Belated recognition for China's 'Schindler'

Breaking News

Amid a political and intellectual cold war with Japan that revolves to a great extent around the history of China's conquest by its neighbor, China is seizing enthusiastically upon the memory of a man often called China's Oskar Schindler.

John Rabe, a German Nazi employee of Siemens, in addition to sheltering people in his own compound, led a score of other foreigners in the city to form an international safety zone that shielded more than 200,000 Chinese from the Japanese.

Despite his heroism, Rabe was for decades all but forgotten here. Even the location of his house, today all but swallowed up by the sprawling campus of Nanjing University, was unknown.

Since the publication of Rabe's diary in 1997, his story has become a central theme in narratives of the Nanjing Massacre, much as the massacre story itself has become an important pillar in China's emerging new nationalism. In addition to the readying of a Rabe museum, Chinese scholars have just published a minutely detailed 28-volume history of the massacre and academics are rethinking the way the episode is taught in schools.

Why this sudden interest in an event that took place nearly 70 years ago? Historians cite two aims: to refute Japanese denials of the massacre and to boost patriotism among Chinese youth.

"The Japanese right is becoming stronger and stronger, and they have denied causing the war in Asia," said Zhang Xianwen, editor of the new history of the massacre and the director of the Center for the History of Republican China at Nanjing University. "We have decided to fight back and force Japan to admit its responsibility."

Yet, seven decades after the event, there is still serious academic dispute here, even over something so fundamental as the death toll. Estimates range from a few tens of thousands to "over 300,000," the official Chinese number that is literally set in concrete above the entranceway to the expansive Nanjing Massacre memorial here and that cannot be disputed in public.

China is by no means alone in this. In Japan, denial of the killings - once restricted to the far-right fringe - has entered the mainstream, as the country's politics have shifted rightward. Today, in the face of the best evidence, many Japanese textbooks minimize the event, playing down suggestions of Japanese atrocities.

Experts say that the fact that there was a great slaughter is beyond any reasonable dispute. "It was not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of the destruction," Rabe wrote on Dec. 13, 1937, just a day after Japan took control of the city. "The bodies of the civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had presumably been fleeing and were shot from behind."

His account is backed up by the few remaining survivors from his courtyard. Rabe's words could easily have been those of Mu Xifu and Li Shizhen, who fled to the German's courtyard for shelter and married each other years later.

"The Japanese were killing people and raping people," said Mu, who is 83. "You could see dead bodies in the river and all over the road."

But official records tend to be either scarce or unreliable. During the war, Japan rigorously counted its own dead but paid no comparable attention to Chinese casualties. The defeated Japanese military also took care to burn its records in the city.

China's accounting of the incident has been consistently marred by politics.

During the war, Nanjing was the capital of the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which mounted a brief investigation after the Japanese defeat in 1945. From the time of the Communist takeover in 1949 until the early 1980s, when disputes over Japanese textbooks first arose, Chinese experts say there was no serious study of the massacre. More curious still, there is no record of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, ever speaking publicly about it. Save for a brief mention in a little- known 1960 middle school textbook, the Nanjing Massacre was not featured in Chinese textbooks until the early 1980s. And as recently as the early 1990s, historians and others who wanted to organize conferences about the event were barred from doing so.

The decades of silence over Nanjing were due, in part, to the government's unwillingness to recognize the resistance of China's Nationalist armies put up against the Japanese. Although recently, more credit has been given to the Nationalists, official histories of the war have always credited Mao's Communist armies with defeating Japan.

There was also a deep sense of humiliation surrounding the fall of the city, in which scarcely trained Chinese conscripts stripped off their uniforms and fled the invading Japanese. "It is a natural Chinese character to be ashamed to speak of being raped, about being massacred while hardly resisting," said Shao Tzuping, a founder of the Alliance in Memory of the Nanjing Massacre, a private association.

In recent decades, partly in response to Japan, Beijing has itself looked toward nationalism as a spur for unity and to quell social troubles, especially in light of Marxism's fading relevance. "It was in the last 20 years, with the Japanese denials that we found it essential to intensify our propaganda, to make sure that our people remember this better," sad Zhang Lianhong, a historian at Nanjing University.

Efforts like these mirror those of Japan's new rightists, who say their aim is to bring an end to what they call a masochistic style of teaching history, and to make young people feel proud to be Japanese.

"Both the Japanese and the Chinese have clung to a sense of victimhood, the Chinese for what happened during the war, the Japanese for what happened after," said David Askew, a professor of law at Ritsumeikan University in Japan. "They are not so much interested in Nanjing as their country's place in the world."

comments powered by Disqus