As the former capital of the Republic of China and the provincial capital of Jiangsu, Nanjing was a definite on our list of ‘must see’ destinations during our time here in China. With our Lonely Planet guide in one hand and a hostel booking in the other, we set off to explore the opportunities and history that this famous city had to offer visitors near and far.
Travelling to and about Nanjing
As the provincial capital of Jiangsu province, Nanjing is a well connected city with its own international airport, railway network with regular high-speed links to Beijing and Shanghai along with connections on the slower, longer distance bus and rail networks. We travelled by the high-speed Nanjing-Shanghai line, with a 55 minute journey at 300 km/h from Wuxi to Nanjing’s main railway station.
Getting around Nanjing is as easy as most other developed cities in China, thanks to the introduction of a MRT network with interconnecting lines crisscrossing the city. Whilst the transport hub stations are very busy, once you’ve got through the queues to the automated ticket machines, you can use the English options to select your very affordable ticket options and collect your tokens to get on your way. Typical fares are about 2-3 RMB.
Nanjing Massacre Memorial Centre
Located in the suburbs of Nanjing, this museum remembers the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Nanjing civilians and Chinese soldiers after the capture of Nanjing in the Anti-Japanese War. The site was deliberately chosen, with the principal building built atop the mass graves of a significant number of the victims, some of whose excavated remains are on display as a permanent reminder of the atrocity that occurred here.
Entrance to this free museum is achieved by using Exit 2 of YunjinLu of Nanjing Metro Line 2. Straight out of the staircase onto the street, cross the road to your left and join the crowds moving into this museum. You enter by way of a sculpture gallery representing artistic interpretations of specific incidents and memories taken from survivors as you walk along the road. The plinths of the sculptures sit atop a still pool of water, emphasising the purpose of this location as both a place of memory and quiet reflection.
Entering the museum, you are met with a large square divided by two black boulders that tower above the path that runs between them. Only upon closer inspection do you realise that these boulders themselves tell a story, with a carved fresco scene providing further reminders of the violence and savagery that befell the people of Nanjing.
The remainder of the square is artistic and spacious, both to provide locations of quiet contemplation but also to accommodate the vast crowds of Chinese tourists that frequent the museum, especially in the afternoons when coach loads of tour groups visit en mass. The wall of the square reminds you that this tragedy cost approximately 300,000 people their lives and a strangely Christian cross stands with the dates of the tragedy casting a shadow across the square – this would not look out of place in a traditional English village square were it not for its immense size.
Following the tourist route on the prominently displayed map, you enter an Exhibition Hall which appears deceptively small, with many of the displays located on a mezzanine below ground level. This informative exhibition will easily captivate you for several hours if you are well intentioned, although patience is required to deal with the understandably large crowds within it. The displays themselves vary in style and content. Charting the months leading up to, through and after the massacre, a mixture of information boards, audio visual displays and mannequin-equipped reconstructions reinforce the artefacts recovered and preserved from those dark days, telling the story from both sides in an unbiased form. As a non-Chinese reader, the provision of Chinese, English (and I think Korean) information boards allowed us to fully appreciate the recollection being shared, reflecting further the effort that had been put into making this museum accessible to the full range of visitors.
Within the Exhibition Hall there were countless displays, several of which we prominently remembered:
- Early into the exhibit, the Wall of Victim’s List displays the Chinese names of thousands of the victims of the massacre. A digital display in Chinese, English and Korean summarises the rapes, torture and execution of thousands of individuals, based upon eyewitness accounts.
- The fall of Nanjing was marked by the destruction of the sealed East Gate which, whilst holding the Japanese outside the city, imprisoned and condemned to death the civilian population within. Located approximately one third of the way into the exhibition, this reconstruction of the destruction of the gate (which we couldn’t promise wasn’t the real thing, it was that realistic) provides a sombre divide from the war against China that preceded the war crime against the people of Nanjing that followed.
- The excavated bodies from one of the many mass graves on site are given respectful prominence within the Exhibition Hall, showing the trauma experienced by the victims documented within the Memorial Centre. As we found with our visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia last year, it is so strange to see human remains placed as part of a visitor centre but the reality of their existence serves to reinforce the importance of remembering the massacre itself and emphasises the lessons that can be learnt from it.
- Walking amongst the exhibits, we were shocked to see the prominence of organisations such as the Red Swastika Society, a German humanitarian organisation akin to the Red Cross that attempted to protect the population from slaughter through the establishment of safe zones free of killing. The prominence of German expatriates in supporting this is emphasised by the fact that the leader of the Committee who established the zone was the leader of the Nazi Party within Nanjing and was decorated by Adolf Hitler himself for his efforts here. It was very disconcerting to see an award bearing Hitler’s name displayed with pride in a museum detailing an atrocity that could only be eclipsed by their own evil endeavours in the Holocaust.
- Throughout the museum, graphic accounts are accompanied by photos and real-world artefacts of the humiliation, rape, torture and execution of the civilians by the thousand. This is followed by accounts of the mass burning of the bodies post-execution, with furnaces akin to those at Auschwitz used to dispose of the evidence of this war crime.
- Towards the end of the main exhibition, you enter an open space which spans three floors. To one side, row upon row of thousands of archive boxes stand there in testimony to the evidence that backs up the exhibitions that had been viewed. Visitors can draw any box at random and view the documents contained – some are more detailed than others. The sheer scale of the archive boxes reflects the scale of the tragedy that befell Nanjing in those dark days of 1937 and the importance of remembering from generation to generation so their suffering is not forgotten.
Top tips:No water is to be carried inside the Exhibition Hall but they seemed fine if it was in your bag. You’re going to need it though as unless you get there early it’s going to be very busy so be prepared to be hot & pushed around. There is a lot of reading of the various exhibitions – you could get an audio guide (although we cannot comment on the quality of this). There are a number of distressing images & testimonies potentially making this a less suitable place for younger children.
Having left the Exhibition Hall, there are still a number of areas within the site to visit and reflect on what you’ve learnt. The area is built with plenty of spaces to sit down and contemplate the horrors that occurred here in 1937. All around you, there are further sculptures to set the scene of the area along with several other exhibits to visit. Must go-to places include the excavation halls, where archaeological excavations of the mass graves on site have occurred, revealing hundreds of victim bodies, most of which bear the scars of their method of execution. These are annotated by surrounding info boards on the raised walkways in English, allowing you to understand what you are actually seeing. Further along, you will also find a shrine for contemplation and a reflecting pool with a grass bank area popular amongst visitors to sit down and absorb the atmosphere.
Some other photos from our visit:
This was the first of two days in Nanjing during our first visit. Check out our blog of Day 2’s visit to the Purple Mountain and why we can’t wait to come back to visit Nanjing again.