The Hengyang Massacre

When I got home this time, my sister handed me a book.  She said that she was at a book signing, and she asked the author to sign the book to me personally.  Thus, on the inside page, there is my name with the words "... who was born in Shanghai the year I left."  The author is Roy Rowan, and the title of the book is Chasing The Dragon.

Roy Rowan worked for Time-Life in China.  His journalism career began while he was working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).  Here is his explanation from the book:

(p.70)  My reporting was still confined to note-taking for the as-yet-unwritten "UNRRA in Bandit Land" exposť.  The woman serving as my literary agent in New York City had probably now given up hope of ever getting it.  "Why don't you send me more pictures?" she wrote.  "They're easier to sell."

I had already sent her a macabre set of photographs of five thousand Chinese skulls lined up temple-to-temple on a hillside -- an eerie image of ten thousand empty eye sockets starting into space.  She seemed excited about the possibility of the pictures being published.  As my accompanying captions explained, the grisly gallery, which I called "A Stadium of Skulls," had been erected by the citizens of Hengyang in Hunan Province as a memorial to their relatives, massacred by the Japanese in 1944.  Buried in shallow trenches, the fleshless skeletons were exhumed right after the war.  Then, the whitened skulls were arranged in tiers to simulate a grandstand of ghosts overlooking the scene of their slaughter.  "That stadium of skulls is far eloquent than any man-made memorial," the agent immediately wrote back.  "I've forwarded the negatives to Life magazine." 

Here is the famous "Stadium of Skulls" photo by Roy Rowan:

The caption: "This photo of the eerie memorial to residents of Hengyang, which the author entitled 'Stadium of Skulls' was his first contribution to Life magazine, and led to his being hired as Life's war correspondence in China.  The Japanese had massacred five thousand of the townsfolk in 1944.  Survivors of Hengyang dug up the corpses in 1946 and carefully arranged them on a hillside for the memorial.  In the upper right and bottom left are the bones of the victims."

For comparison, the killing fields at Choeung Ek in Cambodia had 8,985 victims to be exact (see my previous post Cambodia Travel Notes - Part 3 (Choeung Ek)), although the photographic impact there is less striking than Rowan's photo.

To my mind, the massacre of five thousand people in one place at one time should take a significant place in the collective memory, but I had somehow never heard of this.  More often, I am barraged with arguments as to whether 300,000 or 20,000 were massacred by the Japanese at Nanjing.  That debate is handicapped by the dispersal of the victims all over that city, whereas the dead of Hengyang must have all been dumped in mass graves.  Once excavated, those skulls and bones can be dated (i.e. they died about the same time) and catalogued for physical trauma (e.g. shot by bullets, stabbed by bayonets, etc).  But I barely even know the name Hengyang, much less about any massacre.

Going through the Internet to search for any details was not very illuminating.  Most of the links all point to a single story (see  This may be an example in which the Internet is not yet all encompassing; that is, there are probably still plenty more written texts that have not been digitized for the Internet.

Here is a summary from that story:

[translation]  On May 26, 1944, the Japanese military began the offense known as the Battle of Changsha-Hengyang.  These cities are strategically located at the intersection of two railroads as well being near two Chinese military airports.

The first target of the Japanese military was Changsha, which fell on June 18.  From there, the Japanese headed towards Hengyang.  The siege of Hengyang began on June 22, and the city fell on August 8 after 47 days.

In the end, fewer than 1,000 of the 18,000 defenders were alive.  The defenders had been bombed and napalmed by Japanese airplanes, shellacked by Japanese artillery and doused with poison gas, and they had no ammunition of their own left to fight back.  The city had run out of food; all the horses, cats and dogs had been eaten, and the soldiers were reduced to boiling their leather belts for sustenance.

Japanese casualties numbered to more than 60,000 while more than 100,000 Chinese soldiers died.  Among the civilians, 30,000 died from firepower, 25,000 were injured and another 30,000 died from the poison gas and bacterial bioweapons.

After the surrender was effected, the able-bodied prisoners were made to perform hard labor in the hot sun, moving supplies and burying the corpses in shallow ditches, including some injured people who were still breathing.  As for the wounded and disabled prisoners, they were collected at the Chuanshan Middle School, where they were given neither medicine nor food and allowed to die.

The story also contains several accounts of specific incidents of brutality.  Example: At the Tang family near Pond Number Two, Japanese soldiers attempted to rape a woman; when the husband tried to stop them, they strung him up on a tree with iron wires, poured petrol on him and set him on fire; then they gang-raped the woman and bayoneted her afterwards.

Today, I cannot tell how much of this is true from this account alone.  But how can anyone argue with that photo of the "stadium of skulls"?  Whoever Roy Rowan is, he could not have staged this photo.  How was an UNRRA worker going to get 5,000 skulls assembled just so he can take a photograph?  This was a photograph of opportunity and not of design.

If you are a resident of Hengyang or nearby, you must no doubt be aware of this piece of history.  After all, the city had been reduced to rubble.  Whether this should be labeled a 'massacre' in some technical sense is beside the point: the fact is that a foreign army crossed the ocean to land on Chinese soil when it didn't have to; the same army drove half way across China when it didn't have to; the same army laid siege to the city of Hengyang and directly caused the casualties with guns, grenades, artillery, napalm and bacterial bioweapons when it didn't have to.  This was a war of choice, and many people on both sides died as a result of that choice.

Understandably, to vastly understate the case, the residents of Hengyang don't like what had been done to them.  Now, it may be possible to persuade them that it is time to move on because people cannot dwell on past history forever.  It is a lot harder if they keep reading that the Japanese want to revise their history textbooks (see previous post Japanese History Textbooks (2005 edition)), as in "The only reason that Japan entered China and Korea was to liberate those people there from the western imperialists!"  So should the "stadium of skulls" be glad to have been so liberated!?  I dare you to look at that photo and say so.