Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
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NOVEMBER 1997
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Author Iris Chang has taken an unflinching look at the carnage that took place in China's capital city 60 years ago. She thinks you--and the rest of the world--should, too.

H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Nightmare in Nanking
By Sue De Pasquale


Iris Chang was a young child when her parents first told her stories about a slaughter of the Chinese people so horrible as to be almost beyond belief. She recalls their voices quivering in outrage, as the two university scientists talked of Japanese soldiers slicing Chinese babies into thirds and fourths. Of Chinese men used for bayonet practice. Of pregnant women disemboweled, their fetuses killed.

What Ying-Ying and Shau-Jin Chang were describing for their young daughter was a bloodbath that has come to be known as "The Rape of Nanking"--an eight-week orgy of torture and killing that began in December 1937 and left an estimated 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children dead.

"It was hard for me to even visualize how bad it was because the stories seemed almost mythical--people being chopped into pieces, the Yangtze River running red with blood," says Chang (MA '91) today. Chang's maternal grandparents had escaped Nanking just a few weeks before the killing began; though her parents had not yet been born at the time, both grew up hearing stories of the atrocities--stories that they in turn passed down to their American-born children, Iris and Michael. "It was very painful for me to think about, even then," she says.

As a grade schooler, Iris visited her local library in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, to see what she could find in the history books. She found nothing, and remembers thinking: If the Rape of Nanking truly was as gory as my parents have insisted, then why hasn't anyone written a book about it?

Two decades later, someone has. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1997), by Iris Chang, is due out in bookstores later this month--in time to mark the dark event's 60th anniversary. While Chang's book is not the first to be written on the subject, it is the first narrative history aimed at a mass American market. Advance reviews have been favorable: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes has described it as "a powerful, landmark book"; Nien Cheng, author of Life and Death in Shanghai, calls it a "gripping account" that has been "meticulously researched."

HarperCollins is looking for sales to exceed 70,000 copies, and Newsweek will run a lengthy excerpt from the book in its November 17 issue. Newsweek also purchased rights to run the excerpt in its Japanese and Korean language editions, and its English-language European editions, which means that after more than half a century of relative obscurity, the story of the Nanjing Datusha, or Great Nanjing Massacre, will reach millions of readers. (Chang refers to the city as "Nanking" in her writing and speech because that was its English name at the time of the massacre.)

To Chang, this last news may be the brightest spot to arise out of her labors to write about this somber chapter in history. "This is a book I really had to write," she says. "I wrote it out of a sense of rage. I didn't really care if I made a cent off of it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937."

As important, Chang says, is that the Japanese government be made to own up to the massacre. "This book is an attempt not only to alert the world to what happened, but to enable the Japanese to look into their consciences and decide what they're going to do about it as a nation," she says. "They have not yet apologized for what happened. They certainly haven't paid any reparations. They have not faced up to their responsibility in the way that the Germans were forced to do over, and over, and over."

ON MEETING IRIS CHANG for the first time in Sunnyvale, California, I'm struck by how young she seems--even younger than the 29 years I know her to be. She is tall and thin, with straight, black hair that she pulls back from her face in a ponytail. As she leads me through a sunny courtyard to her poolside apartment, she is sweet and chatty; it's not hard to see how she wound up a princess on the Homecoming Court during her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois. What's harder to picture is how she spent several years immersed in such horror.

Chang graduated from Illinois in 1989 with a degree in journalism. She did a summer internship for Associated Press and spent a year reporting for the Chicago Tribune before landing in the science writing program at Hopkins's Writing Seminars. There, to the envy of more experienced writers who have spent years trying to get their first book published, Chang landed a contract halfway through her one-year program. She was barely 23 years old.

The fact that Chang was fluent in Mandarin helped immensely, says Susan Rabiner, who was then an editor and vice president at Basic Books (a division of HarperCollins). Rabiner was looking for someone to write a book about a brilliant Chinese scientist who had been a pioneer of the American space age. Rabiner knew only part of his name--Tsien--and that he had been deported to China during the height of the Communist hysteria of the 1950s. Once back in China, to the United States' lasting chagrin, he went on to transform a primitive military culture into one able to deliver nuclear bombs intercontinentally.

Chang faced formidable obstacles in tackling research for the biography. For starters, Tsien Hsue-shen, who still lived in China, refused to cooperate. For another, much of the military information she needed to track down in both China and the U.S. was classified. Then there was the highly technical nature of her subject matter.

