China’s Other Massacre

Why the Chinese obsess over Nanjing, not Tiananmen Square.

China Photos/Getty Images Bad memories: The facts and figures of Nanjing are fresh in the minds of those who weren't even born when the massacre took place.

China Photos/Getty Images Bad memories: The facts and figures of Nanjing are fresh in the minds of those who weren’t even born when the massacre took place.

This week, the world marks the 20th anniversary of the infamous crackdown on student protests at Tiananmen Square. The event has come to symbolize for Westerners the oppressive ways of the Chinese government. Each year around this time, magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe run editorials and interviews with former student leaders.

But here in China, you would hardly know why this week is significant. Although the government has deemed the June 4th incident a sensitive topic, most people know little or care little about the demonstrations. This is not to say that Chinese aren’t interested in history. It’s just that the buzz lately hasn’t been about Tiananmen but another event, one that took place 500 miles south and more than 70 years ago. The Japanese atrocities at Nanjing are the massacre that the Chinese can’t forget.

Since it opened this April, the most talked-about movie in China has been City of Life and Death. The black-and-white film depicts the horror of the Nanjing massacre of 1937-8, during which the Japanese Army committed large-scale looting, rape, and executions of prisoners of war in what was then the capital of China.

Much of City of Life and Death is a spectacle of violence, told from the perspective of Chinese civilians as well as Japanese soldiers. In one montage, Chinese are buried alive, locked in a building and set on fire, marched into the sea, and executed en masse. Extended rape scenes fill much of the second hour, which concludes with the suicide of a guilt-ridden Japanese soldier. Despite the depressing subject matter, the movie was a box-office hit, earning $20 million in its first two weeks. When I watched the movie in Beijing last month, the theater was packed with couples and groups of friends settling in for a grim movie on a Friday night.

The Nanjing massacre remains a raw nerve for the entire nation. The Japanese atrocities constitute the most violent event in modern Chinese history and remain seared in the country’s collective memory as an episode of national suffering and humiliation. In the Chinese view, the episode has yet to conclude because Japan has neither fully acknowledged nor adequately apologized for its wartime wrongdoings.

To the Chinese public, Japan has become worse and worse, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. Compared with before, Japan remembers less and less about the massacre and is distorting past history. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party has been fairly successful in committing its own distortions. Tiananmen has nearly been bleached from China’s history, at least in the domestic sphere. It’s virtually impossible to find Chinese-language books or articles about the event, and Internet censorship aims to block all content related to the subject. (On Tuesday, China’s Net Nanny went into overdrive and blocked major sites like Hotmail, Twitter and Flickr.) Without official acknowledgment of how the military used force against student demonstrators, it’s no surprise the Tiananmen tragedy hardly exists for many Chinese.

Even for those who are aware of the crackdown, Tiananmen Square is regarded as merely a domestic matter and thus pales in importance to Nanjing, though the latter event took place before most Chinese today were born.

For China, the Nanjing massacre was the culmination of two centuries of nonstop humiliation. Starting from the mid-1800s with the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, China suffered a string of shameful military losses and unfair treaties at the hands of foreign powers. Today, China’s rise as a major world player in economics and politics is undeniable. But the lessons of the recent past have led China to be hyper defensive on matters of sovereignty. Thus, even as pride and nationalism grow, this powerful state’s collective ego remains more than a little bruised.

Because of China’s sensitivity to foreign interference, City of Life and Death has sparked a public debate about how citizens should view their neighboring country. Many Chinese have condemned the movie for humanizing the aggressors; one Japanese soldier, for instance, falls in love with a comfort woman and feels sympathy for Chinese civilians — a departure from older Chinese war movies in chich Japanese characters are inevitably cruel and stupid, while the Chinese are portrayed as brave resisters. After watching City of Life and Death, one commenter on, one of the country’s largest web portals, wrote, Lu Chuan [the director], 300,000 Nanjing souls will not forgive you, you modern Chinese traitor, for covering up the Nanjing Massacre for the Japanese!

