On the morning of December 13th, 1937, Japanese troops pounded on the door of Xia Shuqin's family home in Nanjing, China. Thirteen people had taken shelter under this particular roof: Eight-year-old Xia, her mother and father, two grandparents, four sisters (one, four, 13 and 15 years old), and four neighbors. The Japanese army had ridden into the city on horseback that morning and faced little resistance; the Chinese army had made a full, chaotic retreat the prior evening, December 12th.
When Xia's father answered the door, the Japanese soldiers immediately shot and killed him. They bludgeoned and killed her one-year-old sister. They raped and killed her mother. They killed her grandparents. They raped and killed her 13-year-old and 15-year-old sisters. And they bayoneted Xia three times in the arm and back.
Xia and her four-year-old sister were the only survivors of this onslaught. And for the next ten days, the girls hid inside the house -- only moving and searching for food at night -- while the Japanese pillaged the rest of the city. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, convened after World War II to prosecute Japanese war crimes, estimates that 200,000 Chinese were killed over a period of six weeks; China's official estimate is 300,000 dead. Twenty thousand Chinese women were raped, a number that does not include children or the elderly. Many of those women were then mutilated and killed afterward. But Xia and her sister were found by neighbors and taken to the Nanjing Safety Zone, a demilitarized zone established by Westerners to shelter Chinese refugees from the war.
Today, Madame Xia is 88 years old. She is part of a dwindling population of Nanjing Massacre survivors; when she dies, all that will be left of her story is what historians and organizations can capture through video, audio and textual records.
The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation is one such organization that records and preserves survivor testimony, most recently through its New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) initiative. In 2014, the USC Shoah Foundation piloted a digital rendition of Pinchas Gutter, a Polish Holocaust survivor who was only seven years old at the start of World War II. Spectators could ask Gutter a question, and the digital rendition would answer it. It is made possible through a combination of voice recognition technology, natural language processing and thoroughness: The Shoah Foundation recorded Gutter for more than 20 hours and asked him more than 1,500 questions to exhaust the possibilities of what a student might ask him.
On December 12th, 2017, the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, the Nanjing Memorial Hall in Nanjing, China, debuted a digital rendition of Madame Xia, the latest and most technologically advanced NDT project. There are many firsts to this debut. This is the first time an NDT exhibit has been permanently installed outside the United States. This is the first time the USC Shoah Foundation has recorded a non-Holocaust survivor for NDT. And this is the first time the NDT language processing has been done in Mandarin. There are plans to make these interactive testimonies available online, possibly in the next few years.
Sponsored by the Sichuan Tianfu Bank and Tianfu Group, the new installation at Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall will create a greater sense of immediacy to an atrocity that, until now, has been passively experienced by people who did not survive or witness the events.
"When I first saw a demonstration of New Dimensions in Testimony with a Holocaust survivor, I quickly understood how important it would be to bring the technology to the people of China," Hao Wu, president of China Tianfu, said in a Shoah Foundation press release. "A lot of people worked hard to make this happen, but without the generous cooperation of Madame Xia, this would not have been possible."
Take away dispassionate documentation and history can become a subjective mess, both to people who want to nail down its specifics and to naysayers who might minimize events or deny they happened. But primary accounts are also valuable. Enough of them will form a consensus. And what they lack through subjectivity, they gain through emotional immediacy and impact.