Author: Iris Chang
After reading Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed, a novelization of the Nanking Massacre from the perspective of a farmer and his close-knit household, I became curious about the massacre. Admittedly, my historical knowledge is spotty, but World War II has made it into numerous movies and fictional books and is one of the more interesting and devastating moments in our contemporary world. Yet, I’d never heard of the Nanking massacre. For the Japanese part in World War II, the stories always focus on Pearl Harbor or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Curious to see how much of Buck’s passionate tale was historically accurate, I picked up the Audible version of The Rape of Nanking.
Iris Shun-Ru Chang was a Chinese American historian and journalist. She grew up surrounded by the dark stories of her community and was shocked to see that these atrocities were not general knowledge. While details of the Holocaust are required teaching in Germany today, Japan remains quiet about her culpability, the survivors of the Nanking massacre silenced. Chang started this book not for revenge, but as a tribute to those who died in the massacre and those who live in its shadow, haunted. She explains her desire in the beginning – to understand not only how events lead to such a bloodthirsty, systematic killing, but why the modern world remains oddly silent about it. At 36 years old, Chang took her own life, and many suspect that it was related to the grim nature of the discoveries she made while crafting this book and the official backlash from Japan, as well as the threats and whispers of “traitor.”
Chang observes the massacre in three separate ways. First, she looks at the climate of Japan at the time of the war, its military history, and the ruthless, desensitizing training of soldiers. Second, she observes the invasion and subsequent massacres from the eyes of the few survivors and even some of the Japanese soldiers who, years later, owned the horrors they had so casually perpetuated. Finally, Chang gives us the prospective of the foreigners who stayed in China during this time – those who tried to help and those who merely observed. It is in this section we meet a Nazi, John Rabe, who was so horrified by the genocide around him that he even reached out and begged Hitler to stop the massacre.
This perfect storm of circumstance coalesces around Chang’s facts, but these facts are living. The Rape of Nanking does not allow its audience to distance themselves from the real human implications of everything that happened. Interspersed with the facts – which are horrifying in and of themselves – are the voices of real people, some shattered, some still horrifyingly unrepentant of their roles in the murders and rapes of innocents. It’s very professionally written, yet very visceral. Chang even empathizes with the Japanese soldiers, showing how their brutal training and how their actions were the outcome of a larger, corrupt system. The implications for the Japanese government, on the other hand, are nothing but horrible. It is not finger-pointing so much as an intention to learn from history and a desire for justified restitution. As a part of the treaty at the end of World War II, Germany was forced to make restitution and to enact laws that taught the truth about the horrors. Even today it is a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust. No such justice was ever enacted for China.
The Rape of Nanking is a powerful book, one that every single person should read. The victims deserve to be heard. Their history, their deaths, the psychological and sociological impacts of this massacre, deserves acknowledgement.
– Frances Carden
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