The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

TitleThe Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsChang, Iris
Number of Pages328
PublisherPenguin (Non-Classics)

"China has endured much hardship in its history, as Iris Chang shows in her ably researched The Rape of Nanking, a book that recounts the horrible events in that eastern Chinese city under Japanese occupation in the late 1930s. Nanking, she writes, served as a kind of laboratory in which Japanese soldiers were taught to slaughter unarmed, unresisting civilians, as they would later do throughout Asia. Likening their victims to insects and animals, the Japanese commanders orchestrated a campaign in which several hundred thousand--no one is sure just how many--Chinese soldiers and noncombatants alike were killed. Chang turns up an unlikely hero in German businessman John Rabe, a devoted member of the Nazi party who importuned Adolf Hitler to intervene and stop the slaughter, and who personally saved the lives of countless residents of Nanking. She also suggests that the Japanese government pay reparations and apologize for its army's horrific acts of 60 years ago." (text taken from Amazon)


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11 Reviews

Reviews for The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II


Posted By: Jayne Osgood

Posted On: March 7, 2014

To review this book is to grapple with the piercingly harsh questions of why such an egregious event not only happened, but continues to happen around the world. Iris Chang succinctly depicts what occurred, as well as how the Japanese advance on the Chinese city of Nanking manifested itself over the course of three weeks, but I am not convinced that she successfully argues deeply enough about the reasons why this atrocity of Herculean proportion occurred.

Citing the phenomena of "transfer of oppression", she points out that the Japanese army possessed great potential for brutality from its very inception because of the brutality that Japanese officers exacted on their own soldiers, in an attempt to harden them. She further argues for social status as a source of power, but this did not successfully convince me that she, or anyone else for that matter, knows why there is such violence, so carefully organized, and so completely accepted by so many at one time.

I was deeply informed by her arguments that both religion and claims to racial superiority contributed to Japan's view that they should control Asia. But nothing satisfied my yearning to hear how to stop such atrocities from appearing. This is where I believe the investigation might have explored more deeply why the Japanese felt so powerfully inclined to move brutally from Shanghai into Nanking, and then to have exacted such a terrible toll on the civilian population there.  Chang calls the rape of Nanking, a "blemish upon the honor of human beings", and demands that we look at events in Nanking as a "cautionary tale"; but she is remiss in offering a finer historiography that would inform present scholars in framing arguments on how to achieve a future worldview that demands peaceful co-existence.  It does appear to be an exercise in futility.

Today, according to Chang, the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty is the current (as of 1997) position used by Japan.  This is their justification that no more financial reparations need be considered by Japan to China.  But I do not think that money can stop genocide and mass murder, and on this, I think that Chang and I agree.  Although hers is a book of strong conviction (after 60 years, she still demands financial reparations), even Chang does not seem to think that money is the answer to healing history.  She says: "Japan carries not only the legal burden but the moral obligation to acknowledge the evil it perpetrated at Nanking" (225).  Her demands continue to include the obvious cries for apology, financial reparations, and perhaps most importantly of all, education of today's young people; especially those in Japanese classrooms. 

And that is her strongest argument - education. I would definitely consider including snippets of Chang's book in classroom discussions on morality, ethics, and religious understanding of war. I would ask students to discuss, most particularly, current Confucian world views and Buddhist practices in Asia, in the context of Pan-Asian relationships.  I would also initiate a discussion regarding the morality of war monuments (I was very inspired by our class on the Ear Mound.) And, I would like to see how students would respond to the query that, perhaps sometimes, too much study of war crimes can be too much. In other words, what would be the instructional motivation of pressing for a deep awareness of such violence?

I teach seniors, and I still struggle with curricular questions of whether a particular focus is too much for high school students, who are only 17 - 18. Should the truth be sanitized for as long as possible?  Or, do we owe a tribute to the dead to honor their memories by teaching about the violence and aggression of one group against another, regardless of unsuccessful attempts to stop such violence? What does the future hold for such memories?  What should young people learn?  

Chang's book offers a great deal in the way of keeping alive the focus on Japanese imperialistic history in the first half of the 20th century.  I am interested in pursuing the Japanese response to her strident indictment, as I am sure that there is much that the Japanese would refute.


Posted By: Marcia Snavely

Posted On: March 1, 2014

Marcia Snavely

Book Review: The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

I dreaded reading this book due to its graphic nature, but as a teacher of AP World History I knew that I had to in order to educate my students about the horrific crimes committed against humanity. The main questions that I grappled with was, “How could this possibly happen?” and “Why wasn’t I ever taught this?” I am convinced that most of my students have never heard of this either. I’m discovering more and more that our Western education has failed us in this regard. We all have been taught, through numerous genres, about Nazi Germany’s genocide and the atrocities of the Holocaust, but somehow we aren’t taught about this. Perhaps it has something to do with ethnocentrism or even geography?

