Both of Chang's parents were immigrants from China. While growing up in America, the author was told stories by her parents about widespread, brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese military in the Chinese town of Nanking. But as Chang became older, she started to doubt these stories. After all, if the magnitude of these atrocities were really as her parents had described, why hadn't she heard these stories elsewhere?
The atrocities that the German military had committed during the Holocost were well known in American history classes, and the German government had made – and continued to make – reparation payments to the families of victims. But with American history classes making no reference to widespread atrocities against civilians in Nanking, and the Japanese government having never paid one dime in reparations to any Nanking victims, perhaps her parents were just relaying myths that had grown in the telling? Eventually Chang, a professional journalist, decided to research the topic and find out for herself.
As Chang dug into the historical record, she learned that indeed there was a massacre at Nanking that was shocking in both size and viciousness. With Shanghai already having fallen to the Japanese military by late 1937, it was obvious that the invading forces were coming for Nanking next. The only civilians who didn’t get out of the Nanking before the Japanese troops arrived tended to be those who were uneducated, too feeble to leave, couldn’t imagine a life away from their hometown, or do-gooders determined to help the less fortunate.
Chang reported the number of Chinese people who were massacred in Nanking to be at least 260,000 in just six weeks. But more important than the number is the fact that these horrific events went mostly unnoticed – and certainly not remembered – by the outside world. Chang’s goal with the book was to shine the light on what had happened to the victims and see if any reparations could be paid to the few remaining survivors whose lives were forever shattered.
This book got me to think quite a bit about the victims. Man’s inhumanity to man is something we’d rather ignore or forget. When someone starts talking to us about an unspeakable evil, oftentimes we want to escape as soon as possible to rainbows and butterflies. And yes, there’s a difference between evil and unspeakable evil.
On a somewhat related note, recently I made it to the Genghis Khan exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago. It was a fascinating exhibit, and I learned many new things about Khan and the Mongol Empire he created. I came away amazed by Khan’s life and accomplishments. He was a true giant in human history. But something was bothering me. Something small that I couldn’t quite put my finger on …
Then it hit me: The victims.
The Genghis Khan exhibit at the Field Museum focused primarily on his great achievements, not on those whom he dominated and slaughtered. The victims were secondary. Sure, the exhibit told some of the stories and gave examples of how Khan conquered and abused others, but that information was essentially in the context of the ends justifying the means. The Field Museum’s Khan exhibit was borrowed from the Mongolian government, so obviously Mongolia's hero was to be portrayed relatively favorably. For example, when walking into the Khan exhibit the very first thing to see was this large, prominent quote that set the tone:
This noble king was known as [Genghis Kahn] / noble king of great renown / That there was nowhere in the wide world known / So excellent a lord in everything. - Geoffrey Chaucer writing in The Canterbury Tales, 14th centuryInterestingly enough, I didn't even see the following quote in the Field Museum’s exhibit:
"The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see their near and dear bathed in tears, to ride their horses and sleep on the white bellies of their wives and daughters." - Genghis KhanBut I digress.
History is a complicated topic, and it’s impossible to go back and get the full picture. All we can do is study historical events from as many different angles as possible in hopes of getting closer to the truth.
I commend Iris Chang for having gotten the English-speaking world to start talking about what happened in Nanking and how to help the surviving victims. It was a controversial topic and she received much criticism, including many death threats. It’s reasonable to wonder if the stress she went through during the aftermath of this book contributed to her declining health and suicide.
In the end, Chang was instrumental in getting the world to remember Nanking. And that's something the people of Nanking won't soon forget.
Iris Chang is honored with a statue in the Nanking
Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanking, China.
Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanking, China.