Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking

We’ve heard, read, watched and talked passionately about the holocaust during the Second World War. Then, we did the same for the genocide that happened in Cambodia, Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. What most people don’t talk about is the massacre of more than one hundred thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese army in the 1940s.

A few years back, I was told that I should read this book called The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. I was naturally intrigued since I had never read any literature touching on this topic. I knew that the Japanese, a German ally during WWII, had committed countless accounts of atrocities in China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. But nobody I knew talked about it as much as they had talked about what happened in Europe. So, when Iris Chang named her book, The Rape of Nanking: A forgotten Holocaust, it really meant something.

As a child, Mom would tell me this story. She recalled that during the Japanese occupation in Malaya (now, Malaysia), my uncles, aunties and her had to kowtow whenever a Japanese soldier walked past. If they didn’t, a strong blow to the face was expected and it did happen to Auntie Number One who was about 12 years old then. I was horrified as I listened to this story. But when I started reading this book, a blow to a child’s face was nothing compared to what the soldiers had done in Nanking. I felt nauseous and sick just reading the graphic account of how men, women and children were tortured, mutilated and murdered without any mercy.

The book was a result of extensive research carried out by Chang, a Chinese American, whose parents had fled from China to America during the war. So, the stories weren’t fictional but supported by first hand testimonies of survivors corroborated by personal entries in the diaries of foreigners who were living in Nanking and countless of other official documents, photos and video footages.

Since the publication of this book in 1997, the Japanese government is yet to acknowledge and take responsibility of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by them during the Second World War. This part of the history has been simply wiped out from school curriculum. Government officials insist that these horror stories have been fabricated by the Chinese government as a propaganda against Japan.

On the other hand, there are many Japanese civilians who do acknowledge this event but they are the minority and those who have been really critical are threatened with death.

In 2007, this book was made into a movie and I had the opportunity to watch it a few days ago. I expected it to be a full feature documentary but it was infused with dramatic re-enactments of Iris Chang’s journey while writing the book. To be honest, I was disappointed with the movie as I felt that it was made as a tribute to her, rather than the victims and survivors of the massacre. Chang died in 2004 by committing suicide. Apparently, she suffered extreme emotional trauma from the stories and images she heard and saw during her research.

I do applaud Chang for having the courage and conviction to pursue a cause she felt so strongly about. The world is indebted to her for the publication of this book. She said repeatedly in the movie that she felt compelled to speak for the victims whose voices have been silenced for more than half a century and she did accomplish this through her book, talks and interviews she gave in public. Without her work, what happened in Nanking might have disappeared completely from our history.

However, I could never fathom why she felt the need to take her own life. As I saw the real images of men being used as target practice; women raped and their genitals mutilated; and children who witnessed their whole family being killed, I felt angry that she had taken her own life when others had begged for theirs.

The movie briefly tells the story of Minnie Vautrin, a courageous American missionary who provided refuge to thousands of Chinese during the massacre. Vautrin wrote in her diary of the torture, suffering and pain she personally witnessed in Nanking.  Shortly after, she took her own life as well. What was different between Chang and Vautrin was that the latter was physically present during the war and she saw with her own eyes the atrocities committed. Anyone in her position would have gone absolutely mad.

Then, there were dozens of real life interviews showing real survivors telling their stories. One particularly touched me. By now, the man is in his 70s and yet tears still welled up in his eyes as he recalled how his brother, sister and mother were killed right before his eyes. Before his mother died, she called out to her infant son who had been stabbed by a bayonet. The bloodied child crawled to his mother’s bosom as the latter opened her shirt to feed him for the last time. While nursing, both mother and child died. This man has probably lived his whole life remembering this image over and over again and yet he refuses to submit himself to death, something his mother had died in order to protect him and his siblings from. 

I think I am mostly angry because Chang made a profound impact with her life and she took away that life many people have fought so hard for. I was criticised for feeling this way. I was told that I lack compassion, something which she had a lot of. Perhaps this is true because I couldn’t have done what she did; pursuing a humane cause so zealously that I ended up torturing myself.

In the end, it’s a great irony that someone who felt so strongly about the wanton taking of lives should voluntarily surrender her own life. The mind-boggling part is that she wasn’t even there. The survivors were.

Finally, the movie would have been much better without the dramatization. The role of Olivia Cheng who played Iris Chang was completely unnecessary and the production of a drama cum documentary movie has diluted the essence and spirit of the issue. The story of Iris Chang’s journey should have been told in another separate movie.


  1. There is another documentary (you probably know) called Nanking that I think lives up to your original expectations. It is free on the web. I think it also won some awards.

  2. Hi Tim,

    thanks for pointing the documentary out. Actually, I didn't know about it. Hope to get to watch it one day.

    What do you think about the movie itself?

  3. This is the film I referenced. You can see it for free at Hope life is good, Namaste, Tim

    Nanking(2007) R

    Co-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman helm this Sundance selection chronicling the story of "the Rape of Nanking," a World War II-era tragedy in which more than 200,000 Chinese citizens were murdered and tens of thousands were raped at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and Stephen Dorff portray some of the Westerners who rose to the occasion with quiet acts of heroism.

    Historical Documentaries, Social & Cultural Documentaries
    There is a new one I have not seen:
    City of Life and DeathNanking Nanking(2009) NR

    Director Chuan Lu pulls off a rare feat by providing a clear-eyed drama about an event in Chinese-Japanese history -- the 1937 Rape of Nanking following that city's capture by Japan -- that still casts a shadow over relations between the countries. Shot in black and white, the film chronicles the six-week period through the eyes of multiple characters -- including a Japanese soldier, a refugee camp supervisor, a resistance fighter and others.