Once encircled by an ancient, immense stone wall built during the Ming dynasty, Nanking was a city of imperial palaces and lavish tombs. Temples perched on the surrounding mountains and lotus blossoms studded its lakes. In the summer of 1937, relics of the old Nanking mingledand clashedwith the new Nanking. Automobiles sped past rickasha pullers and an occasional water buffalo or camel wandered into the street. People escaped their sweltering houses by spending their evenings in the open air chatting with neighbors. No one could know that these lazy summer nights would usher in six weeks of terror, and that the majestic Yangtzee River would soon run red with blood.
"If the dead from Nanking were to link hands, they would stretch from Nanking to the city of Hangchow, spanning a distance of some two hundred miles. Their blood would weigh twelve hundred tons, and their bodies would fill twenty-five hundred railroad cars. Stacked on top of each other, these bodies would reach the height of a seventy-four-story building."from the Introduction of The Rape of Nanking
In December of 1937, the Japanese army swept into Nanking and left a trail of carnage surreal in its horror. The death toll was staggering, far exceeding that of the American raids on Tokyo (an estimated 80,000-120,0000) and even the combined death toll of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the end of 1945 (estimated at 140,000 and 70,000 respectively). If not just for the numbers of dead, the Rape of Nanking should be remembered for the cruel manner in which most of its victims met their end. Japanese soldiers used Chinese men for bayonet practice and often engaged in killing competitions. Some victims were buried alive, others were buried up to their waists and then torn to pieces by German Shepherds. It is believed that between 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were raped; fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons were forced to rape their mothers. It seems that the hearts of the Japanese soldiers had decomposed completelyno act was too evil to commit.
While the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination in the annals of world history it is also one of the most obscure. In the United States, only a scant few World War II textbooks mention the Nanking slaughter, and almost none of the "definitive" World War II histories include the episode. The Japanese, in addition to editing any reference to the massacre out of their school curriculum, have aggressively campaigned to prevent the Nanking atrocities from becoming common knowledge. In her courageous and important book, Iris Chang both chronicles the massacre of this once proud, imperial capital city, and exposes the historical amnesia that she astutely characterizes as a second rape.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."George Santayana
While most of us are painfully aware of the frailty of human life, many of us display tremendous naivet about the tissue thin nature of civilization. The Rape of Nanking is, indeed, a desperate attempt to salvage the memory of the countless souls lost in that bloodbath, but it is also a cautionary tale for anyone lulled into a false sense of national security. The question lurking between the lines of every page of this book is: can we prevent the reoccurrence of such unchecked cruelty? The first step, says Iris Chang, is exploring the darkest days and nights of world history. By doing this we will learn that no one nation is unique in its capacity for savagenesshence the atrocities of Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the Holocaust. A mere tear in veneer of societyeven our owncan give way to episodes of unparalleled barbarity.
Only by remembering can we glean lessons from these massacresand the one that befell Nanking nearly sixty years ago. And if memory lies at the root of forgiveness, than the victims of the Rape of Nanking have only just begun their journey toward healing.
Iris Chang, a full time author living in California, heard stories about the Rape of Nanking from her parents, who survived years of war and revolution before finding a serene home as professors in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. A journalism graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana, she worked briefly as a reporter in Chicago before winning a graduate fellowship to the writing seminars program at The Johns Hopkins University. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm (the story of Tsien-Hsue-shen, father of the People's Republic of China's missile program) received worldwide critical acclaim. She is the recipient of the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation's Program on Peace and International Cooperation award, as well as major grants from the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, and the Harry Truman Library. She is 30 years old.
"The first comprehensive examination of the destruction of this Chinese imperial city... Ms. Chang, whose grandparents narrowly escaped the carnage, has skillfully excavated from oblivion the terrible events that took place."
The Wall Street Journal
"[An] unflinching reexamination of one of the most horrifying chapters of the second world war."
"A powerful new work of history and moral inquiry. Chang takes great care to establish an accurate accounting of the dimensions of the violence."
"A compelling account of a horrendous episode that, until recently, has been largely forgotten."
The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Iris Chang... recounts the grisly massacre with understandable outrage."
The New York Times Book Review
"Stomach-turning, tear-wrenching, thoroughly riveting."
The Baltimore Sun
How did you become interested in the subject of the Rape of Nanking? What made you decide to write this book?
My grandparents lived in Nanking before the massacre, and they almost separated forever during the chaos and mass evacuations from the city in November 1937. That they were able to find each other again was a miracle.
The Rape of Nanking intrigued me at a very young age. My parents told me stories about the Nanking atrocities when I was a little girlhow the massacre was so bad that it left the surface of the Yangtze River literally covered with bodies and blood. This was something I found hard to believe at the time, and as a child I searched the local libraries for an English-language book on the Nanking massacre and found nothing. Eventually, what goaded me to write the book was a December 1994 conference on the Rape of Nanking, organized in Cupertino California, by the Global Alliance for Preserving the Truth of the Sino-Japanese war. I remember being in the conference hall, staring at photos of decapitated bodies and women who had been horribly mutilated after rape. I walked around for an entire day in a state of shock. Later, I resolved to do my part to give these victims their proper place in history.
While researching this book, did you find that you were able to separate yourself from the horrible stories that you uncovered or were you very personally affected by what you learned? How did you cope with the stress of living with this tragedy on a daily basis?
I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the tragedy. The stress of writing this book and living with this horror on a daily basis caused my weight to plummet and my hair to fall out.
I understand that you went to China in 1995 to talk to many of the survivors. What was the hardest thing about interviewing them?
