In December 1937, the Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking. Within weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered a death toll exceeding that of the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Using extensive interviews with survivors and newly discovered documents, Iris Chang has written the definitive history of this horrifying episode.
I do thank Iris Chang (and probably her editor) in the thoughtful and careful layout of book. By first providing selected Japanese cultural history, this book unfolded in a logical flow: addressing the events chronologically, providing viewpoints on motives, describing the key players – before, during, and after whenever possible, and denoting the history that was known or not known by the world and challenged by various countries’ government. While I have known selected details, the atrocities still proved to be horrifying, the courage uplifting, and the denial despicable.
I won’t attempt to simplify the amazing details in the book nor will I repeat the gruesome killings, tortures, rapes of women, and experimental ‘medical’ research. Instead, I’ll note other areas:
From Oxford historian Rana Mitter – a bit on ‘why’:
“There was a deep ambivalence in Japanese society about China. It was not all racist contempt, as it was for the Koreans: on the one hand, they recognized China as a source of culture that they had drawn on heavily; on the other, they were exasperated by the mess that China was in by the early twentieth century.”
The order to eliminate all Chinese captives:
“There was a ruthless logic to the order. The captives could not be fed, so they had to be destroyed. Killing them would not only eliminate the food problem but diminish the possibility of retaliation. Moreover, dead enemies could not form up into guerrilla forces.”
Many who were never punished – wtf! (Can I say that in a book review?):
“Unlike their Nazi counterparts, who have mostly perished in prisons and before execution squads or, if alive, are spending their remaining days as fugitives from the law, many of the Japanese war criminals are still alive, living in peace and comfort, protected by the Japanese government.” -- including the entire Imperial Hirohito family, who were given immunity from war responsibility. (wtf again)
“New candidate officers underwent intensive training to stiffen their endurance for war. In the program an instructor had pointed to a thin, emaciated Chinese in a detention center and told the officers: ‘These are the raw materials for your trial of courage.’ Day after day the instructor taught them how to cut off heads and bayonet living prisoners.”
From R. J. Rummel, “one of the world’s greatest authority on democide (a term he coined to include both genocide and government mass murder)”. These words ringed so loudly in so many aspects of history:
“Power kills, and absolute power kills absolutely.”
I also applaud the book for thoroughly addressing the Safety Zone that was created and protected by a mere 22 foreigners. What incredible courage and strength! For some, the horror they witnessed never stopped haunting them.
Her Introduction ended with the American Philosopher, George Santayana’s quote: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (from "Life of Reason I"). Her book now serves as an important monument in our historical timeline – to prevent similar history from repeating itself. Coincidentally, this is one of my favorite quotes.
A beloved European friend, who’s currently living in Changzhou, has been pestering me to read this book for months. I was unwilling. Of course, History is my greatest love and I was extremely familiar with the tragedy of Nanjing the capital of China at the time- through documentaries and films. This is exactly why I hadn’t read Iris Chang’s book. I couldn’t bear to visualize the scenes of destruction and utter brutality in my mind. Even the Wikipedia page narrating the slaughters is a place of horror. However, I thought that maybe the time had finally come and I ventured…
What kind of review can I possibly write now? There are times that I feel my words lose all meaning…The book chronicles the atrocities committed by the Japanese invaders after the fall of the city on 13/12/1937. The estimated victims? 300,000 people over a period of six weeks….The writing is detailed, powerful, razor-sharp. The horror comes through the pages not because the writer intended to shock but because the events described have no need for embellishment or sensationalist language. The violence, the ordeal, the brutality of the attacks, the behaviour of the monsters, the paranoia. Women and children, innocent civilians, meeting a fate and an end that no one is able to imagine. I feel that each sentence I am writing falls short, remains meaningless, devoid of any substance. It is impossible to enclose and communicate the feelings caused in me while I was reading Chang’s book. The anger, the hatred, the despair…It’s like a journey to a Hell that no religion has ever conceived, a pit of blood and madness that leaves you hopeless, empty, frozen….
And in the end? And now? So many eulogies, so many times mankind has uttered ”never again”. And the result? Nothing. Purely nothing. We loudly and wildly proclaim ”never another Holocaust, another Somme, another Vietnam, another Nanjing…”’ Empty words and evil deeds are the banes of History. I often feel the human race has learnt nothing from its darkest moments. We live through endless repetitions of horrors (in various degrees and forms), watching today’s ”elected” dictators giving speeches, ruling lives….I don’t care about political or religious issues, I don’t care about political correctness. This isn’t about power or international relationships. This is about the sheer brutality that lives in every human being, waiting for a chance to come forth and attack and the natural tendencies exploited by those in power all over the world, throughout the course of History. How can one stop this? The answer is yet to be found….