The result of her labors, Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books), was published in 1995. The book was not a commercial success; fewer than 10,000 copies have been sold to date. But Silkworm earned positive mention in The Washington Post Book World, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Nature, Science, and a host of other publications, both scientific and mainstream. The reviewers uniformly praised the young writer for her solid research and engaging style.

Rabiner, who had taken a chance on Chang, was impressed with the result: "Iris is an indefatigable researcher--very thorough and tenacious. That's her strongest trait," says Rabiner.

When Chang approached Rabiner about doing her second book on the Rape of Nanking, timed to commemorate its 60th anniversary, Rabiner says she and Basic Book's then-publisher "jumped on it right away. We both knew this was going to be extremely big." As Chang remembers it, the deal was signed within a few hours.

Chang sips lemonade as we talk in her writing studio, which turns out to be a room in the modest two-bedroom apartment she shares with husband Brett Douglas, a young Silicon Valley engineer. Her desk holds two of the largest, circular Rolodexes I have ever seen. One bulges with all of her contacts for the Silkworm book, the other her contacts for Nanking, she explains. On the wall across from her desk is a map of the city of Nanking, circa 1936. On it she has used colored markers to delineate landmarks: a pink line denotes "Cheng's Road," a green line traces "Tang's Road." Until recently, the map also held photos depicting scenes of torture and killing, taped to the spot in the city where they occurred. Chang says her husband was more than a little relieved when she had to take the photos down to send off to her publisher.

Indeed, the story of what happened in the days and weeks after Chinese forces invaded the city of Nanking does not make for easy viewing--or reading. To piece the story together, Chang examined primary source materials in four different languages (with the help of translators): Chinese, Japanese, German, and English. She read diary accounts of American missionaries and medical workers who were in Nanking at the time. She looked at photos and film footage that had been smuggled out of China. She combed articles that appeared in Japanese, English, and American newspapers. She corresponded with a former Japanese soldier who had taken part in the massacre. She examined reams of U.S. and German military communications. And she spent more than a month in Nanking, touring massacre sites and interviewing Chinese survivors.


In the days after the Japanese invasion, Chinese soldiers and civilians were mowed down by machine guns, used in decapitation contests, and burned alive.
Photo courtesy Yale Divinity School Archives
The Japanese invasion of the Chinese capital of Nanking came at the midpoint of its war against China, which began in 1931 with the seizure of Manchuria and ended in 1945; during that period an estimated 10 million to 30 million Chinese perished, according to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and Chinese war historians.

As Chang lays it out, some 50,000 Japanese soldiers began smashing through the walls of Nanking in the pre-dawn hours of December 13, 1937. Carnage followed almost immediately, as tens of thousands of young Chinese men (both soldiers and civilians) were herded up and led to the outskirts of town, where they were mowed down by machine guns, used in bayonet practice and decapitation contests, or soaked with gasoline and burned alive. A Japanese military correspondent described one such orgy of killing this way: "Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night, but they were only able to kill 2,000 persons this way."

In the days and weeks that followed, Japanese soldiers raped more than 20,000 Chinese women (some estimates run as high as 80,000); many of these women, after being raped and abused by more than a dozen different men, were killed, while others were disemboweled, had their breasts sliced off, or were nailed alive to walls, Chang says. ("Perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman," wrote one former Japanese soldier to Chang in recollection, "but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.") And the chilling list of atrocities goes on: Chang documents routine cases of live burial and castration, of fathers being forced to rape their own daughters as family members looked on. Japanese soldiers reportedly hung some people by their tongues on iron hooks, and buried others up to their waists, then watched as they were torn apart by German shepherds.


Thousands of Chinese were saved, thanks to the efforts of two dozen Westerners who set up an international safety zone. The zone was led by a humanitarian Nazi named John Rabe.
Photo courtesy Yale Divinity School Archives
Getting rid of all the bodies proved to be a monumental problem. One Japanese general complained in his diary that it was nearly impossible to find ditches large enough to dispose of 7,000 to 8,000 corpses at a time. Some soldiers attempted cremation, but ran out of gasoline and instead left mountains of smoldering corpses. Some ponds in the city actually disappeared because the bodies absorbed all the water. Chang says many of the bodies were dumped into the Yangtze River, lending credence to her parents' earlier stories of the Yangtze running red with blood.

