Site: The Impossibility of
Remembering the Past at Nanjing

By Zhiyi Yang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.1  (Spring 2020), pp. 233-78

As an ancient capital of mostly southern dynasties during eras of political division, the city of Nanjing experienced repeated cycles of prosperity and conquest. Its poetic history has transposed the actual reality of the city, turning it into a “site of memory.” This paper examines the close interaction between poems about Nanjing and contemporary historical events during the Republican period. Rather than being generic variations on the theme of “meditating on the past,” these well-chronicled poems reflect actual horrors and true glory. Curiously, however, few such poems were ever written after the 1937 Massacre. This paper argues that this lack may be because the narrative of an impersonal force of history, the “rise and fall,” risked reducing the immediate and unique historical event into déjà vu. In this sense (and to paraphrase Adorno), “meditating on the past” after the Rape of Nanjing was barbaric.

The weight of memory at Nanjing was particularly reflected in the classical-style poems by poets in Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist regime, established under the Japanese patronage at Nanjing in 1940. The fact that most leading members in this regime were classically-trained poets (and resisted the literary vernacular dominant in their time) is itself notable. It bespeaks of a peculiar eco-system in which resistance, accommodation, and collaboration all sought justifications under the umbrella of China’s cultural traditions. For a regime struggling with its own legitimacy, “meditating on the past” would suggest that it, too, would suffer from the fate of conquest. Their reactions to the burden of literary tradition ranged from self-defense to wistful denial, but most commonly a pregnant aphasia. The ways in which Wang and his followers treated this topic become, therefore, a case study on the complex of cultural memory, political legitimacy, and literary representation in occupied China.