China · China travel · Travel

Nanjing- death, destruction and resilience

The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum is an imposing building that looms at the top of several flights of elegant, wide, stone stairs. From the entrance to the top is a straight path that goes up the stairs. At the foot of the staircase is the mausoleum gate, and then a stele pavilion, featuring a stone stele. The blue color of the roofs are the most distinctive feature, being the color of the KMT. The mausoleum displays a giant statue of Dr. Sun, which visitors line up to get into and then approach from the right side to the back and exit at the left. No pictures are allowed inside, same as the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. No, the photo above is far from the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. It’s a view of Nanjing’s main skyscrapers from the shore of Xuanwu Lake and it’s a good example of why Nanjing is a charming city.

If you’re wondering how Sun Yat-sen could be so honored in the PRC, it’s because he is actually respected and revered in both the mainland (PRC) and in Taiwan (ROC). Sun is called the “Father of modern China” as he was instrumental in forming the Kuomintang (KMT) and creating the Three Principles (三民主義). He had a highly inspirational role in the formation of the ROC in 1911 that followed the toppling of the Qing Dynasty, though he was unable to prevent the warlord Yuan Shikai from taking control of the nascent republic. It’s important to not make him into a deity, but he is one of the few in modern times who Chinese people can consider a hero. To visit his mausoleum  was one of the main reasons I came to Nanjing. And of course, when Chiang Kai-shek gained control of China, basically reunifying it, in 1927, he moved the capital from Beijing to Nanjing which remained the capital until the end of the ROC.

There are even more attractions on the mountain. There’s more tombs of lesser historical figures, the 1500-year-old Linggu Temple to the east of Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum, an   and then Nanjing Museum, which we also visited. It lies at the foot of the mountain and is not clearly marked and it didn’t seem very impressive, judging from the exterior. There was construction going on around it, suggesting renovation or additions to the museum. The museum was free, just like the Shanghai Museum. It requires you to put your bag through an X-ray scanner, as with several public sites in China. Once inside, the museum was quite decent, though it was largely empty in terms of visitors. The interior features two floors with several large rooms, though a few were closed due to renovation/general maintenance.

Finally, Nanjing is filled with historical structures. But unfortunately, its long history and importance means that it has been the scene of battles, sieges, and destruction, especially during the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century and in World War II, in which the city and its people suffered terribly. There are a number of historical structures and buildings that were renovated or rebuilt. One of these is the Mingguggong, the former Ming Imperial Palace (Beijing’s Forbidden City is called Guggong, so is Taipei’s National Palace Museum). However, this Mingguggong possesses none of the splendour and majesty of Beijing’s Forbidden City, because it is now just a large park with a few small pavilions and statues, the sad remnants of the imperial palace complex that was the precursor to the Forbidden City. The palace complex was mostly destroyed by Manchu Qing soldiers when they defeated the Ming Dynasty.
The Nanjing Massacre is one of the worst atrocities in recent history. Over 200,000 died in this atrocity which was committed by Japanese forces on Chinese civilians and captured soldiers over the span of a few months.  Tens of thousands of woman and girls were also raped and/or killed. This sad event is commemorated in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which was our final stop but an essential one. By coincidence, China’s official submission to the Oscars is a movie about the Nanjing Massacre starring Christian Bale.
The memorial hall is a modern grey building situated in a large compound. The hall seems to rise out of the ground as a large triangular grey building flanked by ghoulish statues of victims along a fountain at the side. It also has a giant courtyard with a large cross and bell and has a lot of open space that makes it seem as if it is set off from its surroundings. It is several minutes’ walking distance from a subway station.


The hall (full name: Memorial Hall of the victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese invaders) is not an easy place to take in. The horrifying and sadistic acts of the massacre fill all corners of the place.  There are exhibits, displays and photos about the atrocity, including what happened during the massacre and the events before it. I learned how relentless the Japanese military offensive was in that year, as Shanghai, Hangzhou and other nearby smaller towns fell before Nanjing. Actually the battle for Shanghai resulted in a serious defeat for Chinese forces, which somewhat explains why Naniing, the capital of China, was captured rather easily.
The exhibits included photos, weapons, military equipment, and belongings of victims. The displays, which were in Chinese, English and some in Japanese, explained how the Japanese literally went on killing sprees, competing to see who could execute the most Chinese, as well as rape sprees. I knew all this from reading about it elsewhere but it was still uncomfortable to read this again. Meanwhile, a constant soundtrack of sound effects of bombs falling and screams were played, accentuating the feeling of unease. Interestingly enough, I saw some people who had brought kids there, which seemed unusual.

The most haunting exhibit was a large pit with human skeletons of the victims visible. This pit was inside the building and you looked down upon it. The museum is built on the site of a mass grave of massacre victims. Photos were banned but I wish I had taken a few, as some visitors did. But then again, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for photography as I took in the exhibits. There were displays about a few Westerners who helped save thousands of Chinese, including Minnie Vautrin and John Rabe. Iris Chang was also paid tribute, she being the Chinese-American author of probably the most famous English-language book on the Nanjing Massacre who sadly took her own life in 2004. The museum ends with a section about the hope for peace and features a lot of surprisingly positive language, even about the Japanese.


One of two giant tripod vases at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, a bullet hole from World War II fighting can be seen on he right side of the tripod. A jade mummy lies at Nanjing Museum.

Nanjing Museum had some decent exhibits like these glazed pottery. I’ve never seen the green-yellow color on pottery before.

A ceremony was concluding with flagraising when we entered the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall site.


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