The Past in the Present

Exploring the social palimpsest of China's southern capital.

By Walter Kalaidjian

Only the low, distant hum of the air raid sirens seemed out of the ordinary in the busy Nanjing morning. No one, however, among the crowds of students and commuters seemed to pay much attention to the soundtrack of warning blaring in the background. Yet as I made my way to class—dodging the rush of bicycles, scooters, cars, and vans—it was resonant for me, no doubt, because I was teaching a seminar that day on post-9/11 literature and trauma theory. 

I had been invited to lecture in China by Jincai Yang, an international authority on 19th-century American literature. I was there for about three weeks teaching a graduate seminar on contemporary American literature at Nanjing University. My wife, Pat Cahill, was lecturing on Shakespeare, and our two-year-old son, Aedan, was in tow for the trip. As I learned later, the sirens were commemorating the anniversary of the infamous Nanjing Massacre that commenced on December 13, 1937. 

I was familiar in a general way with Nanjing’s singular history of trauma: the fact that during Japan’s six-week assault on the city, some 300,000 were systematically murdered, and an estimated 20,000 women were raped. Among the gifts that we brought for Yang was a copy of the 2011 novel Nanjing Requiem, autographed by our friend and former colleague Xuefei (Ha) Jin. That month, Zhang Yimou’s controversial film on the Nanjing massacre—The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale—premiered in China and was everywhere in the news. 

Nanjing’s past was a narrative that was both widely known and yet, as I would learn from my students, full of traumatic unknowns. As it happened, a graduate student in my seminar was unearthing accounts of the massacre for his dissertation. He was eager to guide us on our visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, an international site of memory every bit as powerful as Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Designed by architect Qi Kang, the memorial hall’s subterranean environment houses a collection thick in historical exhibits, photographs, films, and survivor testimony. The hall’s literal descent into disaster culminates in a hushed atrium space and library that signifies the massacre as a meticulously archived event. On the one hand, the history of Nanjing’s traumatic past is fully known, documented, and on display there. But on the other hand, as a site of trauma, the expanded museum site also occupies an open graveyard, evidencing the remnants of those victimized by total war. There, among the commemorative footprints of survivors cast in a bronze walkway, we also noticed other traces of domestic trauma in the stunted impression of one pair of footprints bearing the trace of foot binding. Witnessing the memorial’s imprint is something that remains a latent horror for many who have an intimate link to the event.

One Nanjing colleague confided that her family members had experienced the massacre firsthand. She would not go near the memorial site. Another graduate student who accompanied us on any number of excursions likewise could not bring himself to revisit the museum.


Nanjing’s history of violence, however, is not contained by the hall. It goes to the heart of the city’s main campus. Located in the international “safety zone,” the university was nevertheless a site where war atrocities were perpetrated. Indeed, the home of John Rabe, the former Siemens China representative and chair of the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone—which sheltered 200,000 people from slaughter during the massacre—is located on campus and today houses the John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall.

Nanjing’s opulent, postmodern surfaces and obscure historical depths were woven into a larger brocade of social contradictions that defined our brief but multifaceted journey in China. In Shanghai, for example, our hotel happened to be in a heavy construction zone of rapid gentrification. But it was also a stone’s throw from the historic Hongkou neighborhood, which housed some 20,000 European Jewish émigrés in what was a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” during the Second World War. There in the community’s historical synagogue, we visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. But around the corner, we also came upon a present-day neighborhood jogging park whose gardens and facilities were funded and maintained by the state of Israel.

One source for exploring China’s social palimpsest was our students. Although their parents had grown up under the austere and oppressive conditions of the Cultural Revolution, our graduate students were the beneficiaries of China’s “open door” and “soft power” policies of liberal economic and social change. Yet the past was not far away.

One student who came with us on an excursion to Nanjing’s Chaotian Palace—built in the 14th century during the early years of the Ming Dynasty—made the trip in order to visit the ashes of Sakyamuni Buddha that were recently unearthed in Nanjing. Originally, the palace served as a site for the veneration of ancestors, among other things, and so it was fitting that before we went in, our student said, “I hope you do not mind if I kneel before the ashes to show my respect for the Buddha.”

