History textbooks can be so confining. Think about it: all those major events, people, and places stuck in a two-dimensional world that begins at a spine and ends at the edge of a flimsy sheet of paper.
Sad, I know. But my point is, since time travel is still very much a silly sci-fi notion, how amazing would it be to actually visit those neat places you learned about in history class—to breathe the air and walk the ground of some of the world’s most important historical sites?
I remember listening to my AP World History teacher’s lecture about the Nanjing Massacre back in tenth grade. I also remember a lot of the details trickling out of my mind the moment I finished the AP exam (sorry, Mr. Tyree). Needless to say, I didn’t think I’d ever hear much more about Nanjing. And I definitely didn’t think I’d ever visit the site of one the worst atrocities in China’s recent history.
Well, my trip to Nanjing this past weekend proved me wrong. Clearly.
The trip was an academic one organized by Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. On Saturday, we toured the Presidential Palace and visited the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre.
After walking through the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre, I am convinced that no high school history lesson or textbook (at least, in the United States) can adequately portray the intensity of the Massacre, especially in the way that the Chinese view it.
The Memorial Hall includes outdoor exhibits comprised of statues, sculptures, relief carvings, and a large wall listing the names of victims, as well as an atonement tablet and memorial walkway.
Like the rest of the Memorial Hall, the exhibition hall is filled with raw emotion. It is dim, somber, and silent. The word “MASSACRE” is emblazoned on the walls throughout the exhibition hall, as is the number “300,000” to represent the number of victims. Many of the photographs are almost too gruesome to look at, and the accounts of those who witnessed the Nanjing Massacre are heart wrenching.
The part of the exhibition hall that struck me the most was near the end, where there is a pool with a drop of water dripping into it every 12 seconds to symbolize the average frequency of a death during the six-week Massacre. The sound of each drop is amplified, and as each drop hits the water, a face on the wall is illuminated.
Yes, it’s dramatic. But it makes you stop and think about the victims, about the individual lives that were lost rather than the death toll as a whole.
It’s difficult to identify with a major historical event if you’re just reading about it in a textbook or listening to a lecture. But experiencing the site of the event for yourself really puts things into perspective. You feel the impact of the event—the sheer emotion of it.
In one area of the Memorial Hall, visitors can see the skeletal remains of some of the victims, most of which were excavated in 1985. In 1998, 208 more were uncovered.
And that’s about as real as history gets.