In fact, like many Americans, the only reason I’ve ever even heard of Nanjing is because of Iris Chang.
Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking had a profound effect on me when I read it a couple years ago. Ever since, I’ve wanted to visit the city, to walk the ground, to hear the whispered cries of the war-dead who’d been so long forgotten until Chang finally wrote their story. She wanted to make sure no one ever forgot that story—ever.
It was December, 1937. Imperial Japan, hungry for natural resources, had invaded China. They’d overrun the city of Shanghai and swept northwest toward China’s capital, Nanjing—then still called “Nanking.” On December thirteenth, the city’s final defense crumbled, and the Japanese invaders swept into the city.
Over the next six weeks, the invaders slaughtered 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers. In a city whose population had numbered around one million, that equated to almost one in three people.
And that’s not counting the tens of thousands of women who were gang raped and the people who were beaten and the homes that were looted and the buildings that were burned.
To this day, the Japanese government refuses to admit that the atrocities took place.
“[T]he Japanese have for decades systematically purged references to the Nanking massacre from their textbooks,” Chang wrote. “They have removed photographs of the Nanking massacre from museums, tampered with original source material, and excised from popular culture any mention of the massacre.”
Chang thought the “deliberate attempt by certain Japanese to distort history” was unconscionable, likening the cover-up to an “atrocity” on the scale of the original massacre.
So Chang, a journalism graduate of the University of Illinois who’d gone on to write for the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times, whose own grandparents had fled Nanjing in advance of the arrival of the Japanese troops, put her journalistic talents to work as an historian. She interviewed survivors. She dug up old records. She discovered lost accounts.
The result, in 1997, was The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.
“I wrote ‘Rape of Nanking’ out of a sense of rage,” Chang said.
The book spent ten weeks on the bestseller list and sold half a million copies. It became an international sensation—and the Chinese loved her for it. Their Holocaust would finally be remembered. History had conspired to hide it.
In the post-war era, communist China and the nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan both competed with each other, and with America, for Japanese trade. The competition meant that no one wanted to ruffle Japan’s feathers, and so the events in Nanjing were left unaddressed. Japan also had national status as a war “victim” because America had dropped the atomic bombs on the country, which overshadowed Japan’s role as aggressor.
Chang would have none of it. The story of Nanjing had to be told. “I had to write it, if it was the last thing I ever did in my life,” she said.
Because of her untiring efforts, Chang is enshrined in not one but two memorials at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and Museum. She is referred to by her Chinese name as “overseas Chinese writer Zhang Chunru.”
Inside the museum, a bronze bust of the author is surrounded by panels that talk about the impact of her book. Outside, in its own private courtyard, just beyond a copper-plate pathway set with the footprints of massacre survivors, sits a life-sized bronze statue of Chang, holding her book, cover facing outward for visitors to see. Chang’s right hand reaches up, frozen in mid-gesture as she explains the importance of remembering the lessons of history.
“I think my role is that of a storyteller and somebody who is trying to combat injustice,” she once told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “In the role of the storyteller, one can bring to light acts of injustice.”
That was a powerful motivator for Chang. “For some reason,” she said, “I seem to be bothered whenever I see acts of injustice and assaults on people’s civil liberties.”
Chang’s other work included Thread of the Silkworm, a book on Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen, one of the founders of NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, who was deported during the Red Scare of the 1950s. As a result, once back in China, Tsein helped the Chinese government develop its own missile systems.
Chang also wrote The Chinese in America, and she was at work on a book about survivors of WWII’s Bataan Death March.
Stephen Ambrose, one of the most widely read historians of the twentieth century because of his impressive ability to spin a good yarn, called Chang “maybe the best young historian we’ve got because she understands that to communicate history, you’ve got to tell the story in an interesting way.”
Reviewers and critics who tried to tuck Chang into one neat category or another had a tough time doing so. One reviewer, for instance, characterized her “first and foremost as an advocate” rather than as an historian or a reporter. “She was an able journalist,” the reviewer went on to say, “but she allowed herself to become deeply involved emotionally in her subjects, which gave her accessibility.”
Her emotional involvement in her stories—particularly in her Nanjing book—eventually took their toll. “The stress of writing this book and living with this horror on a daily basis caused my weight to plummet,” she said. There would turn out to be long-term effects, too. Increasing stress levels eventually triggered the onset of mental illness. Chang began to suffer from crushing depression and paranoia.
“I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined,” she wrote in a note shortly before her death. “Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.”
She complained about “a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box.” She believed her “detention” at a psychiatric hospital in Louisville, Kentucky was a government attempt to discredit her.
Just after dawn on Tuesday Nov 9, 2004, parked in her car along a country road a few miles from her Los Gatos, California home, Chang put a pistol in her mouth. A commuter found her body a few hours later.
Iris Chang was 36 years old.
“When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations of years,” Chang wrote in her suicide note. “When you do not, you live not just by the day—but by the minute.”
She pleaded with loved ones to remember her not as the depressed woman she’d become but as the best-selling journalist who’d worked so hard to right an historical wrong. “Please forgive me,” she wrote to her loved ones. “Forgive me because I cannot forgive myself.”
Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Chang didn’t actually commit suicide but rather was murdered by right-wing Japanese extremists. (The coroner, however, said he was clearly convinced the gunshot wound was self-inflicted.) Others have since referred to Chang as the last victim of the Nanjing massacre.
The events in Nanjing in the winter of 1937-38 certainly left their scars on Chang. The rape of the city represents the worst inhumanity of humankind—“the most appalling single episode of barbarism in a century replete with horrors,” as columnist George Will once described it.
But Chang’s chronicle of those events likewise represents the best kind of journalism—the kind that exposes injustice, that captures history, that enthralls readers with a compelling story well told.
It was enough to draw me, from halfway around the world, that I might be the next person to bear witness to history’s lessons, that I might be the next person to carry forth the story so that it’s never forgotten.
And so Iris Chang’s legacy lives on.