Interactive exhibit lets visitors ‘talk’ with Nanjing Massacre survivor in Mandarin
The USC Shoah Foundation recorded an interview with Nanjing Massacre survivor Xia Shuqin in 2016. Photo by Gus Ruelas.

Interactive exhibit lets visitors ‘talk’ with Nanjing Massacre survivor in Mandarin

Based at USC Dornsife, USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education develops technology that allows audiences to interact with the recorded image of a genocide survivor.
ByJosh Grossberg

Xia Shuqin was 8 years old when Japanese soldiers stormed into her family’s home in Nanjing, China, on the morning of Dec. 13, 1937, and murdered 11 of the 13 people in the house — Xia’s parents, grandparents and siblings as well as neighbors. Only Xia and her 4-year-old sister survived. About 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers were killed over the course of two months during the 1937 massacre.

Now, thanks to interactive survivor testimony technology developed by USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, based at USC Dornsife, Xia’s story is accessible to current and future generations. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China debuted its permanent exhibition of this technology, called New Dimensions in Testimony, or NDT, on Dec. 13 to mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre in Nanjing.

This is the first permanent museum exhibition of NDT outside the United States and the first exhibit anywhere featuring the Mandarin-language testimony of Xia. She is the only non-Holocaust survivor who has been interviewed for NDT.

“With the partnership between USC Shoah Foundation and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Madame Xia’s story is brought to light through New Dimensions in Testimony,” said Yi Huang, president of the Tianfu Bank, which funded the creation of the testimony with the Tianfu Group. “Madame Xia will continue to educate, to inspire and to preserve memory of the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre for future generations so people around the world will learn from history long after the survivors are gone.”

The exhibit is part of the newly reconstructed Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. NDT uses groundbreaking natural-language software to allow audiences to interact with the recorded image of a genocide survivor, who responds to questions in real time. The testimony is powered by complex algorithms that provide realistic conversation.

Xia traveled to Los Angeles in October 2016 to be interviewed for the NDT by Cheng Fang. A 2014 USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate and USC Shoah Foundation research fellow, Fang interviewed her over five days on a “light stage” at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. High-definition cameras and lights captured the interview from all angles as Xia answered numerous questions about her life before, during and after the massacre.

Hao Wu, president of China Tianfu, said: “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. A lot of people worked hard to make this happen, but without the generous cooperation of Madame Xia, this would not have been possible.”

An inspiring life story

Xia filmed her testimony for USC Shoah Foundation’s Nanjing Massacre Collection in 2012 at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Her Mandarin-language testimony is part of a collection of more than 100 Nanjing survivors’ testimonies collected by USC Shoah Foundation, 30 of which are already preserved and subtitled and accessible in the institute’s Visual History Foundation Archive.

In October, USC Shoah Foundation staff traveled to Nanjing to introduce students in Nanjing University’s Oral History Association to the indexing methodology of the Visual History Archive. The students will use the foundation’s new online indexing training course to learn how to index Nanjing survivor testimonies that have been recorded but not yet integrated into the Visual History Archive.

The people who first imagined the possibilities of creating something as advanced as NDT are thrilled to see it reach fruition.

“It’s incredible to see how far this has come in just a few short years,” said Heather Smith-Maio, who came up with the concept for NDT. “Madame Xia’s important life story will now be able to inspire people across China — and the world — long into the future.”