high level of opposition to the CCP ignoring the massacre.         

In July 1982 everything changed. Six years after the death of Mao, the Japanese education ministry published textbooks that whitewashed Japan’s role in World War II, and changed the word "invade" China to "advance" into China. New Chinese leadership seemed to argue that if Japanese politicians and ministries were going to forget the war, then the Chinese needed to present evidence of Japanese atrocities committed in Nanjing and elsewhere – in order to force them to remember. An impromptu Nanjing Massacre museum was opened in the city just two weeks after the textbook crisis broke out, conveniently just in time for the anniversary of the Japanese defeat on August 15, 1982. To cite just one example of how the Nanjing Massacre has been caught up in the battle for memory over the War, before 1982 virtually nothing was published by Chinese academics on the subject. Since that date, there has been an explosion of interest in the massacre, with over ten thousand scholarly articles and books published in Chinese alone. As the denial of the massacre by the mayor of Nagoya this week attests, memory of the war is still being bitterly fought over.