73 years on, Pingdingshan still weeps

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am

Dwindling number of massacre survivors relive childhood horrors 'so we will not forget the tragedy'

It has been 73 years but tears still roll down Yang Yufen's face at the thought of the Pingdingshan massacre in which her mother and 17 relatives were killed.

Setting foot in the burial site at the Pingdingshan Massacre Relics Memorial Hall in Fushun , Liaoning province , has an even more traumatic effect and is something the 81-year-old has only done twice in her life.

'My family members are [buried] inside, how can I not be sad? My heart turns sour and I cannot control my tears,' she said.

Ms Yang was eight years old when, on September 16, 1932, Japanese troops machine-gunned about 3,000 people.

'Our livelihood was originally good. Why did [the Japanese] kill us for no reason? They should not have died like this.'

Since the memorial hall was completed in 1972, Ms Yang has given about eight lectures recounting survivors' stories for visitors, deliberately using the hall's reception room instead of the burial site to lessen the trauma. Even then, she has returned home with headaches every time.

While the visits have an impact on her health, she does not back away from speaking her mind about the tragedy.

At the same time, there are other witnesses to that day who deliver their message from beyond the grave. The 800 skeletons excavated at the massacre site housed by White Bone Hall - as it is known to locals - speak for themselves.

Fenced off and watched over by flocks of colourful paper cranes brought by Japanese left-wing groups, the bones lie in disarray - a skull, jaws wide open, a skeleton, arms outstretched.

Nearby, a male skeleton covers that of a woman, which in turn protects a child.

The remains of a baby, wrapped in a rag, rests next to the bones of a female. Bullet holes and other scars of brutality are evident on some of the skulls.

Seeing the bones every day is not easy for Yu Yongchun , a hall staff member who briefs the media and public on the massacre.

'We've watched over these poor souls for so many years. It is a mixed feeling because [my heart] is heavy seeing them; but [I] feel I should tell more people of their suffering so we will not forget that part of history and learn a lesson from the tragedy,' he said.

Two people who cannot forget that day are Ms Yang and fellow survivor Yang Baoshan . They share no family connection but have both been haunted for the past 73 years.

On that fateful September 16 in 1932, the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time symbolising Chinese family unity, about 190 heavily-armed Japanese soldiers arrived in Pingdingshan village in trucks.

They claimed the villagers had conspired with members of the Chinese civilian resistance army who had attacked them the previous day.

The soldiers lulled the villagers into a false sense of security by saying they had to gather together to have their photograph taken and to stay out of harm's way during a pending military exercise.

'Some people were quite happy thinking they would have their photos taken. It was even livelier than an outdoor opera performance,' Ms Yang said. Of her family, only she, her father, a four-year-old sister and three relatives survived the massacre.

Yang Baoshan, who was 10 at the time, also remembers the excitement.

'As a child, we hadn't seen a military exercise before and hadn't taken a photograph. I was excited. I told mum to go quickly,' 83-year-old Mr Yang said.

And along they all went.

'There was a tripod-like object covered with a cloth. I asked mum if it was a camera; but she did not know and said nothing,' he said, adding he was with his parents and then five-year-old brother.

Suddenly the cloth was taken away and the machine gun chatter erupted.

'Mum threw herself over me. After some time there were no more gunshots. I told mum not to move because the Japanese had not left yet, as there was no sound from the truck engines,' he said.

When some people stood up and ran, the machine guns started up again. 'Blood flowed from mum's mouth, eyes and nose onto me. It was salty and warm. I knew mum was dead,' Mr Yang said. He had been shot in the waist, the bullet coming to rest in the back of his lower right thigh.

With heavy rain falling, the firing stopped, to be replaced by the sound of terrified children calling for their mothers and soldiers bayoneting bodies to make sure villagers were not feigning death.

The rain continued and the soldiers left. After a long wait he crawled out from under his mother.

'Mum died. Dad died, and my brother [also dead] was lying face up,' he said.

Fearing a return of the soldiers, Mr Yang fled, stumbling over bodies and stepping on coagulated blood.

A long, lonely odyssey started that day as he sought shelter and food in neighbouring villages, which had been ordered by the Japanese not to aid anyone from Pingdingshan village.

Keeping his identity to himself - something he continued to do until 1951 - and saying that his parents died of illness, for two months the boy begged for food and slept with a dog inside stacks of straw to keep warm, before becoming a farm worker. His wound bled occasionally over the next couple of months but eventually healed by itself. After two years, the bullet in his thigh found its way out.

Time - which has reduced about 30 survivors to about five today - has passed but not the memories.

'How can I forget [this experience]? I'll tell you the same tomorrow as I've told you today and the account will not be less,' Mr Yang said. 'When I was helping the museum excavate the bones [in 1970], I kept crying because my parents were there and I couldn't recognise which bones belonged to them.'

Today Mr Yang still goes to the hall to give his account to visitors, and like Ms Yang, it takes its toll

'I used to have nightmares. Now I have to control my emotions,' he said, adding that he had three self-imposed rules when it came to giving his account of events. 'I do not speak about anything I have heard or things I haven't seen or gone through. I've experienced bitterness and to educate the public, actions speak louder than words,' he said.