The months that Chang spent documenting this horrific scenario took a physical and emotional toll. "I was weak during the whole time I was writing the book, and physically unwell during the month I spent in China," she says. "I lost weight and I lost hair. I got sick frequently. I was very unhappy."

During her month in Nanking in the summer of 1995, Chang visited mass execution sites, and videotaped interviews with a dozen or so survivors whom local historians had helped her track down. They were elderly and mostly poor, living in tiny airless apartments tucked into alleyways or high up in concrete skyscrapers.

On one such tape, an athletic-looking 83-year-old relates the amazing story of his escape from near-certain death, 60 years earlier. Tang Shunshan had been rounded up with other Chinese men and women and herded to the edge of a giant pit. As one Japanese soldier methodically made his way forward, slicing off prisoners' heads with his sword, other soldiers followed behind, picking up heads and tossing them into a pile as part of a killing contest. Luckily for Tang, when the man standing in front of him was beheaded, the momentum of the body caught Tang and sent them tumbling backward into the ditch. Tang hid himself under the man's body, and waited for over an hour as the contest continued. When it was over, one soldier stayed behind to bayonet the piles of bodies. Tang endured five bayonet wounds before fainting. Later in the day his friends found and rescued him.

"There were times when I really wanted to cry, but I couldn't," says Chang. "There had reached a point where there were no more tears."
In another interview, which Chang pops into her VCR to play while I'm there, a woman tearfully reads from a prepared statement. Chang translates for me as the woman shares her story, which is heartbreaking to watch and to hear. Liu Fonghua was only a year old when she was yanked from her father's arms before he was led away to be executed. Her mother, she says, never recovered. "Blood and tears were her life," Fonghua reads into the camera. "As soon as anyone mentions the Nanjing massacre, she couldn't help but cry uncontrollably and suffer headaches for a long time. I never saw her smile. Because my father's death was so brutal, and also because my mother endured hardship all her life-- hardship that was carved onto her very bones and seeped into the deepest recesses of her heart--my mother could never smile again." By the time Liu Fonghua finishes reading her statement, she is sobbing so hard she can barely talk. Tears drip from her chin.

Chang turns off the television set, and we sit in silence for several minutes, drained. Meeting the massacre's survivors face to face, she says quietly, was both the best part of her trip, and the worst. "There were times when I really wanted to cry, but I couldn't. It had reached a point in me where there were no more tears."

From the outset of the project, Chang knew she did not want to fill her book with one atrocity after another. So in addition to examining the massacre itself, she also deals with such questions as, What could have motivated the Japanese soldiers--many of them still boys--to behave so heinously? "I wanted to probe the forces by which a government could turn non-violent people into killing machines," she says. "I'm intrigued by the potential for good and evil in our society."

In her book, Chang posits several theories to explain how the Nanking atrocities could have transpired. Some scholars believe the seeds for violence were sown by the brutal, humiliating way in which Japanese officers and soldiers were treated by their higher-ups. When these same soldiers were given the power of life or death over the Chinese, says Chang, "it is easy to see how years of suppressed anger, hatred, and fear of authority could have erupted." Exacerbating the situation was the contempt that the Japanese held for the Chinese--the product of decades of propaganda and social indoctrination. Chang says that for many Japanese soldiers, murdering a "sub-human" Chinese was akin to squashing a bug or butchering a hog. Religion also played a factor, she believes. The Japanese imperial army considered itself to be on a holy mission--that it was Japan's destiny to control all of Asia.


For the Japanese soldiers, getting rid of all the bodies proved to be a real problem, Chang says. Some ponds actually disappeared because the corpses absorbed all the water.
Photo courtesy Yale Divinity School Archives
But while The Rape of Nanking does plumb the depths of man's inhumanity against man, it also offers a few, shining moments of redemption. While hundreds of thousands of Chinese met their deaths that winter of 1937-38, thousands of others were saved--largely due to the heroic efforts of two dozen Western foreigners who were living in Nanking at the time. They maintained a two-and-a-half-square-mile wide "international safety zone," which at its height served 250,000 Chinese refugees.

The safety zone leaders were an odd assortment of individuals, seemingly ill-equipped to stand up against the carnage they saw going on around them: American and German missionaries, businessmen, doctors, and professors. Perhaps the most unlikely hero of them all was a humanitarian Nazi by the name of John Rabe. Chang has dubbed him the "Oskar Schindler of Nanking."

