Iris Chang’s The Rape Of Nanking

It is a testament to the horror of the 20th century that one of its worst episodes – the capture and occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing by the Imperial Japanese Army – did not receive due attention until 1997, when a 29-year-old Iris Chang published The Rape Of Nanking to much acclaim and controversy. Prior to her work, the events that took place in 1937 and 1938 in the former capital of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China were largely forgotten, even by historians – Chang notes that, at the time of her research, even comprehensive histories of the Second World War rarely mentioned Nanking, or did so only with brief remarks or footnotes. This is all the more shocking in consideration of the scale of the atrocity, and the terrible suffering visited on the occupied Chinese peoples – almost all of whom were civilians.

The exact death toll is contested – all the more so because so many bodies were burned, buried in unmarked graves, or simply chucked into the Qinhua and Yangtze Rivers – but estimates vary between 250,000 and 400,000. Chang insists on our understanding these figures on a visceral level:

One historian has estimated that if the dead from Nanking were to link hands, they would stretch from Nanking to the city of Hangchow, spanning a distance of some two hundred miles. Their blood would weigh twelve hundred tons, and their bodies would fill twenty-five hundred railroad cars. Stacked on top of each other, these bodies would reach the height of a seventy-four-story building.

And while a few hundred thousand dead might not seem shocking in the wider context of World War II, during which millions of people lost their lives in death camps and purges, consider that more civilians perished at Nanking than during the Allied bombing of Dresden – long considered a war crime – or in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. In fact, the civilian casualties of Nanking, a lone Chinese city, exceed the civilian casualty figures for entire European countries over the course of the entire war: “Great Britain lost a total of 61,000 civilians, France lost 108,000, Belgium 101,000, and the Netherlands 242,000.” There is also the particularly cruel and gruesome manner in which the citizens of Nanking were butchered. When the Imperial Japanese Army arrived in late 1937, approximately half of the city’s pre-war population had fled – a group made up of the wealthy, the able-bodied and the young, leaving behind the elderly, the very young and a great deal of pregnant women, who naively believed Japanese occupation would be less dangerous to the health of their unborn children than escape from the city. To the half-million or so Nanking natives who remained were added another 100,000 refugees, made up of men, women and children who were fleeing the advance of the Japanese forces. Over the course of the Japanese occupation of Nanking, the soldiers of the Imperial Army displayed a shocking indifference to the value of Chinese life. Citizens were routinely shot on sight, or rounded up and used for bayonet practice. Chinese soldiers who surrendered, often after receiving reassurances about their future safety, were bound hand and foot, marched to the edge of a nearby river or makeshift hole, and executed.

In many instances, Japanese troops, eager for some excitement in a period of relative calm, held contests amongst themselves: who could kill the most Chinese using only a sword, for example. Some Chinese detainees were buried alive; others were staked to the ground and crushed by tanks. One heartbreaking photo, taken from the last functioning hospital in Nanking, shows a Chinese boy, probably no more than 12 years old, recovering from horrible burns; his Japanese captors had doused his head in gasoline and watched him writhe in agony as they set him aflame. The women of Nanking suffered immensely as well, victims of a campaign of rape that helped give this book its title. Morning, noon or night, Chinese women of all ages might be rounded up and brought to the Japanese camp, where they would be conscripted as “prostitutes,” forced to have sex with upwards of 50 soldiers a day. Many of these unlucky women died of haemorrhages or succumbed to sexually transmitted diseases; many took their own lives, preferring death to daily rape and humiliation. Women caught within the city were often gang-raped on the spot, and both witness testimony and confessions obtained after the fact from Japanese soldiers show the extent of the depravity: fathers were often forced to rape their daughters, or brothers their sisters, all for the amusement of the sadistic soldiers. Those who refused were killed, or tortured and then killed, but acquiescence was no guarantee of safety either. A series of photographs, smuggled out by foreign nationals who had elected to stay behind, show the mutilated corpses of these victims: severed heads, burn wounds, naked women penetrated by bottles, fence posts and other foreign objects. There is seemingly no end to the litany of horrors.

The history of the rape of Nanking has room for heroes, too, and these are provided by the men and women of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, a group of expatriates who had made Nanking their home and refused to abandon it to the Japanese forces. They established a small area within Nanking to shield Chinese citizens from the depredations of the Japanese, and though this agreement was never made formal, and was often broken by Japanese troops, it proved to be the only safe zone in the city. The members of this International Committee were an eclectic bunch: their leader was John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi party member (though he would later disavow them when he came to understand the full extent of their policies) who came to be known as the “Oskar Schindler of China” for his tireless efforts to save Chinese lives. Another notable figure was Robert Wilson, a Chinese-born American who, throughout the occupation, was Nanking’s only surgeon, working without rest to treat burn victims, amputate gangrenous limbs and provide whatever comfort he could to “thousands” of rape victims. Finally, there was Wilhelmina Vautrin, one of the only Western women in Nanking; she declined to leave the city of Nanking with many of the other foreign nationals, and instead managed to shelter hundreds of women within the walls of Ginling College, where she had worked. It is very likely that, were it not for the efforts of these brave men and women, the death toll would have been substantially higher.

The Rape Of Nanking became something of an international sensation when it was first published in 1997, largely because Japan had done very little to atone for or even acknowledge its crimes. As Chang notes, in fact, Japanese history textbooks were systematically purged of any references to the atrocity, strictly adhering to an image of Japan as the unprovoked victim of foreign aggression. After enumerating the various ways Germany has attempted to atone for its crimes, Chang writes:

The Japanese have paid close to nothing for their wartime crimes. In an era when even the Swiss have pledged billions of dollars to create a fund to replace what was stolen from Jewish bank accounts, many leading officials in Japan continue to believe (or pretend to believe) that their country did nothing that requires compensation, or even apologies, and contend that many of the worst misdeeds their government has been accused of perpetrating never happened and that evidence that they did happen was fabricated by the Chinese and other Japan bashers.

She even relates to the plight of dissident Japanese historians, who have been vilified within their own country for daring to provide evidence of Japanese atrocities. One historian, for example, was subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation, so unrelenting that protesters would bang pots and pans together outside his home while he tried to sleep at night. This is not a portrait of a country willing or able to confront its past, and this frail sense of national identity, Chang warns, may again prove ripe for exploitation by aggressive leaders.

I should add that my edition of this book comes with an epilogue, added in 2011 by Chang’s husband, that relates her eventual struggles with mental illness, culminating in her suicide at the age of 36. A sad end for a brave and intrepid woman, but her husband has good reason to have faith that, through this book and her role in resurrecting the history of Nanking, her legacy will live on.