Iris Chang's Achievement and Sad Demise


Mr. Fic is a freelance writer and broadcaster currently in Beijing.

"The chronicle of humankind's cruelty is a long and sorry tale. But if it is true that even in such horror tales there are degrees of ruthlessness, then few atrocities can compare in intensity and scale to the rape of Nanjing during World War II."

So wrote Chinese-American author Iris Chang in the introduction to her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic Books, 1997). A New York Times best-seller that was translated into thirteen languages, the book was akin to a stone striking the pond of public ignorance about the issue in the West while it also made a splash in Japan.

Much to the shock and horror of her millions of fans and supporters worldwide, the 36-year-old Chang committed suicide by firing a single bullet into her head on November 9. A commuter discovered her body alone in her car on a rural road near Sunnyvale, which is close to San Jose, California.

It is a sadly opportune time to review her brief, yet remarkable life as a successful Chinese-American woman, and her career as a journalist-historian who made her most prominent mark within the international redress movement that implores Japan to atone for its imperial-era war crimes.

Chang was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968 and grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Both her parents taught at the University of Illinois. She said she first heard about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre while growing up within her family, for her grandparents had escaped from the beleaguered city where massacres took place from the city's fall to the Japanese in December 1937 into March 1938. Some Chinese sources insist that as many as 300,000 civilians were murdered, though the death toll is contested; an estimated 20,000-80,000 women were raped, most of them later murdered. Chang eventually earned an undergraduate journalism degree from the University of Illinois and put in a reporting stint with the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. Then she enrolled in the master's program at Johns Hopkins University in 1990.

Her first book, called Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995), told the story of a Chinese rocket scientist, Dr Tsien Hsue-shen. A former professor of aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, Tsien helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The United States government deported Tsien in the 1950s, fearing that he was spying for Beijing; he ended up making missiles for China, such as the Silkworm missile.

When the Cox report by Congressman Christopher Cox, a California Republican, alleging Chinese high-technology espionage in the United States was issued in January 1999 (and declassified in May 1999), it cited Chang's book as asserting that Tsien was, in fact, a spy. Chang lashed out at the report, clarifying that her book could not firmly conclude that he was one, adding that the issue would remain unresolved until Beijing and Washington offered more information. Showing her sense of impartiality and fair play, she added that if the U.S. government wanted to make its case that someone was a communist and a spy, it had to offer proof.

It was Chang's book on Nanjing that catapulted her to prominence. Chronicling the massacre itself, she wrote, "As victims toppled to the ground, moaning and screaming, the streets, alleys, and ditches of the fallen capital [of Nationalist China] ran rivers of blood." As for the many rapes committed, Chang quoted a Japanese veteran as saying, "Perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman, but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig." Apparently, many troops thought that raping virgins would ensure them greater power in battle. She noted, "Soldiers were even known to wear amulets made from the pubic hair of such victims, believing that they possessed magical powers against injury."

The book won immense acclaim among journalistic reviewers in the United States and elsewhere and it galvanized the movement for redress. Chang was widely hailed for bringing to America's and the world's attention an issue about which even well-educated people knew little. American conservative pundit George Will famously opined that thanks to Chang's efforts, a "second rape of Nanking," meaning the denial of the truth, had been averted. (Chang referred to silence about the massacres as the "second rape" of Nanking.)

However, the book was not universally applauded. Japanese nationalists of various stripes denounced Chang as a de facto or real agent of the Chinese government, determined to spread anti-Japanese propaganda. Some Japanese commentators insisted that Chang's book contained errors, such as photographs of the alleged massacres that they could "prove" came from other sources.

Other interlocutors went further and asserted that the Nanjing Massacre never happened at all, meaning that Chang was perpetuating a fable. In 1998, Chang told this author that "not a single week goes by when I don't suffer harassment from some vicious right-wing Japanese group," insisting that she lied. The book never appeared in Japanese because of a falling-out between Chang and her Japanese publisher; some assert that Chang objected to the latter's attempt to correct her errors. Therefore, although the dust up received some media coverage in Japan, most average Japanese do not know her work.

In addition, some professional Japan experts in the U.S. dunned Chang and the redress movement, alleging that their efforts to make Tokyo officially apologize for the war and pay compensation to its victims was an example of ethnic solidarity and special-interest politics. Chang's defenders retorted that the issue of justice denied was all too clear, and they pointed to the growing number of non-Chinese supporters, such as those in Korea, the Philippines, elsewhere in Southeast Asia and globally.

Her most recent book, The Chinese in America, chronicled the colorful, dramatic history of how and why the Chinese came to the United States and their ability to overcome prejudice and cultural barriers in order to win respect and achieve success.

As for Chang's unexpected suicide - she was renowned for her drive and passion - friends said they were bewildered. Chang herself admitted that she felt rage as she researched the Nanjing Massacre, even suffering nightmares. It appears that Chang - determined to be the voice of the forgotten - had started to gather material for a book on U.S. soldiers tortured by the Japanese in the Philippines during the war when she suffered a nervous breakdown in Kentucky five months ago and entered a hospital. Her friends have explained that she tended to take her sometimes gruesome research on Japanese war crimes to heart, and this plunged her into a fatal depression that not even hospitalization could fully treat.

What can be known is that in her supporter's minds, Chang left behind an illustrous legacy. According to retired San Francisco Superior Court judge Lillian Sing, "She was a real woman warrior trying to fight injustice" through her writing, her lectures on campuses and at bookstores and her media appearances.

In 1998, the Organization of Chinese American Women named Chang National Woman of the Year. Historian Stephen Ambrose deemed Chang one of America's most promising young historians. San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon added that Chang herself had become "one of the most visible Chinese-American authors" in her homeland.

In the many tributes being paid to her, the common theme of her supporters is that Chang was above all a truth teller. They say that those who want to honor her memory can best do so by following what they inisist is her example of courage, vision and honesty.

Related Links

  • Pictures of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial compiled by historian Andrew Field

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