Published on CET Academic Program’s Website Blog at Following URL: http://cetacademicprograms.com/category/china/harbin/page/7/
One of the many wonderful aspects of the CET Intensive Language Program in Harbin is the opportunity every Saturday to go on a day trip to an area of particular interest. Although so far all of these activities have been fun and engaging, from the initial scavenger hunt around Harbin to the fantastic Ice Festival to the breathtaking hike in Yagou (an area about an hour and a half outside of the city), this past weekend’s trip stood out in stark contrast—we visited Museum 731, a building with a bleak name befitting its notorious history. Within the walls of this unimposing two-story stone building, grisly experiments concerning the innovation of biological weapons were conducted by the Japanese on prisoners-of-war throughout the Japanese occupation of Northeastern China earlier in the twentieth century.
There was no doubt that we were in a building that had once been a prison. The hallways were dark and clammy, with hard floors that squeaked or clattered when you walked on them. Furthermore, the doors were thick and the windows (when there were any) were high. The museum was set up as such that each of the rooms on the two floors was dedicated to a different aspect of the building’s use back when it was still called “Special Prison 731.” Walking slowly through each of these rooms and taking in the overwhelming amount of photographs and data presented concerning Japan’s production of biological weapons at this time, as well as the countless grim experimental tools, ghoul-like protective suits worn by scientists and other workers, and countless other artifacts displayed within their glass cases was numbing, to say the least—there is nothing like a wealth of information presented at once to actually achieve the opposite of what it intends, reducing the events it chronicles to mere numbers and facts and failing to convey the struggles of the actual, flesh-and-blood people at one time contained within the walls of Special Prison 731.
Luckily, the grayscale sculptures scattered throughout the museum, which usually consisted of prisoners suffering at the hands of their captors in laboratories or in the large open field behind the building, vividly recaptured the injustices suffered within these walls more than photographs and plaques ever could—more than once I gazed at a sculpture and felt my insides sink with an inability to comprehend the reason behind what I was looking at. As my classmates and I looked at the various photographs of people affiliated with the prison and took in the colorful test tubes and bottles probably used to store inconceivably inhumane substances, the ghosts of the past walked with us—the soldiers who worked at the museum marching quickly through the corridors, their heels clacking against the floor much as ours did now, and the shuddering prisoners huddled within the rooms where these exhibits once stood, probably experiencing a choking level of fear that I cannot comprehend and hope to never be able to. I could almost see researchers emerging from their laboratories and approaching the office at the end of the hallway, where they would make report. This office is represented today by a duplicate office and three wax soldiers.
Downstairs, a long hallway was dedicated to the memory of many of those lost in Special Prison 731. Plaques with names lined the high walls, and visitors had left bouquets of flowers and other emblems of respect along the corridor. I am not at all sure whether the corridor commemorates every person lost to Special Prison 731’s gaping abyss—more likely, these names are only those of people who can be verified as having spent time here as prisoners.
As I traveled through the museum’s multiple exhibits and then continued to an area a distance behind the main building where further experiments were conducted, it became no longer just a building but a personality. Museum 731, former identity Special Prison 731, perpetually grim because it could not control the purpose for which it was built, nor the countless atrocities its walls had witnessed. Now, it stood modestly in the middle of this wide field, its doors open to all, ready to display to public eyes its bare floors, dim rooms, and the evidence it had to offer of what it before had no power to prevent. Museum 731, a dismal but tangible testament to a time that all too easily, if people would allow it, could be forgotten in history like so many already-forgotten events, scraps of paper fluttering around alleyways that nobody treads anymore. For this reason, despite the real inability of any of us to understand the events that occurred within the walls of Special Prison 731 or the fear of its prisoners, it is essential that this museum exist. In addition, CET’s choice to include it on their list of weekend activities is highly commendable. The building isn’t just a building anymore—it is a memory of every single person who died within its walls, and, for what it’s worth, an assurance that they will never be forgotten.