Monday, November 15, 2004

Iris Chang, R.I.P.

Ethnically Chinese with first generation immigrant parents, I grew up hearing stories about "The Nanking Massacre". I bought a copy of Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" when it was published for my father who fought in WWII against the Japanese. It is an excellent, painstakingly researched, near-comprehensive account of the event that in parts are nearly unreadable due to the subject matter. The photos are stomach-turning. Unlike the Germans who by and large have faced and admitted their complicity in the Holocaust the Japanese government hasnever done the same about WWII in general and Nanking in particular which rankles many, specifically elderly, Chinese. According to a native Japanese friend, history curricula generally gloss over the WWII period and much of the scholarship about pre-war Japanese imperialism and wartime activities are simply unavailable in Japan.

Chang was considered an excellent young historian and her death is a loss.

The New York Times obituary (click title) is excerpted below. Warning: one paragraph is un-edited and extremely explicit.
Iris Chang, a journalist whose best-selling book, "The Rape of Nanking," a chronicle of the atrocities committed in that city by occupying Japanese forces, helped break a six-decade-long international silence on the subject, committed suicide on Tuesday [09 November] near Los Gatos, Calif. She was 36 and lived in San Jose.
Ms. Chang was found in her car on a rural road south of Los Gatos, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, the local authorities told The San Francisco Chronicle. She had left a suicide note at home that she had painstakingly written, edited and rewritten, her husband, Brett Douglas said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II" was published by Basic Books in 1997, the 60th anniversary of the massacre. The book documented the events in Nanking (now Nanjing) during the second Sino-Japanese War, in the years leading up to World War II.

In December 1937 Japanese troops entered the city, which until shortly before the invasion had been the Chinese capital. In less than two months they murdered more than 300,000 civilians and raped more than 80,000 women. Ms. Chang's book was the first full-length nonfiction account of the event.

Reviewing "The Rape of Nanking" in The New York Times Book Review, Orville Schell called it an "important new book," adding that Ms. Chang "recounts the grisly massacre with understandable outrage."

She had a keen personal interest in the subject. Ms. Chang's grandparents had fled Nanking just before the occupation, eventually settling in the United States. Growing up in the Midwest, she heard family stories of the massacre, but as an adult she was unable to find much about it in print. In China and Japan, and even in the West, the subject had been almost completely lost to history.

"The whole issue had scar tissue growing over it, but it had never really healed," Mr. Schell, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime observer of China, said in a telephone interview. "She sort of threw the curtain back on a period that the Chinese Communist Party and the Japanese hoped was shrouded in official declarations of a new collaboration. But it turned out there was a lot of unfinished business."

Fluent in Mandarin, Ms. Chang traveled to China, where she scoured archives and interviewed elderly survivors. What she learned would force her to describe the indescribable:

"Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, nail them alive to walls," Ms. Chang wrote. "Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them torn apart by German shepherds. So sickening was the spectacle that even Nazis in the city were horrified."

"The Rape of Nanking" spent 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and close to half a million copies have been sold, Ms. Rabiner said.

The book drew wide international attention. In Japan it prompted outrage among conservatives. (A planned Japanese edition was cancelled in 1999.) Elsewhere it engendered demands for the Japanese government to make reparations or, at least, a formal apology, something Ms. Chang to the end of her life felt had been inadequately done.

"There have been all sorts of little fragments and shards and bits and pieces," Mr. Schell said. "But no one has done what Willy Brandt did: got down on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto and asked forgiveness."

Iris Shun-Ru Chang was born on March 28, 1968, in Princeton, N.J. She grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where her father, a physicist, and her mother, a microbiologist, taught at the University of Illinois. Ms. Chang received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Illinois in 1989. After working briefly as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Chicago Tribune, she earned a master's degree from the writing program of Johns Hopkins University in 1991.

She published her first book, "Thread of the Silkworm" (Basic Books, 1995), when she was just 27. It told the story of Tsien Hsue-shen, a Chinese-born scientist deported from the United States during the McCarthy era, who returned to China and founded that country's intercontinental missile program. Ms. Chang also wrote "The Chinese in America: A Narrative History," published last year by Viking.

At the time of her death, she was researching a book on American soldiers who served in tank units on the Bataan peninsula before World War II, many of whom were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. In the course of her research several months ago, Ms. Chang became severely depressed and had to be hospitalized.
Besides her husband, Ms. Chang is survived by her parents, Shau-Jin and Ying-Ying, and a brother, Michael, all of San Jose; and by a son, Christopher.

In a 1998 interview with The Straits Times of Singapore, Ms. Chang described her reasons for writing "The Rape of Nanking":

"I wrote it out of a sense of rage," she said. "I didn't really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937."

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