Chinese Artists Explore the Nanjing Massacre

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In the winter of 1937, the Japanese army stormed Nanjing, then China’s capital, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people in what is now known as the Nanjing Massacre. The incident remains the most emotionally wrenching chapter in the history of Sino-Japanese relations. But unlike the Holocaust and other acts of mass violence during World War II, creative attempts to represent the massacre have been few and far between.

Over the past few years, however, there has been an outpouring of dramatizations of Nanjing in literature and film, as a new generation of Chinese auteurs attempt to grapple with the tragedy, and juggle the demands of their audience, their censors, and their own artistic conscience. Last fall, for instance, National Book Award–winning author Ha Jin published the English-language novel, Nanjing Requiem, which explores the role foreigners played in trying to save the Chinese. And last month brought Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War, the most expensive film ever made in China, which tells the story of a priest, played by Christian Bale, who tries to shelter schoolchildren and prostitutes from the Japanese.

Such reflection on tragedy wasn’t always common. For years, after the Communists came to power, the state wanted to bury the massacre entirely and maintain good relations with the new Japanese government, which could help support China’s struggling economy. Nanjing was the capital of the hated nationalist regime, and the Communists played no role in defending the Chinese from brutality. The massacre did not fit into the Communist Party’s history, and since the state did not tolerate dissenting views, very little was published about it....

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