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[COMMUNITY] One Final Victim of the Rape of Nanking

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  • madchinaman
    One final victim of the Rape of Nanking? Oliver August A young historian s book on the 1937 atrocity unleashed a tide of repressed anguish and international
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 20, 2005
      One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?
      Oliver August
      A young historian's book on the 1937 atrocity unleashed a tide of
      repressed anguish and international recriminations that continue
      even after her suicide

      THOSE who knew Iris Chang used to worry about how she could cope
      with the gloom of her chosen work. But when they visited the house
      in California that she shared with her husband and saw him playing
      with their two-year-old son by the swimming pool in the backyard,
      they were reassured.

      The 36-year-old historian would sip lemonade with her friends at a
      Chinese café called the Tea House and, for a while, the torrent of
      terror that she frequently invited into her life would seem far

      Were it not for the crinkled maps of China, the pictures of mass
      graves and the two desperately overstuffed Rolodexes on her desk,
      Chang might have been just another former high school homecoming
      queen from the aptly named Sunnyvale. But she had become one of the
      foremost young historians of her generation after publishing, seven
      years ago, a bestselling account of the Rape of Nanking, one of the
      worst episodes of human cruelty in recent history.

      Her book brought international acclaim and controversy, and many
      spoke of a stellar future. It was not to be. In November she killed
      herself, no longer able to bear the weight of horrors from seven
      decades ago.

      The Rape of Nanking in 1937 began with the march of invading
      Japanese soldiers up the Yangtse River. They occupied the Chinese
      capital of the time and soon conquest was followed by bloodlust.
      Soldiers slaughtered between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians
      sheltering in a few city blocks. Slowly.

      Over a six-week period, up to 80,000 women were raped. But it wasn't
      so much the sheer numbers as the details that shock — fathers forced
      at gunpoint to rape daughters, stakes driven through vaginas, women
      nailed to trees, tied-up prisoners used for bayonet practice,
      breasts sliced off the living, speed decapitation contests.

      During the war the massacre was well known, but both Tokyo and
      Beijing preferred not to mention it over the four decades that

      Iris Chang was pitched into this maelstrom of history as a child
      when her immigrant parents, who had escaped from wartime China to
      the US, told their daughter how the Japanese "sliced babies not just
      in half but in thirds and fourths". In the introduction to her book
      she wrote: "Throughout my childhood [the massacre] remained buried
      in the back of my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil."

      When, at 27, she read one of the few accounts of the atrocity still
      circulating in the West, she sensed a mission in life. "I was
      suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and
      dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to
      a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer
      program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless
      someone forced the world to remember it."

      Chang soon made her first trip to China and sought out Sun Zhaiwei,
      a history professor in Nanjing, as Nanking is known today. "I
      provided her with an assistant and fixed appointments with some of
      the survivors," he says. Chang was given free lodgings and unlimited
      access to archives on the tree-lined campus near where the Japanese
      breached the old city wall before beginning their slaughter.

      When the book based on her research — The Rape of Nanking: The
      Forgotten Holocaust of World War II — was published two years later,
      it sold more than half a million copies and Chang became an instant
      celebrity in America. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House
      and Stephen Ambrose, the doyen of US historians, described her
      as "maybe the best young historian we've got".

      She was also widely praised for the emotion and commitment she
      brought to her work. On book tours the slim, ponytailed author spoke
      with an intensity that few listeners expected. Many broke down by
      her side, feeling compelled to recount their own tales of horror
      even if these were unrelated to her subject.

      Orphans, rape victims and Holocaust survivors all wanted to bare
      their souls to her, finally relieving themselves of agonies
      sometimes decades old. They felt encouraged by the passion that she
      brought to the sort of grievances few of them could tackle on their

      Chang cried when they cried. She was enraged even when they no
      longer were. It was unthinkable for her just to pass the paper
      tissues and wait until people had composed themselves again. Chang
      invited memories of atrocity and abuse with a seemingly limitless

      Dan Rosen, who heard Chang at the Holocaust Museum in Washington,
      said: "As with many speaking programmes there, it was 50 per cent
      elderly Jews, many of them war survivors, in the audience. I was
      overwhelmed by the warmth and immediacy with which they embraced and
      applauded Chang. It was an instance of bearing witness, of never
      forgetting, which is holy to the Jewish community. They related to
      her like a daughter, and vice versa."