The Foreword notes that what "is still stunning is that it was a public rampage, evidently designed to terrorize. It was carried out in full view of international observers and largely irrespective of their efforts to stop it. And it was not a temporary lapse of military discipline, for it lasted seven weeks." The story Chang recounted was nothing less than horrific and thoroughly documented and made for disturbing reading--and viewing given the photographs included. There were killing competitions by Japanese soldiers, murder by burying alive, fire, ice, acid, dogs. One irony of Japan's refusal to come to terms with what happened is that many who took part can speak out about what they themselves did with impunity and no fear of prosecution. One former soldier related that they killed, raped and tortured without remorse--and were prepared for it not simply by a regime that dehumanized the Chinese but had long instilled self-sacrifice--the idea they didn't individually matter. He explained, "if my life was not important, an enemy's life became inevitably much less important."
There are heroes in this--the "International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone"--ironically headed by the local Nazi Party head. John Rabe was "the Oskar Schindler of China," a German businessman who can be credited with saving hundreds of thousands. And who carefully documented the atrocities--an indictment with all the more credibility because it came from a German--a man whose nation was allied with Japan.
Finally Chang deals with how so much of this history has been denied and erased from the education of the Japanese. A phenomenon I saw firsthand. A few years after this book was published I was in my last semester of college and enrolled in a program that placed students in DC internships and provided courses for credit. I took a course on modern Asia given by an American career diplomat. Also in the class was a Japanese national. We once asked him what he thought of what he was hearing, and he said he thought it very biased. One day our teacher told us he had dropped the course in protest--he had simply refused to believe what he was hearing about Japanese conduct during World War II could be anything but propaganda. She told us the Japanese simply are not taught about the shameful parts of their history. Or weren't. As of 1997 when The Rape of Nanking was published, Chang tells us the whole incident was airbrushed out of the textbooks, and the government of Japan had refused to provide reparations or offer an apology--very much in contrast to Germany and how it has dealt with its Nazi legacy. I don't know how much that might have changed over the last 15 years. But Chang certainly did history a service in writing this thorough--and at times moving--account of terrible events during World War II.
Chang pays tribute to the heroic efforts of the local expatriates community and reporters, especially the good Nazi John Rabe, the intrepid Americans doctor Robert Wilson and school mistress Minnie Vautrin (I recommend the 2009 biopic "John Rabe" with Ulrich Tukur and Steve Buscemi). In contrast to the UN safe area at Srebrenica in 1995, the International Nanking Safety Zone (barely and insufficiently) protected most of the local population which managed to reach it, stay within its borders and evade Japanese intruders. The Japanese level of atrocities and the bestial brutality in their execution is truly shocking.
Still more shocking is the fact that the perpetrators mostly managed to evade justice, while the victims and their helpers did not receive justice and compensation. The Rape of Nanking is but one among a large number of massacres the world chose to look away and not hold the perpetrators accountable for their war crimes. For the over 200.000 deaths, only two people were convicted in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Four more were convicted in the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal (one the convicted was sheltered after the trial by Chiang Kai-Shek!). Chang shows in the Japanese case that "Looking forward, not backward" is a bad strategy in dealing with war crimes (also supported by the lack of accountability caused by the much less vigorous denazification policies in Austria compared to Germany). Amazingly, Japan never paid any war reparations to both Chinas.
A must read.
The book was written in a very factual, unemotional manner and did not gloss over the atrocities of Nanking. It is thought provoking and makes one think about civilization and the capacity of humankind . Overall, this is a very well written book and highly recommended.
I seem to be specializing in little known holocausts as I am also reading Sandcastle Girls which deals with the Armenian genocide. Reader beware, Iris Chang spared no details in relating the Rape of Nanking. The horrific descriptions were so awful that they gave me nightmares and there were pictures to boot. Weak stomached people should stick to the Wikipedia summary.
In any case what happened is during WWII the Japanese who live on a teeny tiny island dubbed themselves the master race and in order to branch out decided to take over China. They conquered Shanghai, the New York of the east and moved on to Nanking where they met no resistance. It turns out that the Chinese weren't too interested in fighting the Japanese after all and surrendered without pretty much any resistance. Thousands of Chinese soldiers were laying down their weapons for the relatively few Japanese. This caused quite the problem for the Japanese who could not feed thousands upon thousands of prisoners. Their solution? kill them all. Hague Convention out the window. As if that was not disturbing enough what happened next could hardly be described as the acts of a human being. Due in part to the sadistic way Japanese soldiers were trained all sense of decency was obliterated.Sexual depravity, mass rape, and killing innocent civilians in ever inventive ways. It got so bad it even sickened the Nazi's. Some foreigners tried to intervene but it was a drop in a waterfall. It took the dropping of the atomic bomb to finally expel the Chinese from Japan.
