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In December 1937, after the Chinese Army defending Nanking abandoned resistance, the Japanese Army proceeded to overrun the ancient capital city and wreaked unholy havoc.  In the following weeks, the Japanese raped and/or murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians (perhaps as many as 350,000 were killed) in one of the most brutal episodes in the long bloody history of warfare.  But, if you're like me, "the rape of Nanking" is little more than a vaguely remembered term from a history book.  Iris Chang's book remedies that situation, giving the facts the full airing that they deserve, and explains why the massacre is so poorly remembered--largely because of political considerations she argues. The result is a really moving act of remembrance that offers a mixed bag of lessons.

In the first instance, like all such books, Chang goes a little bit overboard, but understandably so, in trying to claim pride of place for the Rape of Nanking in the catalogue of genocidal rampages.  Arguments of this kind reach a point where they have a too self-centered and masochistic tinge to them.  It suffices, that the acts perpetrated upon the Chinese population by the Japanese Army are horrific.  No hyperbole is needed.  Nor is it necessary to, as Ms Chang does, portray the world's relative failure to commemorate these events and the Japanese government's failure to compensate victims as a second rape.  I would think that firebombing the living bejeezus out of Tokyo and dropping two atomic bombs would have amply demonstrated our displeasure with the Japanese.  Even if it was vicarious, the victims surely got their pound of flesh.

Her argument that political considerations in America, Japan and China have created a kind of conspiracy of silence is more compelling.  The Red Chinese government which took over the country after the war, chose not to make an issue of the rape for their own reasons--the shame that this xenophobic regime must have felt appears to have ensured their silence.  The Japanese have obvious reasons for not wanting to dwell on the massacre, but she is absolutely right that they have a moral obligation to acknowledge that they perpetrated, to teach their youngsters about these darkest aspects of the war and perhaps even to make some restitution to survivors.  The aggressive campaign by certain elements in Japanese society to deny that the rape ever took place or was as bad as purported is troubling, but is part of a much larger societal ill in Japanese culture, a failure to reckon with endemic racism and a to come to grips with a pretty ugly past.  Sadly, willful blindness to the facts of Nanking is only a symptom of a larger disease.

America, for it's part, wanted to rehabilitate postwar Japan so that we'd have a good ally in the quickly descending Cold War.  It ill served our purposes to rub their noses in their obviously abhorrent record of war crimes.  But it should be remembered that we pretty much let them off the hook for things like the Bataan Death March too.  There is no discernible racial component here, simply icy cold realpolitik.  But Chang is absolutely right on this point, that none of the three nations has been willing to make the atrocities a public issue.

One really edifying lesson that emerges is the danger of judging people too easily.  Chang reconstructs the truly remarkable and heroic efforts of the European/American community in Nanking to try and protect refugees from the Japanese.  Amazingly enough it turns out that one of the prime movers in this effort, the "Oskar Schindler of Nanking" (see Orrin's review of Schindler's List), was a Nazi official named John Rabe.  The passages describing his actions on behalf of the Chinese, even to the point of demanding a meeting with the Fuhrer, make for one of the most fascinating sections of the book.

Finally, the most important lessons are offered in what I thought was an excellent and insightful conclusion to the book:  that the Japanese were not "uniquely sinister", that there is a relatively thin veneer of civilization that stands between any culture and the capacity for such horrible actions; and that it is all too easy to accept such genocidal actions even as they are occurring.  These lessons are being driven home today in places like Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda and warning flags are going up in the nations of Europe where fascist anti-immigrant parties are gaining ground from Austria to France and beyond.  But the big lesson that Chang cites--the most important lesson of the last century--is the danger that we all face whenever governments centralize power to themselves.  The 20th Century was characterized by two directly related phenomena, the increasing centralization of political power in the hands of national governments and the bureaucrats who run them and the vicious, often homicidal, application of that power to those nations' own citizens.  From the internment of Japanese Americans by FDR to the Nazi Death Camps to the Russian gulag to the Rape of Nanking to the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the current instances in Africa and the Balkans, this is a lesson that has been demonstrated time and again but which we seem inordinately reluctant to accept.  Governments are simply too untrustworthy too allow them to aggrandize the amount of power that has become routine in modern times.  It is reflexive to defend the American system as somehow special and beyond these kind of considerations, but I for one am awfully grateful that this theory was not put to the test in WWII.  You may feel confident that we would never have exacted some warped retribution on the citizens we sent to concentration camps, but I tremble to think what their fate might have been had the war in the Pacific gone poorly for us, or had it been San Francisco that was firebombed instead of Tokyo.

Chang's excellent book implicates all of these issues and should engender much soul searching.   Her excesses of tone are perfectly understandable in light of her topic and her sense of mission, to bring these largely forgotten facts before a disinterested public.



