[Paleopsych] The Times: One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?
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Mon Mar 28 22:31:17 UTC 2005
One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?
March 17, 2005
A young historian's book on the 1937 atrocity unleashed a tide of
repressed anguish and international recriminations that continue even
after her suicide
THOSE who knew Iris Chang used to worry about how she could cope with
the gloom of her chosen work. But when they visited the house in
California that she shared with her husband and saw him playing with
their two-year-old son by the swimming pool in the backyard, they were
The 36-year-old historian would sip lemonade with her friends at a
Chinese café called the Tea House and, for a while, the torrent of
terror that she frequently invited into her life would seem far away.
Were it not for the crinkled maps of China, the pictures of mass
graves and the two desperately overstuffed Rolodexes on her desk,
Chang might have been just another former high school homecoming queen
from the aptly named Sunnyvale. But she had become one of the foremost
young historians of her generation after publishing, seven years ago,
a bestselling account of the Rape of Nanking, one of the worst
episodes of human cruelty in recent history.
Her book brought international acclaim and controversy, and many spoke
of a stellar future. It was not to be. In November she killed herself,
no longer able to bear the weight of horrors from seven decades ago.
The Rape of Nanking in 1937 began with the march of invading Japanese
soldiers up the Yangtse River. They occupied the Chinese capital of
the time and soon conquest was followed by bloodlust. Soldiers
slaughtered between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians sheltering in a few
city blocks. Slowly.
Over a six-week period, up to 80,000 women were raped. But it wasn't
so much the sheer numbers as the details that shock - fathers forced
at gunpoint to rape daughters, stakes driven through vaginas, women
nailed to trees, tied-up prisoners used for bayonet practice, breasts
sliced off the living, speed decapitation contests.
During the war the massacre was well known, but both Tokyo and Beijing
preferred not to mention it over the four decades that followed.
Iris Chang was pitched into this maelstrom of history as a child when
her immigrant parents, who had escaped from wartime China to the US,
told their daughter how the Japanese "sliced babies not just in half
but in thirds and fourths". In the introduction to her book she wrote:
"Throughout my childhood [the massacre] remained buried in the back of
my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil."
When, at 27, she read one of the few accounts of the atrocity still
circulating in the West, she sensed a mission in life. "I was suddenly
in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this
reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of
history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that
might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the
world to remember it."
Chang soon made her first trip to China and sought out Sun Zhaiwei, a
history professor in Nanjing, as Nanking is known today. "I provided
her with an assistant and fixed appointments with some of the
survivors," he says. Chang was given free lodgings and unlimited
access to archives on the tree-lined campus near where the Japanese
breached the old city wall before beginning their slaughter.
When the book based on her research - The Rape of Nanking: The
Forgotten Holocaust of World War II - was published two years later,
it sold more than half a million copies and Chang became an instant
celebrity in America. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House
and Stephen Ambrose, the doyen of US historians, described her as
"maybe the best young historian we've got".
She was also widely praised for the emotion and commitment she brought
to her work. On book tours the slim, ponytailed author spoke with an
intensity that few listeners expected. Many broke down by her side,
feeling compelled to recount their own tales of horror even if these
were unrelated to her subject.
Orphans, rape victims and Holocaust survivors all wanted to bare their
souls to her, finally relieving themselves of agonies sometimes
decades old. They felt encouraged by the passion that she brought to
the sort of grievances few of them could tackle on their own.
Chang cried when they cried. She was enraged even when they no longer
were. It was unthinkable for her just to pass the paper tissues and
wait until people had composed themselves again. Chang invited
memories of atrocity and abuse with a seemingly limitless appetite.
Dan Rosen, who heard Chang at the Holocaust Museum in Washington,
said: "As with many speaking programmes there, it was 50 per cent
elderly Jews, many of them war survivors, in the audience. I was
overwhelmed by the warmth and immediacy with which they embraced and
applauded Chang. It was an instance of bearing witness, of never
forgetting, which is holy to the Jewish community. They related to her
like a daughter, and vice versa."