The author took her work very personally. My times she interjects the word I into the narrative. As a Chinese American she had more than a passing interest in the terrible treatment of her people. She became consumed by Japan's minimizing the holocaust. Where the Nazi's were punished after WWII and had to make reparations the Japanese for a variety of reasons were never held accountable. Many of the Japanese involved in the atrocities were holding prominent positions in society. The Japanese tried to white wash in their textbooks and any Japanese citizens who were involved that tried to speak out and offer apologies was ostracized. Chang tried to confront Japanese officials about their treatment of Chinese citizens during the holocaust but she was rebuffed and the validity of her work was called into question. While working on a book about the Bataan Death March, another shameful chapter in Japanese history, she suffered a nervous breakdown and killed herself. She is regarded as another victim of the Rape of Nanking.
This book should be read so that light can be shed on this little known chapter of world history and so that it will never forgotten. I am not sure if all of Iris Changs information is accurate as some would claim but if only a portion is true than it is bad enough. It is a shame that Iris Chang was never able to deliver to the Chinese people the apology from Japan that she so desperately wanted to hear.
The fall of the city was a military catastrophe for China where massive amounts of demoralized Chinese soldiers surrendered. Despite promises to the contrary the Japanese army soon started to murder them by executions, or even decapitation contests. After that they moved on to killing, what they said was, soldiers hiding among the civilians. And so it went on until no Chinese was safe in a horrifying combination with rape and pillaging. Those Chinese who managed to survive did so mainly because of the protection they got in the International safety zone that was created by a few foreigners. Here we find the glimpse of hope and humanity in this book, in how these individuals sacrificed their own safety and health to try and save as many as possible from certain death or rape.
After the war most of the perpetrators of theses deeds went unpunished. Japan took a completely different course than Germany after WWII. Japan never paid any of the victims in Nanking anything, actually denied that anything unordinary happened in the city, and instead took up the position of a victim of the war. This was something that was widespread among politicians and academics. Hopefully this will change now…
The book is well written and is an easy read. The only limit is how much horror of murder and rape the reader can digest. But the best thing about it is actually that the message of the books is out, and got massive attention. This is just such an enormous historical crime that we all (not only the Japanese) need to confront it. It actually sparked of a debate with Japanese revisionist that got many officials in Japan to acknowledge the past. But of course the book could have been better. Chang writes more like a journalist than a historian, and are more interested in getting her message out, than being right on every detail. For example in the first edition a Commodore is called a Commander. Such details should and can of course not put the main point of the book in trail, but it offered a bunch of cheap shots to the adversaries of Chang. With some more editing and better chronology this would have been a masterpiece. Chang also highlights the need for a more full account of the crimes against humanity comitted by the Japanese armed forces. Sad to say this will not be done by Iris Chang who committed suicide a couple of years after writing the rape of Nanking. A four out of five.
She give details, dates and names, though in a summary format,of the events. She works with eyewitness interviews or written accounts. Through it all she also tries to understand the Japanese and why they did what they did. She tries to promote humanity and not use sensationalism or hate to sell her book or present the story.
The details are not white-washed, nor are they exploited and she gives examples of crimes that represent the different types, so there is no gore overload.
This book should be read to educate not only about what happened there in WWII, but about how easily decency can be stripped away, and highlight that genocide and indifference are still at work today.
While I agree info like this should be taught in school (I never knew ANYTHING about these atrocities, or anything much about WWII in China for that matter, before reading this book), I’m not sure this book is the best thing to read for students.
I found parts very, very gruesome. The book described, even PICTURED, brutal rapes of women and things they were made to do for the Japanese. One of the two things I’m very queasy about happens to be any kind of brutal torture involving the “nether regions”; this book described and showed pictures of all ages of women tied up or tortured, some with large foreign objects stuck into their vaginas. It described various sexual acts, as well. I can still recall those black-and-white images and those descriptions in my mind, and it’s not very pleasant. It made me physically cringe then, and it does so now, too.
And of course, that’s just the beginning of the horrible deaths and atrocities described in the book.
In the end, though, the knowledge and insight into history that I gained from the book far outweighed the brutal depictions.
I would consider this a great book to first learn about the Nanking Massacre, though maybe not the definitive go-to book. As seems to be the case with much of WWII history, many facts and figures are disputed greatly. I kind of wished there were some more explanations about the events leading up to the massacre and why it happened, as well. While Chang does go through some of this, I think it would be interesting to read more about this subject from different viewpoints. Of course, I haven’t had money or time to do this yet!