The Impossible Task of Remembering the Nanking Massacre

How Iris Chang tried to bridge the gap between a fading memory and a horrific lived reality

Chinese honor guard members march past the words "Victims 300000."
Chinese honor guard members march past the words "Victims 300000" during a ceremony to mark China's first National Memorial Day at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing in eastern China's Jiangsu province, on December 13, 2014.  (Ng Han Guan / AP)

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.

I am struck not only by the range in these estimates, but in the ambitions of those who make them. Was the Nanking massacre the “forgotten Holocaust,” as Chang argued? Was it the act of a small group of unhinged individuals, as the scholar Masahiro Yamamoto contended? Or was Japan the victim of a nefarious lie, as Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo, has long insisted? Through these debates, historians and public figures assert their respective versions of what really happened in Nanking, setting aside the meaning of “massacre,” “noncombatant, even “death,” looking past the identities of the severed heads that appear in grainy photographs, and beyond the witness testimonials collected by UNESCO. In their efforts to canonize history is an unambiguous instruction: Remember it like this.

* * *

My grandfather, or Yaya, as I call him, grew up in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Life among the soldiers was “not much different,” he’d say when he visited us in Texas. Of course, he had to bow whenever he passed the Japanese on the street. Rickshaw drivers couldn’t complain when the soldiers didn’t pay them. If you failed to remove your hat in the presence of a Japanese soldier, he might beat you with the butt of his rifle and throw you in jail. Yaya himself was never beaten, but he witnessed beatings every day, he said.

Once, when he was walking me to the bus stop, he said he’d been stabbed by a Japanese soldier. To my great embarrassment, he raised the front of his shirt to show me his scar. Twenty years later, he claimed he’d never told me the story. It was not a Japanese soldier who gave him his scar, but his grandmother, who, following a superstition, fired a large coin and pressed it to his skin when he was a baby to cast off an illness.

Odd as both versions of the story may seem, for me, they embody the struggle to place my grandfather’s life in Chang’s pages. As I watched Yaya drift in and out of sleep in front of the television, my grandmother sitting beside him patiently explaining the plot of the program they were watching, the horrors of the past began to recede. The past felt less real in moments like that, the stakes somehow lower. While the Japanese bombed Shanghai for three months, taking a quarter of a million Chinese lives before marching west to Nanking, Yaya was two years old. What could “different” mean to someone who took his first steps during war?

To return to my grandfather’s China now is to wade through a morass of collective memory. After the war, in response to the rise of Communism, America and Britain began to embrace post-war, pacifist Japan. To officials in the newly formed People’s Republic of China, Japan’s destruction of their beloved land was less relevant than the Nationalists’ colossal failure to protect it. My parents first learned about the war through films in which the Nationalists, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, simply ran away, leaving brave Communist guerrilla fighters and rural villagers to drive off cruel Japanese soldiers. In 1972, Tokyo signed a joint communiqué with Beijing that absolved Japan of all war reparations in exchange for recognizing Taiwan as an “inalienable” territory of China.

Eighty years after the Battle of Shanghai and the Nanking massacre, an increasingly global China has again changed its tune. Visitors to the granite-walled Nanking Memorial Hall, built in 1985, hear haunting music and see prominent displays of the words “300,000 Victims,” along with photographs, newspapers, and even human bones excavated from the mass grave on which the memorial was built. In addition to these commemorations in Nanking, in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin where my grandfather lives, air-raid sirens blare for nearly 30 minutes every year on the third Saturday of September, coinciding with National Defense Education Day. Though government officials call this a defense and disaster-prevention drill, Yaya considers it a more direct reminder: On September 18, 1931, Japan staged a bombing of a railway in then-Manchuria that instigated a 14-year long invasion. Remember it like this.