Before I read Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" it was just another name in a long list of historical events that I knew of, but not about. I kept it filed in my brain under "Atrocities, WWII, Japanese, Nanking, Rape of" after Bataan Death March and Medical Experimentation, Human. and beyond that, I didn't give it much thought. Thanks to this book, I have filled in what was a gaping hole in my education in just how truly awful humans can be to each other.

To start out, Ms. Chang raises an excellent point by stating that World War II started at different times for different people.  Most folks will tell you, "WWII? Started on September 1, 1939!" But for the people of China, the German invasion of Poland was pretty meaningless; for them WWII started with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. It is interesting to note that others in the world were fighting Japanese expansionism and living under the boot of occupation a full ten years before the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

While the exact numbers of dead during the Rape of Naking will never be known, most estimates place the number at between 350,000 and 400,000 dead and some estimates rise as high as 400,000. While this does not equal the mind-numbing figures of the Holocaust, the deaths during the Rape of Nanking seem to have a more personal aspect to them. Whether its worse to be disemboweled after being forced to rape your grandmother or to die in a gas chamber is a question bordering on the ridiculous. But where the Rape stands out, along with other Japanese atrocities, is in the failure of the Japanese government to make an attempt to atone for their sins. Throwing money around is one solution to the problem, but what would be more productive is for the Japanese government admit that it happened, that it was bad, and make a sincere apology. Some can say that the use of nuclear weapons and incendiary devices on Japan by the US balances the scale and makes everything A-OK, but I for one don't see how this works on the Rape of Nanking. Maybe in the sense of US revenge on Japan for the Bataan Death march, but where is the justice for China?

One of the more interesting stories of the book is of the foreigners in Nanking who risked their lives to save as many people as they could from the Japanese onslaught. People from many different nations and cultures set up "International Safety Zones" for the Chinese people in Nanking to flee to where the could get at least a modicum of safety from the Japanese military. For the large part they were armed only with knowledge that the Japanese army didn't want to start an international incident by killing them. Among these heroic foreigners was John Rabe, leader of the Nanking chapter of the Nazi party, who even tried to get Hitler to intervene. When I read about these people who put themselves between the Japanese guns and Chinese civilians without flinching, without hesitation, I am forced to the ultimate question, "What would I have done if I had been there?"

The answer to that question is always, "I don't know." I like to think that I would have been helping out in the Safety Zone, just as I like to think that if I were in Nazi Germany, I would have been hiding Jews or helping them escape. But those Japanese soldiers and the German death camp guards were just regular folks, just like you or I before they started down their dark path. I don't think any of them woke up one morning and thought, "Say, I think I'd like to take part in the wholesale slaughter of thousands of people!"  Parts of the book detail how many Japanese soldiers were very uncomfortable with the idea of "decapitation contests" and the like, until their superiors gave them permission to abandon that part of their humanity and then it became OK. And that's the real lesson to be learned from "The Rape of Nanking."  For all but a select saintly few of us, all we need to whisk away the thin veneer of humanity, to steal our neighbor's belongings and murder his family is the permission of someone in authority.

In conclusion, "The Rape of Nanking" is a very readable, very frightening book. If you are of a sensitive nature or have a weak stomach, you should read it anyways.

David Sandberg's review:
While I mean in no way to minimize or trivialize the hideous actions of the Japanese Imperial army during its occupation of the Chinese capital of Nanking, I do believe that this book is very poorly written, badly structured, and that the author has a poor command of English, generally. The Rape of Nanking was a gruesome view into the psyche of Imperial Japan. The culture of Japan was a death-oriented one where the life of the individual was virtually meaningless. This lack of respect for human life was carried over by the Japanese to their image of the  Chinese, who the Japanese came to believe were animals to be slaughtered for pleasure and amusement. A nation which has no respect for its own citizens will certainly have none for others it sees as competitors for land and natural resources. In the vein of German lebensraum - the Japanese intended China to be their New Frontier - regardless of the population living there which needed to be culled back and even removed altogether.

What did shock me in this book is that the actions perpetrated by the Japanese were well organized at the highest levels and that the impetus came from a prince of the Japanese Imperial family, with the highest possible sanction of the Japanese government. These were not troops out of control but rather troops instructed to use the ultimate cruelty possible in eliminating undesirable foreign populations. I wish an author had come forth to write a book which would truly document and examine the actions of the Japanese. This book fails on many levels. Its structure is haphazard - at times it simply becomes anecdotal. There seems to be little coherence to how the book is presented to the reader. It would have been more of a service to the victims of this massacre if the author had done a firmer job in presenting their story in a well thought out historical work. The writing is atrocious - in places detracting from the historical narrative. The Rape of Nanking deserves a far better and more comprehensive examination than this poor book has done.



Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Iris Chang Papers (UCSB-California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives (CEMA) in the Donald C. Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara)
    -Iris Chang: Freelance Writer (Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War)
    -Iris Chang Links  (New England Association for Asian Studies, Tufts)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Thread of the Silkworm  By Iris Chang
    -LINKS: Speaking for the Dead: The 1937 rape of Nanking that Iris Chang refuses to forget (CBC Infoculture)
    -ARTICLE: `Rape of Nanking' Author Denounces Cox Report:  Iris Chang tells conventioneers that her research was misused (Perla Ni, Asian Week)
    -INTERVIEW: Online NewsHour: Gergen Dialogues: Iris Chang (PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: China seeks an apology from Japan for actions committed during World War II. Elizabeth Farnsworth speaks to the Japanese ambassador and US writer Iris Chang (The Newshour, PBS)
    -PROFILE: Nightmare in Nanking (Sue De Pasquale, John Hopkins Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Breaking the Silence: Sunnyvale-based author Iris Chang gives voice to a new era of Chinese activism--much of it based in Silicon Valley--which may force Japan to confront its World War II atrocities, still largely unknown to the world a half-century later (Ami Chen Mills, Metro Active)
    -BOOKNOTES: Iris Chang The Rape of Nanking (CSPAN)
    -REVIEW: of The Rape of Nanking The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. By Iris Chang (Orville Schell. NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rape of Nanking (David M. Kennedy, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: A Barbarous Frenzy: New details about the Second World War's  "forgotten Holocaust" (Jack Beatty, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: Rape of Nanking (ADAM HOCHSCHILD, Salon)l
    -REVIEW: (RANA MITTER, Harvard China Review)
    -REVIEW: The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang (FRITZ LANHAM, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: THE RAPE OF NANKING (Jonathan Mirsky, Hong Kong Voice of Democracy)
    -REVIEW: Rape of Nanking (Robert Entenmann , Department of History, St. Olaf College, H-Asia)
    -REVIEW: ( Gretchen Kreuter, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)
    -REVIEW: (Carl F. Horowitz, Reason)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Japan and Asian Memory: The Meaning of The Rape of Nanking (Robert A. Manning, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: (
    -REVIEW: (Pam Marino, Cupertino Courier)
    -ESSAY: Silent No More  The "Forgotten Holocaust" Of World War II  Emerges From The Black Hole Of History (Ami Chen Mills, Minorities Job Bank)
    -ARTICLE: Japanese denial and "The Rape of Nanking" (LAURA MILLER, Salon)
    -DENIAL: Hata's Denial: In the coming issue of a Japanese magazine named "Shokun", a professor of Japan University, Hata Ikuhiko, writes an article to attack Iris Chang and her book "The
Rape of Nanking". Here is a brief translation of that article:  Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" is the height of grotesquerie full of countless fake photos.  By Hata Ikuhiko
    -DENIAL: What is the truth of the Nanking Incident?: Refutation of Iris CHANG's "The Rape of Nanking" (Committee for International Public Affairs, Nippon Kaigi)
    -DENIAL: Nanjing Massacre  (The Other Side)
    -ARTICLE: German helped to save lives during Nanjing massacre (Straits Times)
    -ARTICLE: East is not always east: The effort to urge Japan to pay reparations to China for World War II atrocities has divided the nation's Asian-American communities (William Wong, Salon)
    -ESSAY: The Joys and Perils of Victimhood  (IAN BURUMA, NY Review of Books)
    -Lateline Interactive:Topics:Nanjing Massacre (Muzi)
    -The Museum of Nanjing Massacre in Japan
    -WWW Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre (1937-1938)
    -REPORT: Japanese Imperialism and the Massacre in Nanjing  By: Gao Xingzu, Wu Shimin, Hu Yungong, & Cha Ruizhen. Translation from Chinese into English by: Robert Gray (An English translation of a classified Chinese document on the Nanjing Massacre)(China News Digest)
    -Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War (APTSJW)
    -REVIEW: Gordon A. Craig: An Inability to Mourn, NY Review of Books
        The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan
    -REVIEW: Geoffrey Barraclough: Hitler and Hirohito, NY Review of Books
        Japan's Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini
        China and Japan at War, 1937-1945: The Politics of Collaboration by John Hunter Boyle
        To be published in the United States in October.
        The United States and East Asia by Richard W. Van Alstyne
        Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939 by Bradford A. Lee
        The United States and Europe by Max Silberschmidt
    -REVIEW: John Gittings: Rules of the Game, NY Review of Books
        The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931-1933 by Christopher Thorne
    -The Cox Report

    -ESSAY : David McNeill, on radio in Japan, dared to mention the 1937 Nanking massacre. The consequences, he suggests, should concern us all (New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Reflections on a Ravaged Century  by Robert Conquest (Aaron L. Friedberg, Commentary)