Trying to decide which stories to put in my book and what to leave out. Each and every story was important to me, because each represented a unique and precious life extinguished forever by the Japanese. But to have included every atrocity I heard or read from the Nanking massacre would have lengthened my book to thousands of pages.
How did the Chinese survivors of the Rape of Nanking react to your interest in the topic? Were they at all suspicious of your motives?
Suspicious? Not at all. Every single survivor I met was desperately anxious to tell his or her story. I spent several hours with each one, getting the details of their experiences on videotape. Some became overwrought with emotion during the interviews and broke down into tears. But all of them wanted the opportunity to talk about the massacre before their deaths.
Why do so few people in the U.S. know about the Rape of Nanking today?
The Cold war led to a concerted effort on the part of the West and even the Chinese to court the loyalty of Japan and stifle open discussion of this atrocity. To me, this is nothing more than a second rape.
Few people realize that the United States were co-conspirators in a secret deal with the Japanese that sold out the Chinese victims and even American veterans of World War II. During the war, Japanese doctors performed live medical experiments and even vivisection on American and Chinese POWs, but after 1945 the United States government not only failed to punish these doctors but exonerated them in exchange for their medical data. The American government also exempted the Japanese royal family from war crimes trials, permitted Emperor Hirohito to stay on the throne and even encouraged many officials of the Japanese wartime government to return to power. And in a move that shocked and baffled scholars to this day, the U.S. in the 1950s also returned to Japan secret military documents seized in 1945 by American occupation forcesbut without properly microfilming them first.
One of the greatest ironies of the Rape of Nanking is that not only have the Japanese squelched efforts to heal the victims of the massacre, but the Chinese government has also strongly discouraged any protest against the atrocities committed at Nanking. Has this changed at all since the publication of your book?
I think it has. For one thing, the Chinese government itself has jumped to my defense whenever I came under serious attack from Japanese revisionists. The PRC issued scathing a letter of protest to the international press when a group of conservative Japanese academics not only called my book "the most outrageous, world-class lie" but denied that the Rape of Nanking even happened. China also blasted the Japanese government when the Japanese ambassador to the United States denounced my book as "erroneous," "one-sided" and filled with historical inaccuracies an allegation that the ambassador was not able to support with a single good example, even when grilled by reporters.
Do you think that we should be scrutinizing more closely the methods by which our own servicemen are inaugurated into a military culture constructed to protect our national interest at any cost? Is it necessary to dehumanize a soldier before sending him or her into the arena of war? Where do we draw the line?
We should be on our guard to avoid cultivating a military culture that would dehumanize both its own soldiers and the people of an enemy nation. One reason why Japanese soldiers found it so easy to commit atrocities is that they were brought up in a military environment that held in contempt ALL human life, even their own. But there are clear, established laws of war laws set by the Hague Convention of 1907 and ostensibly recognized by most civilized nations and every American serviceman should be thoroughly drilled in these laws before they are sent into the line of fire.
Are you surprised by the success of The Rape of Nanking? Why or why not?
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I was flabbergasted! My greatest hope for The Rape of Nanking was to see it in libraries, so the Nanking massacre would not be forgotten by future generations. Instead, it became an international bestseller, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for five months. All at once I found myself lecturing in auditoriums packed with thousands of readers, or discussing the Nanking massacre on shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and Jim Lehrer. All at once I found myself profiled in the New York Times, and featured on the cover of Reader's Digest. The entire experience has been like a dream.
For a scholarly nonfiction book to receive this kind of attention and sales is phenomenal. Most serious history books don't have a wide audience. (For instance, I doubt my first book, Thread of the Silkworm, sold ten thousand copies.) But The Rape of Nanking isn't just about history, but justice. That's why it was successful it struck the deep vein of moral outrage in this country.
Are you working on another book? What is it about?
My next book will be a narrative epic history of the Chinese in America.
- Throughout The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang emphasizes that by not remembering the past, we become victims of it. What do you think she means by this? Other than the Rape of Nanking, can you think of any profound injustices that have gone unnoticed in the worldand that as a result have become even more sinister and dangerous? How about in your own countryor even in your own city?
- If remembering is the first step to repairing the damage incurred by a holocaust, what do you think might be the second? The third? Is there ever a time for forgiving and at least attempting to forget wounds of war?
- It is true that one of the most distressing facets of the Rape of Nankingand in our own day the Yugoslavian conflict and the Rwandan massacreis the manner in which the people of the world became merely passive spectators. And as the death toll climb once again in Kosovo, one senses that history will, no doubt, repeat itself. What is America's responsibility to the civilians caught in the crossfire of these civil wars? Do you think the United Nations has the capacity to cope appropriately with these conflicts?
- How has the media portrayed these conflicts to the rest of the world, and how have you and your family reacted to having visuals of them brought into your home? Do you think that the extensive media coverage of war encourages interest in world events or contributes to the numbing of our conscious?
- Do you think that a holocaust could occur on American soil? Why or why not? What type of protection against such events does the United States government offer to its citizens? Are these checks and balances sufficient?
- The epilogue of the book discusses steps being taken by the U.S. government to heighten awareness of the Rape of Nanking, including plans by the San Francisco school district to include the Rape of Nanking in its curriculum. How might you discuss the Rape of Nanking with your children? What are some ways that you could foster in your children an interest in world events? At what age do you think that this type of education is appropriate?
- One of the most peculiar aspects of the Rape of Nanking was the presence of John Rabe, the Nazi official who risked his life to save the Chinese from the marauding Japanese soldiers. Were you able to reconcile his heroism with his adulation for Hitler? How?
- The Rape of Nanking illustrates the absolute depths of wara place where humans become inhuman. Is it possible to prevent these episodes, or are they an unavoidable component of warone that will exist as long as nations exist?