Chang knew the barest details about Rabe from her early research: that he was an executive with Siemens Company and head of the Nanking chapter of the Nazi party; that he had led the safety zone and risked his life to save thousands of others. But what happened to Rabe once he left Nanking in February 1938? There the trail went cold. For historians, the remainder of his life was a mystery. Chang set to work digging. After ascertaining that Rabe had been born in Hamburg, she wrote to a well-connected friend of a friend there, who put her in touch with Rabe's granddaughter, Ursula Reinhardt. From Reinhardt, the young historiographer received the surprise of her life: John Rabe had kept a detailed 1,200-page diary chronicling the Nanking atrocities. Reinhardt's family was willing to go public with it.

News of the existence of the Rabe diary hit big. The New York Times devoted an entire page to it last December, and the story was picked up by ABC, CNN, and other media. In the Times article, William C. Kirby, a professor of modern Chinese history at Harvard, called the diary "an incredibly gripping and depressing narrative... that will reopen this case in a very important way."

In his diary, Rabe writes with riveting detail about being on call day and night to stop rapes in progress, of providing safe haven to hundreds of Chinese women in his backyard, of delivering rice amid gunfire. To the Chinese he became "the living Buddha of Nanking"--the man who gave new mothers in the safety zone a gift of $10 for each new son and $9.50 for each new daughter. ("Girls in China aren't worth as much as boys," he would write in explanation to Adolph Hitler.)

Chang has no qualms about describing Rabe as a humanitarian, despite his clear loyalty to the Nazi party. She believes his ardor for the party was based on its socialist program, and that Rabe was unaware of Hitler's intent to commit genocide against the Jews. "Rabe was isolated from what was happening in Germany because he had spent most of his adult life in China," she notes.

Rabe did not receive a hero's welcome after he returned to Germany in April 1938, as Chang learned through her correspondence with Reinhardt. Now in her late 60s, Reinhardt was seven years old when her grandfather returned to Berlin. She remembers the ensuing years well.

Rabe's initial efforts to publicize the Nanking Massacre through lectures and public appearances were quickly cut short by the German government, which was trying to become friendly with Japan. The Gestapo arrived at his doorstep one day, then interrogated him for hours, making it clear he should keep quiet about what he had witnessed in China. After the war, Rabe was arrested and interrogated first by the Soviets and later by the British. By the winter of 1946, the city of Berlin was in shambles, and food was scarce. The Rabe family was on the brink of starvation, reduced to eating acorn soup and weeds. That spring, Rabe petitioned to become "de-nazified," citing in his own defense that he had been unaware of Nazi atrocities while in China; while he eventually won the suit, the humiliating legal wranglings he endured left him penniless and broken, Reinhardt says.

When those in Nanking heard about what had happened to Rabe, the Chinese responded in what Chang describes as "It's a Wonderful Life" fashion. They raised $100 million Chinese dollars (about $2,000 U.S. dollars in 1948), and sent bundles of much-needed food to Rabe and his family every month until China fell to the Communists in 1949. The outpouring of support, John Rabe has said, restored his faith in humanity. In 1950, he died from a stroke.

There is interest on the part of filmmakers in doing a movie about John Rabe's life. Chang has already been interviewed for several documentaries, and been contacted by a London filmmaker who is eager to produce an epic movie. "It would be so gratifying to me if my book eventually did inspire some filmmaker to do a truly good movie about the Rape of Nanking," she says. "I want the world to know what happened. I don't want these victims to be erased from history the way their lives were erased."

HOW DID IT HAPPEN that an event of such magnitude as the Rape of Nanking was relegated to obscurity? Chang examined high school history textbooks throughout the United States and found that only a handful even mentioned the massacre. The American Heritage Picture History of World War II, for years the best-selling pictorial history of the war, contains nary a word nor a picture about the atrocities in Nanking.

Cold War politics was largely to blame, Chang says. "Suddenly, in the 1950s, the two Chinas [the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China] both needed Japan as an ally against each other, so neither one of them really aggressively pushed the issue." In fact, Chinese citizens who stirred things up by lobbying for reparations risked being punished by their own government--a situation that continues today, Chang says. "There were people who ended up losing their jobs, and losing their pensions, and they've been thrown in prison," she says.

