At night Nanjing's neon clad boulevards and its plethora of bars and restaurants exude a youthfulness that can become almost intoxicating. For this reason i found the place particularly fascinating, especially considering the massive contrast it presents to the defining moment in the city's history— 1933's massacre by the Japanese.My friend Oz and I had spent the previous evening enjoying a few beers in Nanjing's pretty vibrant student area. Consequently we were in high spirits as we headed off to the Memorial Hall. It is at this point that I feel I have to confess that I knew precious little about what happened in Nanjing in the 1930s. Iris Chang's 'Rape of Nanking' was a book I always noticed on the shelf, but ultimately always managed to to ignore. After having seen the Memorial and learnt so graphically of what happened, that is something I now feel deeply guilty about. It is safe to say though, I could not have had my eyes opened with any greater ferocity.
Over 300,000 men, women and children were killed by the advancing Imperial Japanese forces in Nanjing. The Memorial ensures that fact escapes no-one, basing almost everything around that one astronomical figure. In the opening courtyard you cannot escape it—it is there twice, etched in stone. First it sits high on an imposing stone pillar just inside the gate and then it reappears at the far end on a similarly emphatic mural. However, not even these less than subtle pointers can prepare you for the heart of the memorial.From the courtyard the visitor climbs a set of stairs and is confronted by what, at first glance, appears to be a gravel covered park. It is only as you read the inscription on a stone tablet that lies next to your feet, that you begin to grasp the significance. Again the all too monstrous number surfaces once more; each stone represents a life lost and lies there in memorial.By this point I was beginning to feel just a little bit overwhelmed. Around the stones were a series of further tablets, each describing the string atrocities that contributed to the massacre. After reading them Oz and I were reduced to communicating in a series of sighs and rather confused shakes of the head.We found little else to say as we passed through the next section, a mausoleum and excavated mass grave. The ferocity of the attacks and the sheer horror could not have been any clearer. The sea of bones on display—many of which were snapped, shattered or fragmented—were each colored with either a red, a yellow, or a blue ribbon to denote men, women and children. The bright colors seemed quite frighteningly out of place, but worked uncannily well to grab the attention.The memorial is followed by a museum, which in all honesty can say nothing the stones, bones or even just the number do not say with force. Despite this though, it includes some harrowing pictures and written testimony that, had everything before already done so, would leave the casual observer lost for words. I do not believe I have seen anything in China that effected me quite so much as the Memorial. We exited into a bright winter's afternoon, although I have to say it took me a while to perk up and enjoy the rest of the city.