      But her success had its price. The book became a touchstone of
      renewed rivalry between Japan and China. Both nations had been
      content to allow the massacre to fade into the past, but in the
      1990s China found itself in the ascendant and a long-suppressed
      sense of outrage burst out. Anti-Japanese museums sprang up across
      the country. Japanese nationalists responded by attacking the book
      and its author. Death threats were issued.

      Nobukatsu Fujioka, a right-wing commentator, campaigned to prevent
      publication of her book in Japan by citing a list of errors. He also
      published a book denouncing Chang as a propagandist funded by Japan-
      haters. The two volumes are still on prominent display in his Tokyo

      "The pressure on her from Tokyo was unbearable," says Yang Xiaming,
      one of Chang's research assistants in Nanjing. "She was afraid of
      travelling to Japan because she feared for her life."

      But the Japanese attacks were the easy part. With her newfound fame,
      Chang felt compelled to visit Chinese communities around the globe
      to hear more horror stories of Japanese occupation, forced
      prostitution in so-called "comfort houses" and nerve gas experiments
      on prisoners in Manchuria. After these encounters with people who
      would often approach her in tears, she felt utterly drained even
      hours later. Friends said that she was beginning to look frail, and
      she admitted to them that her hair was coming out. The more of
      others' suffering she absorbed, the more her old energy and
      intensity drained away. Each horror story seemed to pull her down a
      little farther.

      At home in California Chang worked to exhaustion, often until she
      collapsed in her study. When travelling she became forgetful and
      irritable. Her mind was preoccupied with earlier decades and haunted
      by gruesome images. Flashbacks of Chinese photographs that she had
      uncovered in archives tortured her.

      In the months before her death, Chang was researching a new book on
      Japanese wartime atrocities. Despite feeling unwell, she flew to
      Kentucky to interview survivors of the Bataan Death March. They
      recounted to her how thousands of American PoWs were killed during
      the occupation of the Philippines, some forced to bury their best
      friend alive or, if they refused, for both of them to be buried
      alive by a third friend, with the chain continuing until the
      Japanese soldiers found a PoW who complied.

      Eventually Chang broke down and needed to be treated in hospital.
      Her husband, computer scientist Brett Douglas, was not
      surprised. "The accumulation of hearing those stories year after
      year may have led to her depression," he says.

      Douglas sent their two young children to live with their
      grandparents, and when Chang left hospital he tried to watch her
      movements. He was worried by her obsessive talk about how people
      would remember her. She was calling friends one by one in what
      seemed like a series of goodbyes.

      On November 6 she spoke to Paula Kamen, whom she knew from
      university, and told her that she was struggling to deal with the
      magnitude of the misery she had uncovered, listened to and written
      about. She begged to be remembered as lively and confident. It was
      the last conversation they would have. Two days later, Chang was
      even more despondent than she had previously been. Her husband tried
      to calm her down but eventually fell asleep.

      At some point in the night, Chang got into her white 1999
      Oldsmobile, taking with her a six-round pistol that she had bought
      from an antique weapons dealer to defend herself from attackers. She
      drove to a country road, loaded the pistol with black powder and
      lead balls, aimed it at her head and fired. She was found a few
      hours later, along with a farewell note to her family.

      Yet even in death Chang was not rid of the controversy. In recent
      memorial services across China, historians have blamed intense
      hostility from Japan for her death. The People's Daily in Beijing
      hailed Chang as a "warrior full of justice" and a "dart thrown
      against the Japanese rightists". In April the massacre museum in
      Nanjing will add a statue of Chang to its commemorative collection,
      in effect giving her the status of a massacre victim, with a finger
      pointed firmly across the Sea of Japan. The San Francisco Chronicle
      seemed to concur: "Many wonder if the gentle, sympathetic young
      woman was the massacre's latest victim."

      Meanwhile, Japanese right-wingers interpreted her suicide as belated
      support for their contention that the massacre never happened. "By
      the end she must have known that her arguments were without merit.
      We exposed the lies in her book," said Fujioka.

      In Nanjing, Professor Sun Zhaiwei says that being an historian can
      be "torture of the mind".

      "Nuclear scientists wear protective clothing and have their health
      checked by doctors. Perhaps we historians of the extreme need
      similar measures. Yet for now we have to take care of ourselves.

      "Maybe that was Iris's problem — she cared for the dead but failed
      to take care of herself."
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