For a vocal minority, the suggestion that Japanese soldiers could have been anything other than cruel is a betrayal of China and a denial of the painful past. On popular Web sites like and, Chinese demand apologies from Japan or even call for revenge. Another viewer writes, [M]y mind only has one thought — the hope that I, my son or grandson can stand on the ruins of Tokyo in remembrance of the tens of millions of Chinese souls.

But most Chinese viewers respond to City of Life and Death with calls for a stronger China. A police commissioner writes on his blog, The movie reminds people of their patriotism. It awakens those Chinese who are losing their memory of history, and tells us that we can forgive the invaders but that we can never ever forget the history.

Whereas talk of the Tiananmen Square massacre is taboo in casual Chinese conversation, people are quite happy to discuss Nanjing with anyone who asks and expound on the character of the Japanese people and the problems of Sino-Japanese relations. The reaction of average Chinese people to the Japanese? They are very hateful, says Jerry Tseng, a 25-year-old graduate student studying finance in Beijing. (As a reporter, I’ve found this response typical. Most people matter-of-factly stated that while they don’t personally hate the Japanese, most other Chinese do.)

Disputes between China and Japan over the last several years have fanned anti-Japanese sentiment. The visits of Japanese officials to the Yasukuni war shrine, as well as government approval of Japanese textbooks that whitewash the occupation of Nanjing, have prompted mass protests by the Chinese. The territorial dispute over eight uninhabited islands northeast of Taiwan, called either the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands, also grates on Chinese nationalist sentiments; China, Japan, and Taiwan all claim ownership. And these examples are more than mere media hype: Nearly every Chinese person I spoke with about Nanjing enumerated these exact grievances.

Even generations born long after the war are concerned about a new armed conflict with Japan and worry that Japan covets China’s natural resources. Tseng, the graduate student, who reads foreign news and holds common Western views on many subjects, considers war with Japan a real possibility. If there’s another invasion from Japan, young people must do our best to teach them a lesson, he said.

History is fact, said Shi, the international relations professor, but the memory of history can be conditioned by people’s feelings today and tomorrow. He believes today’s politics are altering the nation’s recollection of the massacre. During the 1970s, Shi notes, when relations between the two countries were good, the public rarely referred to Nanjing, choosing instead to recall China’s successes in the war. Today’s China is newly confident and views Japan as a country in decline. With the war shrine visits and revisionist textbooks of recent years, old wounds have resurfaced.

The Chinese education system also supports the constant recollection of the events. The massacre shows up on every major exam through high school. Even in elementary school, children are tested regularly on the gruesome facts, including the various ways the Japanese Army brutalized civilians and the number of casualties.

In contrast, the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 are given a very different treatment. Schools teach a sanitized version of the student-led protests: a tale of naive and malcontent students led astray by corrupting foreign powers. And those who do access more accurate, and therefore banned, accounts often view the demonstrations with resignation — believing that while the government was not in the right, the students were overly idealistic. It’s hard to overstate how little presence the Tiananmen Square massacre has in Chinese public life. There are no commemorations, no retrospectives on the nightly news, and no essays on the subject assigned in school. June 4 is supposed to be a day like any other, and Tiananmen Square is supposed to be a place, not an event.

About a half-hour’s subway ride from Tiananmen Square sits the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall, a museum about the conflict with Japan. Inside are numerous photos tracking China’s progress in the war, a display about Japan’s chemical warfare, a barrel outfitted with spikes on the interior that was used in torture, and a wall-sized bar graph comparing the number of Chinese and Japanese killed during the war. On a recent visit, I encountered groups of schoolchildren touring exhibits. They were the best students in their schools, a teacher explained, and as a reward, they had been handpicked for the field trip.

I also met a Beijinger who was on his fourth visit to the museum. The man was born in 1942, too young to have experienced war with Japan but old enough to have lived through the Mao years and witnessed China’s meteoric rise. I couldn’t understand what the Japanese did, but with time I’ve accepted it, he said. Now I come so that I won’t forget.

Michelle Tsai is a freelance writer living in Beijing. She blogs about China and the overseas Chinese at

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