Wu Xianbing was 21 when he was asked to play a video cassette whose contents scar him to this day.
“I was a technician at Nanjing University and Gao Xingzu, the professor I was assisting, was a member of the history department,” the 53-year-old recalled.
Wu sat beside Gao as the black-and-white footage rolled. There were no sound bites or subtitles, but the images spoke — “cried out” in Wu’s words — for themselves.
“An old man was holding a small boy, presumably his grandson, and standing amid a sea of human remains. This was quickly replaced by an old woman. She had bound feet and wore a traditional high-collared suit and an indescribable expression. Not far away from her lay a jumbled pile of bodies,” Wu said. “I felt like my nostrils were filled with the stench of death. My stomach contracted in spasms.”
It took a long time for those feelings to subside. By then, the footage had finished and Gao had left the room.
“Before he left, he told me that this had happened in our city in December 1937. The images had been filmed by a man from the United States named John Magee. It was the Nanjing Massacre. I’d heard about it long ago from my grandfather, but believe me, nothing prepares you for that sort of brutality,” he said.
On Dec 13, 1937, after a number of fierce clashes with Chinese troops, members of the Imperial Japanese Army occupied the city of Nanking (now Nanjing, capital of East China’s Jiangsu province) during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).
For the next six weeks, they went on a killing spree, butchering an estimated 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers, while maiming and raping countless others. The tragedy was followed by nearly eight years of Japanese occupation, the end of which marked Japan’s defeat in China and the wider Asian theater of war.
Today, Wu is the curator of a memorial museum in Nanjing dedicated to the darkest chapter in the city’s contemporary history. It is the only private museum in the country dedicated to the Nanjing Massacre.
“If the shock I felt that winter afternoon represented some sort of call, it was too faint for me to answer. I waited another 20 years, during which I quit my job at the university, started my own business, opened a factory and began dabbling in collecting,” he said.
Then came another winter day, this time in 2005. While conducting his usual treasure hunt in one of Nanjing’s open-air antiques markets, Wu’s eyes fell on an old photo album.
“While containing no scenes of violence, the grainy black-and-white pictures were somehow familiar,” he said.
“There was little of interest in the photos — just rather mundane depictions of army life. But for a discerning pair of eyes, the background spoke for itself. Before December 1937, it was the campus of Southeast University (in Nanjing), but after that, it housed the camps of the occupying troops,” he said.
Today, the album shares a 2,000-square-meter space with more than 1,000 other exhibits in Wu’s dimly lit third-floor factory workshop-turned-museum, though there are 5,700 items in the collection in total.
In December 2007, a year after the museum opened, it received its first serious donation: Five tapes recorded by Iris Chang, a Chinese-American writer and author of The Rape of Nanking, which sold 500,000 copies in the US in the first few months after publication in 1997.
During July and August 1995, the 27-year-old Chang was in Nanjing, interviewing survivors. The five tapes were recorded during those few weeks.
Chang committed suicide on Nov 9, 2004.
“The tapes contain the writer’s interviews with nine survivors, along with what now appear to be the only shots of her at work in Nanjing,” Wu said.
The few seconds in which Chang is seen were the result of an accident.
“The camera fell off the tripod in the middle of an interview with Xia Shuqin, who witnessed the horrifying deaths of seven family members — her parents, two grandparents and three sisters — on the morning of Dec 13, 1937. Picking it up from the ground, Chang looked into the lens while trying to make an adjustment,” Wu said. “Wearing a checkered, pale-blue, one-piece dress, she said ‘Sorry’ to the old woman who was sitting behind her.”
Xia’s family tragedy — all of the women except her grandmother were raped before they were killed — was also recorded by the camera of John Magee (1884-1953), a US missionary who was in Nanjing during the massacre. After World War II, he testified against the Japanese at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
“When he heard what was happening, Magee rushed to the site, and using his 16 mm movie camera he didn’t flinch from recording the most disturbing images,” Wu said.
“The missionary was also the first person to hear Xia’s story as the 8-year-old, who sustained three bayonet cuts, struggled to explain an atrocity she would only be able to grasp many years later.”
In 1938, Magee’s film, shot in secret on a number of occasions and lasting hundreds of minutes, was smuggled out of Nanjing to be developed in Shanghai. Before Magee left China in 1941, the film was taken out of the country by a friend.
Another person Wu believes risked his life trying to expose the inhuman actions was known only as “CS Tai”. “The name was on the cover of a book I bought in an antique market. It also appeared at the end of the book’s English foreword, along with a date: Nov 8, 1938,” he said.
The book, which is typewritten, comprises two different works. One, called What War Means: The Japanese Terror in China, and the other called War Damage in the Nanking Area, December 1937 to March 1938. Both were penned in early 1938.
“Research shows that the books were not published in Nanjing, for obvious reasons. So this person, whose exact Chinese name we may never discover, typed the entire two books sitting in front of his typewriter in a room inside the Nanking Safety Zone,” Wu said.
The zone, set up by a group of foreigners at the fall of Nanjing, provided a haven for many thousands of Chinese. It was operated by the International Committee, of which Magee was a member.
“Why would Tai do that? Because he wanted to expose the sin, and to offer hope to people locked in the ‘city of death’,” Wu said.
“In the final sentence of the foreword, he wrote: ‘I pray that our country will gain her final success, and become a strong country.’”
In 2005, Wu paid 5,000 yuan ($755) for a packaged condom previously owned by a Japanese collector. Printed on the simple kraft paper packaging is the brand name, just below a star — the emblem of the Imperial Japanese Army. The packaging of the accompanying disinfectant cream states that it was manufactured by a Japanese army supply factory.
“This sheds light on the notorious ‘comfort women’ system the Japanese military consistently installed in almost all the areas of Asia it occupied,” he said.
According to estimates by Chinese scholars, about 360,000 women in the region were forced into sexual slavery, most notably in China, Korea and the Philippines. Abducted from their homes, they were thrown into “comfort stations”, in which many of them died.
The survivors lived with the pain for the rest of their lives.
Very few of them spoke openly about their experience later, Wu said. “It was here (in Nanjing) that the Japanese occupying authorities began to install the evil system on a large scale, after its introduction in Shanghai.”
Research has shown that there were at least 30 comfort stations in the city.
Wu’s museum is located near the Andemen Gate, the southwestern entrance of Nanjing, through which two Japanese Army divisions entered the city 80 years ago.
“Everything here speaks volumes,” Wu said, leafing through a diary in his collection. It was written by a Japanese soldier who was in Nanjing in 1937.
Part of one entry simply reads: “December 13, 1937; a bright winter day.”