As a social studies teacher, I have taught aspects of World War II on numerous occasions. Additionally, I teach classes such as Intolerance and Human Rights that cover the Holocaust. Last year, I even taught a nine-weeks class solely on the Holocaust. As I teach those classes, I generally take a factual approach in my presentations about what happened in that era of world history. Because of this, I feel as though I have been somewhat desensitized to the horrors that took place in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, when I took my students to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. last June, I know I was not as emotionally affected as most other visitors. However, my stoic approach to World War II came screeching to a halt as I opened the front cover of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. This book tells the story of “the forgotten holocaust of World War II,” and although it has faced many criticisms, it serves Chang’s hope to “inspire other authors and historians to investigate the stories of Nanking survivors before the last voices of the past…are extinguished forever.” (Chang 16).
Iris Chang begins The Rape of Nanking with a historical overview of Japan. She highlights the origins of the samurai warrior class and explains the bushido, or “way of the warrior” (20). By describing Japan’s rise to modernity and prosperity, Chang sets the stage for the events that led up to a war between China and Japan. Then, The Rape of Nanking describes the “race to Nanking” (35) as the Japanese were approaching China’s ancient city and prepared to attack in the fall of 1937. As Nanking fell to the Japanese, Chang described the events of the Nanking Massacre, as it is often called, in detail. From theft to arson and from rapes to executions, Change uses many first hand accounts to provide accurate descriptions of what happened during the “six weeks of horror” (81). One example of this horror was the story of a Chinese shoemaking apprentice, Tang.
Tang’s curiosity caused him to leave the safety of his house just to get a glimpse of what was happening in his city. After realizing he was in trouble, he hid in a trash bin. Tang was spotted quickly by the Japanese and ordered to join hundreds of fellow Chinese citizens in the street. He then realized he was part of a Japanese killing contest, where the soldiers were on teams to determine who could kill the most people. Tang survived this killing contest because he was knocked into the corpse pit when the man in front of him was beheaded. This is just one example of the many horror stories that Iris Chang used to illustrate the atrocities that occurred in Nanking (83-87). By relaying information on live burials, mutilation, rapes and death by fire ice and dogs, The Rape of Nanking vividly depicts the torture that hundreds of thousands Chinese men, women, and children ensued.
Iris Chang also spends a large amount of The Rape of Nanking describing the Nanking safety zone and the lasting impact this massacre had on China, Japan, and the world. Chang credits John Rabe, a German Nazi, as being a hero for the citizens of Nanking. He worked to stop the Japanese from raping Chinese women, both young and old. He even provided refuge for citizens of Nanking and tried “to keep hope alive” (119-121). Chang describes many of Rabe’s efforts that caused the Chinese to revere him as “the man who rescued daughters from sexual slavery and sons from machine gun fire” (121). The Rape of Nanking also credits many other individuals who did their best in the safety zone to aid the thousands of suffering Chinese. Following the occupation of Nanking, Chang sheds lights on the consequences of this tragic event.
She notes that although the world knew about what was happening, Japanese propaganda portrayed a different picture (150). Additionally, although the worst of the massacre took place in the first six to eight weeks (159), Japan occupied Nanking and subjected the citizens to numerous brutal acts until Japan surrendered World War II in August of 1945 (167). Finally, Chang notes that one of the worst implications of this event is the dispute between China and Japan over what actually occurred. Because of the secrecy of the massacre, and Japan’s ability to hide the events from the people of Japan, there is a major conflict over what actually took place in Nanking. Chang notes that even “sixty years later, the Japanese as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking…into historical oblivion” (220). In the concluding words of her book, Chang suggests that “the Japanese government needs to issue and official apology to the victims…and, most important, educate future generations of Japanese citizens about the true facts of the massacre” (225).
Throughout The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang used numerous sources to provide credibility to her work. She relied on first hand accounts, journals, diaries, videos, photographs, and press releases to gather her information. She presented factual information with an emotional twist, so any reader of her book would be left aghast at the horror of the situation. The book includes twenty-five images from the time that truly show the terror that reigned in Nanking. Because of the images and severity of the content, only those who are willing to accept the horror of this time in history should read this book. Iris Chang did receive some criticism for the content of The Rape of Nanking. Dr. Joshua A. Fogel, of York University states that although the book has “good intentions, it is full of misinformation and harebrained explanations” (Fogel 818). David M. Kennedy also criticizes the book on several levels. In reference to Chang, he claims that “her evidence offers little insight into the mentality of the perpetrators” and she “does a much better job at explaining the horrors of Nanjing than explaining them” (Kennedy). Despite these criticisms, the book received praise from The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune, and is New York Times bestseller.
Perhaps Chang’s critics are correct. Maybe Chang could have explained the situation at a deeper level, used more sources, or even provided a less biased perspective on the situation. However, she fulfilled her mission to shed light on this dark event in Asian history. After majoring in social studies education, minoring in history, and taking a class on East Asian studies, I was never taught about the Nanking massacre. Although this book would not be one I would recommend for high school students, I think it is a valuable resource for anyone who is willing to learn about this controversial event in Asian history. My grandfather grew up in Japan and was thirteen at the time of the massacre. He remembers hearing that Japan secured Nanking, but of course knew nothing at the time about what was really going on there. He purchased The Rape of Nanking when it was first published in 1997 and considers it a valuable resource and a great source of information. The Rape of Nanking is not a book that can be taken lightly; it is powerful, disturbing, and intense. However, it depicts the details of an event that we should never forget. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Chang 16).
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. Penguin Books: New York. 1997.
Fogel, Joshua A. “Reviewed work(s): The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), pp. 818-820. JSOTR. 16 November 2008.
Kennedy, David M. “The Horror.” The Atlantic. April 1998. .