Asking our permission bore a trace, perhaps, of a moment when Buddhism and such acts of ancestral veneration would have been discouraged a generation earlier during the Cultural Revolution. We assured him that it would be no problem; in turn, he helped us locate the Shigu Road Church in Nanjing’s only Catholic archdiocese recognized by both the government and the Holy See. The site of the cathedral not only dates back to the 16th century but, ironically, also incorporates the ruins of an older Buddhist temple.

The uneven, sometimes competing developments in religious worship mirrored the contradictions we encountered between popular culture and media representations of the Communist Party of China. On one occasion we had spent a busy morning visiting the historic gardens of Shouxi Lake, and later in the afternoon I lectured to some 150 students at Yangzhou University. So, after attending a banquet that night, we needed little persuading to join our hosts for late-night foot massages. Soaking our feet in tubs of hot water, we watched a Chinese drama about World War II on TV and compared favorite show moments from series such as Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City that can be accessed in China only below the radar on satellite dishes.

When images of the National People’s Congress came on, we were struck by the extreme representational differences between the somewhat austere way the party is portrayed in the official state media versus the flood of Western-influenced advertising signage, pop culture, and social media that otherwise make up the fabric of everyday life in contemporary China. Negotiating those visual and political contradictions requires a kind of doublethink that everyone we met took for granted, and it made us wonder how our own American Congress might appear to the rest of the world.


What also seemed more pleasantly peculiar was the warmth and attention everywhere paid to our two-year-old toddler. A social symptom, perhaps, of China’s one-child policy, it was not unusual for him to be the object of hugging, tickling, picture taking, gift giving, and unending gestures of welcome offered, more often than not, from complete strangers. The Confucian value placed on family also was extended to us at every turn, and we considered it an honor to meet and spend time with the parents of the one graduate student who is currently studying in Emory’s English department on a Chinese Scholars Council fellowship.

These rich encounters convinced us of the immense benefit to Emory of supporting such international opportunities for student and faculty exchange with our friends at Nanjing University. The graduate students I worked with were incredibly smart, worldly, and progressive. They were eager to learn the latest scholarly methods, theoretical approaches, and critical issues defining contemporary American studies in gender and sexuality, feminism, posthumanism, postcolonialism, and post-9/11 literature and culture. Although they were accustomed to a lecture format, which I provided with multimedia supplements, they also welcomed the chance to participate in the seminar discussion format that was more typical of American graduate pedagogy. By the time my seminar ended, I had learned as much as I taught, discovering a great deal about everyday life in contemporary China from my out-of-class experiences with students and professors at Nanjing and Yangzhou universities.


My wife Pat was busy learning about the cultural meanings of Shakespeare in modern China from her conversations with Nanjing students about the English history plays, Hamlet and King Lear. Although she had read of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare, she knew little about the staging of Shakespeare in China and was delighted to spend some afternoons talking with a visiting scholar on Chinese productions of Shakespeare as well as with Nanjing professor Zhang Ying, who was in the middle of directing a student performance of The Merchant of Venice. The play was hugely popular in China in the 1920s and 1930s, but historically, Chinese performances have paid little attention to the play’s religious tensions, foregrounding instead the play’s gender politics and the role of Portia. In fact, in 1927, the play was made into a silent film and retitled The Woman Lawyer.

Through conversations over chrysanthemum tea, Pat also learned much about Shakespearean performances after the decade of the Cultural Revolution, during which most forms of theater were banned (1966–1976). She was especially captivated by Zhang Ying’s descriptions of contemporary performances of Othello. Shakespearean tragedy has become deeply intertwined with Chinese traditional drama as, for example, in Beijing Opera (Jingju), whose stylized aesthetic incorporates elaborate costumes and masks as well as music, dance, and acrobatics.

Flying back on China Eastern Airlines, we ended our trip with a whimsical taste of the collective spirit defining life in the People’s Republic of China. Some 13 hours into the journey back, an exercise video came on, and our flight attendants led our whole group in airplane aerobics. Looking out across the huge airbus cabin, we moved our bodies in communal synchronicity: at one with the odd spectacle of hundreds of hands and arms reaching up in perfect formation from the rows and rows of seats as far as the eye could see.

Walter Kalaidjian is professor and chair of Emory's Department of English. He visited Nanjing as part of the Halle Institute for Global Learning's Emory-Nanjing Visiting Scholars Program.

Email the editor