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Set in Stone
Inscription on UNESCO register elevates Nanjing Massacre documents to common world heritage
By Yin Pumin | NO. 44 OCTOBER 29, 2015


The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province (XINHUA)

On October 9, documents concerning the Nanjing Massacre during the Japanese aggression against China in the first half of the 20th century were inscribed onto the Memory of the World Register by the International Advisory Committee of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Memory of the World Program. They joined a total of 47 other new nominated items around the world.

The decision was made following a two-year process as part of the 2014-15 nomination cycle in the course of which 88 submissions from 61 countries were examined.

Among the collection of documents are 11 archives relating to different aspects of the massacre including films, photographs and texts from between 1937 and 1948. The documents contain records and accounts of Japanese troops killing unarmed Chinese. Some of the pictures depict women in the aftermath of sexual assault and bodies scattered on the streets.

On December 13, 1937 when Japanese invaders first occupied Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, then capital of China, they began six weeks of destruction, pillage and slaughter in the city, all of which was planned, organized and purposefully executed by the Japanese Army. More than 300,000 Chinese, including defenseless civilians and unarmed soldiers, were murdered, together with countless cases of rape, looting and arson. One third of the city was burned to the ground.

The massacre was so shocking that British-American poet W. H. Auden compared the atrocities of the militaristic Japanese with Nazi concentration camps.

The Memory of the World Register is a list of documentary heritage under the UNESCO's Memory of the World Program, which was set up in 1992 to preserve documentary heritage for the benefit of present and future generations in the spirit of international cooperation, mutual understanding and peace.

In June 2014, China announced that it was sending an application to the UNESCO to list documents concerning the massacre and the suffering experienced by "comfort women," victims of Japan's wartime sex slavery system, as part of the organization's Memory of the World Program.

China submitted the wartime documents to the UNESCO program "to prevent those miserable and dark days from ever making a return," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news briefing after the announcement.

The documents are firsthand materials that give a blow-by-blow account of the massacre, and they are of utmost historical importance, according to Zhu Chengshan, Curator of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, who spearheaded efforts to prepare and organize the 11 sets of documents for the submission.

"The UNESCO listing represents recognition. From now on, any act of denial will be rendered wholly impotent," Zhu said. "The inscription of the documents on the list will help us to honor history, to refute knowingly erroneous or unfounded claims and to disseminate the truth."


The tribunal verdict on Japanese general Hisao Tani on display in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. According to the verdict, "the evidence is certain" that Tani and his troops "committed mass murders, rapes, looting and wanton destruction" (XINHUA)

International recognition 

The Chinese Government and academia maintain that the inscription of the documents on the register would help to shape consensus on an event that has oft been distorted by the Japanese right wing.

"The inscription gives a superb boost to our work and heralds a new start for research into the Nanjing Massacre, likely one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against humanity," Zhu said.

"The Nanjing Massacre was one of the severe crime committed by Japanese militarists during World War II, a historical fact that has now been recognized by the international community at large," Hua told reporters at a October 13 news briefing.

The massacre was acknowledged by the postwar International Military Tribunal for the Far East held in Tokyo in 1946-48.

At the Tokyo Tribunal, an event in which Japanese war criminals were convicted, the occupation of Nanjing and the ensuing massacre was the most-discussed atrocity of the war. The tragedy took up two chapters in the 1,218-page written document detailing the findings of the trial after evidence and testimony were presented in court, providing irrefutable proof that the massacre had occurred.

However, the trial did not expose the crimes committed by Japanese militants in their entirety nor did it lay bare the true nature of their invasion of China.

The inadequate judgment of the trial has left loopholes interpreted as leeway by Japanese right-wing politicians in denying crimes such as the Nanjing Massacre, Zhu said.

Elements on the right wing of Japan's political scene have denied the massacre through questioning the casualty numbers and the Japanese Government has also attempted to conceal the historical facts by terming the massacre in sanitized terms as "the Nanjing Incident" and continually revising content related to the event in high school textbooks.

By denying the most egregious crime that happened during the war, right-leaning politicians in the Japanese Government have tried to play down the tyrannical nature of their forefathers, as war crimes such as the massacre brand World War II Japan with titles such as "invader," "defeated country" and "peace breaker."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the inscription of the Nanjing Massacre documents on the UNESCO's Memory of the World Register was also met with obstruction from Japan, with the Japanese Foreign Ministry questioning the authenticity of the documents, calling on UNESCO to be neutral and fair and for adjustments to be made to the process.

Worse still, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on October 12 went to extreme lengths to block the move, such as threatening to cut funding to UNESCO and questioning the cultural body's "fairness and transparency."

At a press conference the next day, Hua said that it was shocking and completely unacceptable that Japan had so blatantly threatened UNESCO.

She pointed out that the files had met the evaluation criteria of the Memory of the World Register, especially those relating to authenticity and completeness, and that the submission had complied with UNESCO rules.

"The Japanese side, which has continued to obstruct UNESCO's work and has even resorted to making threats, has revealed once again the misguided historical outlook to which it so stubbornly clings," the spokeswoman said.

She stressed that though the Japanese side may threaten to reduce its financial contributions to the relevant UN agency, it will remain incapable of removing the stain their country left on history. The harder it tries, Hua claimed the darker that stain will become.

"Facts should not be denied and history not rewritten," Hua said.

She urged Japan to reflect on its history, and to desist from obstructing the work of UNESCO. She added that Japan should regain the trust of the international community with concrete action.

Ma Zhendu, Deputy Curator of the Nanjing-based Second Historical Archives of China, said that all of the documents submitted had been carefully collated and researched and that the inscription in and of itself represented acknowledgement of their authenticity, uniqueness and preciousness.

"These files constitute the true record of history. We want to relate that time through them so as to allow history to serve as a mirror providing a reference point for building a better future," he said.

Zhu said that the listing came about as the result of a very objective and impartial evaluation and these documents represent the memory of a traumatic event significant the whole of human civilization.

"We will carry out more detailed research and turn the documents into textbooks that demonstrate to the world the importance of peace," Zhu noted.

Looking to the future 

"China will ensure these valuable documents are protected and circulated, and ensure that they play a positive role in remembering history, cherishing peace, looking to the future and safeguarding human dignity," Hua said.

In response to the inscription, the Second Historical Archives of China announced on October 11 that it will set up a digital database and upgrade the protection of documents regarding the Nanjing Massacre.

It said that the database will be established through the collaboration of a number of domestic archives, and will be open to the public at home and abroad.

According to Guo Biqiang, a researcher with the Second Historical Archives of China, there are a large number of archives on the Nanjing Massacre and they include accounts from perspective of the aggressor, victims and third parties.

The Nanjing Massacre documents are mainly housed in the Second Historical Archives of China, the Nanjing Municipal Archives and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

"I hope that as part of our global heritage, the massacre will become more widely known among people in the future," Zhu said.

According to Zhu, a monument to the UNESCO listing of the Nanjing Massacre documents will be built on the sculpture square of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall to mark the attainment of global consensus on the historical events, and the monument will be inaugurated before December 13, the National Memorial Day for victims of the tragedy.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

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