With Japan’s recent re-election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who aspires to legitimize the military renounced long ago in the country’s post-war constitution, China has greater reason to revive its image as an imperial conqueror. Even as Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping talk of a “fresh start,” Xi stays mum during the recent anniversary of the start of the Nanking massacre. Territorial disputes roil the East China Sea, and China expands in the South China Sea. And there is the escalating threat of China’s strained ally North Korea, as well as America’s volatile role in all this. The answer to who will lead East Asia into its future may hinge on how each country makes sense of its muddled past. Or makes use.

* * *

In Twilight Memories: Making Time in a Culture of Amnesia, Andreas Huyssen wrote that “every memory inevitably depends both on distance and forgetting, the very things that undermine its desired stability and reliability.” For me, this recalls Chang’s introduction to The Rape of Nanking, in which she described the experience of viewing an exhibit of photographs from the massacre at a conference. She’d grown up with her grandparents’ stories of life during wartime, but the photos were a revelation to her, collapsing the emotional distance between the historical and the personal. “In a single blinding moment,” she wrote, “I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself.”

One of the few personal anecdotes in Chang’s book, this passage read to me as one of its least believable. Surely, a single epiphany had not transformed her from a casual inheritor of stories to one who’d call Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the full scale of the Nanking atrocities as “the second Japanese rape.” Perhaps in the face of the West’s distance and forgetting, Chang felt the need to justify her approach with an origin story. If she was going to stir her readers, they needed to trust that the rage burning on her pages was not only real, but warranted.

As an adult, I couldn’t revisit The Rape of Nanking without considering Chang’s fate: In 2004 at the age of 36, she committed suicide. The relationship between the tragedy of the massacre and the tragedy of her death has changed, inevitably, the way we read her book. And yet Chang’s rage lives on. Later generations still fight for those who came before them. People who “weren’t there” refuse to “move on” when so many others of a certain privilege, myself among them, grow up ignorant of the lynching of at least 18 Chinese immigrants in 1871 by a mob in Los Angeles. Perhaps distance is also the salve that allows us to rage—and weep, and shudder—without shattering, to reassess and re-remember and retell stories from all marginalized and brutalized communities until they’re finally heard.

* * *

As a child, I’d avoided pressing Yaya further on his stories, content to let my questions fade away. Later, I tried to explain away the gaps, rather than make space for new stories to fill them. Yaya had been too young to remember the Battle of Shanghai and the ensuing Japanese occupation, I told myself. Too protected to remember the assassinations of puppet politicians as depicted in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Too fragile to remember the 1000 percent inflation rate of the price of rice. The starvation. Too close to remember the censors, both Japanese and Chinese, which would change how he’d remember the reality of that life.

In recent conversations with Yaya, I’ve learned that his father, who rose from factory worker to general manager, saved his three textile factories during the Battle of Shanghai by hanging German flags on the roofs to trick the pilots. The factories continued running under Japanese occupation, making little money but providing jobs to over 4,000 people. After the war, business boomed and Yaya and his family moved into a big house with a garden, only to lose it along with their wealth after the Communists took over in 1949. Yaya and his extended family packed into a one-room rental with three tiny beds. They received a small portion of their money back decades later, but his earlier comforts—the same comforts that may have also explained why Yaya considered his childhood under occupation “not much different”—were long gone.

Years later, I will remember only fragments of Yaya’s stories. What will stay with me is how he’s begun to tell them. His breathlessness, his rapid-fire sentences crashing into one another, as if emerging dazed after a long period of confinement. His insistence on speaking, even with his weak throat. His story about his grandmother giving him his scar may have left me questioning my own memory, but I will remember that he was the one to tell it. However messy his tellings, Yaya is the one taking charge. The China of his childhood was always more than a shaky balance beam for a country’s political gymnastics.

I have a photograph of Yaya’s scar on my phone: below his ribcage, a round indention the size of a child’s fist, where the skin ripples and blanches. As Louise Glück writes, “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” As a child, however, I hadn’t cared enough to open my eyes. There are still so many stories I’ve failed to seek out, memories I’ve never given myself the opportunity to lose. Perhaps in a world that tells us how to feel about our past, a way forward is to ask a different kind of question—not how a scar came to be, but how it hurt. How it continues to.