I know some about Japan’s militaristic past but this book helped to solidify my understanding of why this took place. For instance, this excerpt helps give insight into the mindset of the Japanese psyche: “The historical roots of militarism in Japanese schools stretched back to the Meiji Restoration. In the late nineteenth century the Japanese minister of education declared that schools were run not for the benefit of the students but for the good of the country. Elementary school teachers were trained like military recruits, with student-teachers housed in barracks and subjected to harsh discipline and indoctrination.”

“In 1890 the Imperial Rescript on Education emerged; it laid down a code of ethics to govern not only students and teachers but every Japanese citizen. The Rescript was the civilian equivalent of Japanese military codes, which valued above all obedience to authority and unconditional loyalty to the emperor. In every Japanese school a copy of the Rescript was enshrined with a portrait of the emperor and taken out each morning to be read. It was reputed that more than one teacher who accidentally stumbled over the words committed suicide to atone for the insult to the sacred document.”

It is clearly evident that this indoctrination instilled obedience and loyalty, and that group conformity was valued over individualism. According to Chang, the Japanese had an ingrained sense of racial superiority which was affronted when the Chinese refused to capitulate when the imperial army marched into China. The Japanese military leaders seriously believed that Japan could conquer all of mainland China within three months. Students were lectured on how it was their duty to help Japan fulfill its divine destiny of conquering Asia.

I am convinced that due to its status as an island nation, lacking in resources, along with modeling their imperial ambitions after Great Britain that Japan was on a mission to expand at all cost.

Due to the fact that the textbook that I use for my 11th grade AP World History class only devotes two sentences to this horrific period in history I will be incorporating parts of this book into my teaching. Most likely I will leave out the graphic descriptions and focus more on the indoctrination that was taking place in the years leading up to this in order to convey why Japan was such a militaristic country. Another aspect that I would like to address is the reluctance of the Japanese government to fully and officially acknowledge the crimes their army committed. This is going to require a bit more research on my part due to the complexities of this issue.


Posted By: Pingping Chang

Posted On: February 27, 2014

Pingping Chang
Teaches 6th,7th and 8th grade Chinese Language in Parkland Middle School

Book Review of the Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

Though I am compelled by my own Chinese heritage and the anti-Japanese stories of my childhood to believe every word of Chang’s book, I understand the criticisms of The Rape of Nanking as an exaggerated and melodramatic story. However, I believe this book is important to remind people of what had happened.

In The Rape of Nanking, Chang condemns the violent attack of Nanking by Japanese armies in 1937, deplores the passive international reactions, and denounces the “cover-up” of the attack as a “second rape.” According to Chang, the Japanese government continues to deny the massacre of over 250,000 Chinese civilians. It is clear that Chang repeatedly tries to make the point that the brutality was planned, a systematic scheme coming down from the highest levels of Japanese government, a violence extending into generations of Japanese culture. Repeatedly, Chang makes the comparison of the Rape of Nanking to the Holocaust. Often, these examples are described in horrifically graphic details.

The particular value of this text, in my opinion is twofold. First, I think it was important for the story of the 1937 Rape of Nanking to be told to mainstream western audiences. As Chang laments, this story has not received half as much attention as massacres that were less violent and killed less people. Second, I think it is a great contribution to our historical studies that she interviewed so many victims and perpetrators first hand (though, as various historians critique, she does little to sift through the information fed to her in these interviews).

Due to the sensitive content and the questionable historiography of the book, I would adapt the contents of The Rape of Nanking for my students by highlighting the emotional rage and shame engendered by the massacre. I think that it is very important for my students to know that this happened, in the same way that they learn early on about the horrors of the Holocaust. What is important here, for me, is for my students to learn from these past examples of cruelty in order to avoid any similar forms of hatred in the future. Though I wouldn’t ask my students to read the whole text, I may ask them to read the Time magazine spread by Iris Chang with highlights from her book.


Posted By: Megan McKenna

Posted On: February 19, 2014

As a book on a historical event, The Rape of Nanking is rife with emotional content presented through elaborate prose. There is much more to the book than the simple listing of atrocities committed during the horrific episode in Nanking. It answers questions like: How did Japanese soldiers lose all sense of right and wrong? Why did the world look away? Why has punishment never been allotted to the Japanese soldiers who committed the atrocities and leaders who knew about them? What keeps certain events in history and assigns the rest to oblivion? What can be done to prevent this from happening again? The book acts as a presentation for a mainly American audience and is a must read for anyone who believes that these kinds of brutal happenings are anomalies.