But her success had its price. The book became a touchstone of renewed
rivalry between Japan and China. Both nations had been content to
allow the massacre to fade into the past, but in the 1990s China found
itself in the ascendant and a long-suppressed sense of outrage burst
out. Anti-Japanese museums sprang up across the country. Japanese
nationalists responded by attacking the book and its author. Death
threats were issued.
Nobukatsu Fujioka, a right-wing commentator, campaigned to prevent
publication of her book in Japan by citing a list of errors. He also
published a book denouncing Chang as a propagandist funded by
Japan-haters. The two volumes are still on prominent display in his
"The pressure on her from Tokyo was unbearable," says Yang Xiaming,
one of Chang's research assistants in Nanjing. "She was afraid of
travelling to Japan because she feared for her life."
But the Japanese attacks were the easy part. With her newfound fame,
Chang felt compelled to visit Chinese communities around the globe to
hear more horror stories of Japanese occupation, forced prostitution
in so-called "comfort houses" and nerve gas experiments on prisoners
in Manchuria. After these encounters with people who would often
approach her in tears, she felt utterly drained even hours later.
Friends said that she was beginning to look frail, and she admitted to
them that her hair was coming out. The more of others' suffering she
absorbed, the more her old energy and intensity drained away. Each
horror story seemed to pull her down a little farther.
At home in California Chang worked to exhaustion, often until she
collapsed in her study. When travelling she became forgetful and
irritable. Her mind was preoccupied with earlier decades and haunted
by gruesome images. Flashbacks of Chinese photographs that she had
uncovered in archives tortured her.
In the months before her death, Chang was researching a new book on
Japanese wartime atrocities. Despite feeling unwell, she flew to
Kentucky to interview survivors of the Bataan Death March. They
recounted to her how thousands of American PoWs were killed during the
occupation of the Philippines, some forced to bury their best friend
alive or, if they refused, for both of them to be buried alive by a
third friend, with the chain continuing until the Japanese soldiers
found a PoW who complied.
Eventually Chang broke down and needed to be treated in hospital. Her
husband, computer scientist Brett Douglas, was not surprised. "The
accumulation of hearing those stories year after year may have led to
her depression," he says.
Douglas sent their two young children to live with their grandparents,
and when Chang left hospital he tried to watch her movements. He was
worried by her obsessive talk about how people would remember her. She
was calling friends one by one in what seemed like a series of
On November 6 she spoke to Paula Kamen, whom she knew from university,
and told her that she was struggling to deal with the magnitude of the
misery she had uncovered, listened to and written about. She begged to
be remembered as lively and confident. It was the last conversation
they would have. Two days later, Chang was even more despondent than
she had previously been. Her husband tried to calm her down but
eventually fell asleep.
At some point in the night, Chang got into her white 1999 Oldsmobile,
taking with her a six-round pistol that she had bought from an antique
weapons dealer to defend herself from attackers. She drove to a
country road, loaded the pistol with black powder and lead balls,
aimed it at her head and fired. She was found a few hours later, along
with a farewell note to her family.
Yet even in death Chang was not rid of the controversy. In recent
memorial services across China, historians have blamed intense
hostility from Japan for her death. The People's Daily in Beijing
hailed Chang as a "warrior full of justice" and a "dart thrown against
the Japanese rightists". In April the massacre museum in Nanjing will
add a statue of Chang to its commemorative collection, in effect
giving her the status of a massacre victim, with a finger pointed
firmly across the Sea of Japan. The San Francisco Chronicle seemed to
concur: "Many wonder if the gentle, sympathetic young woman was the
massacre's latest victim."
Meanwhile, Japanese right-wingers interpreted her suicide as belated
support for their contention that the massacre never happened. "By the
end she must have known that her arguments were without merit. We
exposed the lies in her book," said Fujioka.
In Nanjing, Professor Sun Zhaiwei says that being an historian can be
"torture of the mind".
"Nuclear scientists wear protective clothing and have their health
checked by doctors. Perhaps we historians of the extreme need similar
measures. Yet for now we have to take care of ourselves.
"Maybe that was Iris's problem - she cared for the dead but failed to
take care of herself."
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