How Iris Chang tried to bridge the gap between a fading memory and a horrific lived reality
The book case in my childhood bedroom contained worlds far from my own. There was my volume of folk tales from the Childcraft encyclopedia series, along with an illustrated Bible. Sandwiched between them was the blood-red spine of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. The book had awoken the mainstream Western consciousness to the truth of the Japanese military’s horrific massacre of Chinese soldiers and civilians prior to World War II. Unlike many historians, Chang thrust stories and photographs of rape, disfigurement, killing contests, and live burials in front of her readers, forcing them to choose either to shudder and remember or look away in complicity.
While Chang faced a barrage of attacks from other historians, as well as from the publisher contracted to translate her book into Japanese, the debate over what happened in Nanking from December 1937 to January 1938 had been raging before the publication of her book. Japan, for instance, remains divided over the number of Chinese killed in Nanking during those six weeks. The massacre camp generally supports the Tokyo War Crimes Trials figure of “upwards of 100,000” deaths; skeptics claim 15,000 to 50,000, while others venture only up to 10,000. Outside of Japan, James Yin and Shi Young, whose work Chang frequently cited, place the minimum death toll as high as 369,366.