During the Cold War, the United States also was loath to risk alienating Japan, because it considered its former enemy an important ally in Asia against the twin Soviet threats of China and the USSR. Within the United States the Asian presence was not what it is today, thus attention tended to focus more on the European side of World War II. While American Jews were successful in drawing attention to the story of their Holocaust, their Chinese-American counterparts were much less successful in telling their story. Chang believes that's partly because most Cold War Chinese émigrés to the U.S. were like her parents: scientists--not writers, historians, or filmmakers, who would have an inclination and the necessary venues to get the word out and muster outrage.

Chang also believes there has been a tendency on the part of some Americans to view the Japanese as victims of World War II. "It's hard for people to see them as aggressors because we have such compelling images of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Those images are so gripping that they occupy more space in the public consciousness than images of Pearl Harbor," she says. Relocation camps, which were set up within the U.S. during the war and held Japanese-Americans against their will, further contribute to their "victim" status, she says.

Within Japan, information about the massacre has always been closely guarded by the government, Chang says. The result is that many Japanese know little--if anything--about it. In the Japanese propaganda blitz that began days after the invasion, Japanese-controlled newspapers in China reported that the Chinese had gone back to their homes and businesses, that Japanese soldiers were playing joyfully with local children, and that peace and order reigned.

"The level of ignorance about World War II throughout Japan is appalling," says Chang, shaking her head. One Japanese psychology professor she talked to said he's been asked by more than one puzzled college student: Who won the war? "Right now in Germany, it is against the law not to teach about the Holocaust. I think something similar should have been implemented in Japan decades ago," Chang says. "Even the media is involved in an unspoken code of silence on this. It's alarming to me how much suppression is still going on."

Last winter, she got a call from the Los Angeles bureau chief of Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading liberal paper. Kazumi Mizumoto wanted to break the story about the Rabe diary to the paper's 8 million readers, so he flew to Sunnyvale to interview her. Afterward, she said, "He had unbelievable difficulties getting the story published."

Mizumoto, who has since resigned from the paper, says his editors were "too prudent and cautious" about running the story because of pressure from Japan's right-wing scholars and journalists. That movement's main focus, he says, "has been to praise and justify what Japan has done" during modernization. After Mizumoto's interview with Chang, his editor insisted he fly to Berlin to interview Ursula Reinhardt in order to have an airtight case. The story eventually ran, but Mizumoto lost his "scoop," and the article did not appear on the front page as he had expected.

"Later," he says, "one of my colleagues told me that there was a tacit understanding among the editors and upper bureaucrats of the Asahi not to publish stories on the Nanking Massacre on the front page unless there are some outstanding historical findings," he says. "They did not regard the existence of the diary and the report by Rabe as an outstanding historical document."

"There are people [in Japan] who are denying that the [massacre] happened, and the government supports the practice of enshrining them," she says.
Beyond the issue of suppression within the media, says Chang, there is the denial on the part of right-wing scholars and government officials. When Chang shifts the conversation to this subject, her earlier sunniness disappears. She is angry, and it shows. "There are people who are openly denying that the [Rape of Nanking] happened, and the government supports the practice of enshrining them," she says, her voice taking on an edge. "It's like building a cathedral in the memory of Hitler, and worshipping statues of Hitler as God."

What would Chang like to see from the Japanese? She responds without hesitation. "First and foremost, a sincere apology from the prime minister, issued on behalf of the entire government, for what happened in Nanking and elsewhere in China. At a minimum, they should put in their textbooks a true accounting of what happened. They also need to open up their archives to scholars. And Japan definitely should be paying reparations for [the massacre]."

Interest in the Nanking massacre has risen markedly in the last few years; that's partially due to the efforts of a new generation of Chinese-Americans--activists who are intent on getting the word out through books, documentaries, and symposiums. Later this month, Princeton University will host an international conference on the Rape of Nanking; Chang will be there to talk about Japanese suppression of information about the massacre and to share new material (diaries and letters) that she unearthed during her research.

Though her book is now finished, Iris Chang has absorbed the pain and horror of the Nanking massacre in a way that is hard to set neatly aside. She's thought hard about channeling her passion into activism, but ultimately has decided to move on with her writing. There are other stories that need to be told.

"Political activism is a full-time job, and I see myself primarily as a writer and a scholar," Chang says. "Over time, I may have more impact on the world, I think, as a writer of books and articles than I could ever have as a political activist."

Sue De Pasquale is the magazine's editor.


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