The author presents her historical narrative from three perspectives: the Japanese soldiers who carried it out, the Chinese civilians and soldiers who endured it, and a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and the innocent victims. Through these perspectives, Chang provides the reader with important information and first-hand accounts of what actually happened. One of Chang’s ideas that stands out in my mind is that human beings are capable of the worst kind of inhuman behavior under certain circumstances. I find this argument to be of particular value because it can be used as an essential question or big idea for teaching World History students about genocide, a topic in the Virginia Modern World History curriculum which explores the motives for and effects of genocide. It can also provide a starting point for teaching about Japan’s militaristic culture and how it fostered in the Japanese soldier a total disregard for human life that led to other appalling atrocities during World War II. I can use sections from the book to provoke students to think about and reflect on the big idea. I could also assign students to research first-hand accounts from survivors and/or witnesses who were mentioned in Chang’s book to allow students to recognize and reflect on the various perspectives of the tragedy.

As a Special Education teacher, I would need to adapt the content of Chang’s book for lower level students. Before studying the genocide, I would start with a discussion about human behavior – How does power enable those in charge to manipulate others? What causes some people to develop the potential for brutality? And then I would present a history of how skilled the Japanese military was at instilling fear through threats, intimidation, and torture and at using propaganda to justify their actions. Evidence of cruel and violent Japanese behavior would be a focal point in learning about World War II and would pave the way for our unit on genocide. At that point, sections from Chang’s book could be read, discussed, and reflected upon.
It is also important to make connections between history and students’ lives, especially for students who struggle with broader academic and historical concepts. We would like to think that teenagers are naïve to manipulation and brutality; however, the reality is that today’s music, movies, and video games are exposing our young people to unimaginable behaviors at a much earlier age. Unfortunately, some students are more intrigued to learn about the horrific aspects of historical events than about the intellectual or cultural aspects, so incorporating details about the torture the Japanese inflicted on the victims in Nanking could be a good way to draw the students in. But I would also be sure to emphasize that Chang’s book provides a great example of the good in mankind by detailing the accounts of people who were willing to risk their lives to protect the innocent. I could use this theme to have students reflect on the effects of bullying today and recognize that physical violence is only one form of torture.


Posted By: Stephanie L Beer

Posted On: February 17, 2014

The book attempts to explain the events leading up to and during the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers that occurred in the city of Nanking, China from 1937-1938. Overall the book is very clear and well written and the reader comes away with a general understanding of the event and also pondering the questions of how humanity can be suspended in times of war.
There are many aspects of this book that I found particularly valuable. First, I thought the photographs that are included in the book are important for understanding this event and, even though some are horrific, would be helpful in a classroom as a visual representation of the atrocities. The book also talks about a documentary and articles that have been written in China about the story of how the photographs were saved instead of confiscated by Japanese soldiers. The documentary/articles would be helpful in a discussion about why it is important to preserve historical events no matter how horrible.
The next part I found very valuable was the author’s discussion of historiography on page 200. She writes, “What keeps certain events in history and assigns the rest to oblivion? Exactly how does an event like the Rape of Nanking vanish from Japan’s (and even the world’s) collective memory?” A large part of the second half of the book examines the attempt in Japan to erase this event from history. Children in Japan do not learn about the Rape of Nanking the way that children in Germany learn about the Holocaust. I believe that in the U.S. as well, few students learn about this event in history class. I did not learn about it when I was in high school. This is an important discussion to have with students; why are some events remembered and others are not? What gives events importance? This could be incorporated into a lesson where students must examine why an event about the Holocaust is remembered throughout most of the world and an event like the Rape of Nanking is not.
Another aspect of the book I found valuable is the lessons that can be learned from Nanking as outlined by the author. These lessons are: “civilization is tissue thin, the role of power in genocide, and the ease with which the mind can accept genocide.” Again, I think this would fit into a unit/lesson on genocide. Many comparisons can between the Rape of Nanking and other genocides that have occurred throughout history. After learning about each genocide, students could compare and contrast and see if the above lessons are true for each one. Students then could be asked how they think genocides could be prevented in the future.
In general, the book is very readable and accessible for students of a variety of levels. The teacher could assign small sections of the book without having to modify the language if students are given support with vocabulary.
The only criticisms I have are that the author does not reference specific interviews or textbooks when she claims that the Rape of Nanking is not taught in Japanese schools. I think it would be interesting to compare textbook entries of the event from Japan, China, and the U.S.