Monday, October 26, 2009

Revisit: The Rape of Nanking - by Iris Chang

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

November 9, 2009 marks five years since author Iris Chang, after a long battle with depression, committed suicide by putting a bullet through her mouth. By all accounts Chang's mental health had been in decline in the months leading up to her death: she suffered from nervous breakdowns, sleep deprivation and mood swings that medication didn't correct, while research she was conducting for a study about the Bataan Death March reportedly increased her bouts of depression. All clichés aside, it was a tragic end to one of the most promising and polarizing writers of recent years.

Chang's legacy is primarily tied to The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Originally published in 1997 on the 60th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre during the second Sino-Japanese War, the book has the distinction of being the first English-language non-fiction account of one of the 20th century's darkest moments. While the massacre has long remained a source of intense debate and contention throughout Asia - much like the Holocaust and Armenian genocides, it has given birth to its own subculture of reactionaries who deny anything ever happened - Chang's study greatly contributed to raising its visibility in the States. Though for the most part the massacre remains on the outskirts of general knowledge in America, the book reached a wide audience and its lasting impact cannot be denied.

The book's greatest strengths stem from both Chang's direct writing style and the substantial number of Nanking survivors who contributed to her narrative. Chang never slips into a professorial mode - in a fit of academic snobbery, some critics would later attack the book because Chang wasn't a trained historian - and she avoids what's commonly referred to as the Goddamn Boring Approach to History. The author expertly conveys the atmosphere and political spirit of Asia as World War II approached, providing a detailed overview for readers whose knowledge of Nanking is cursory. Chang brings an obvious sense of compassion and pity for the Chinese victims of the massacre to this examination; it's worth mentioning that Chang's grandparents successfully fled the massacre and later shared their stories with the author when she was still a child. Survivor accounts are used throughout the book to devastating effect. Regardless of however faulty the human memory is, the stories recounted by the massacre's survivors go a long way in giving the reader a sense of the cultural tensions between Japan and China in the years leading up to World War II and how those tensions played out once Nanking was occupied. Journals written by two humanitarian aid workers in Nanking likewise give credibility to the massacre's scope and also offer a Western perspective on the slaughter.

Perhaps not surprisingly, few recent non-fiction books have evoked such visceral responses like The Rape of Nanking. As the book continued to sell in large numbers and inspire fierce debate, Chang's fame nearly rose to levels usually reserved for pop princesses and starlet actresses, with the author appearing on various talk shows and magazine covers. Gushing reviews poured in as Chang was given the A-list celebrity treatment, as respected newspapers, academic journals and bearded professors heaped praise upon the book's scope and the author's ability to vividly recount the horrible events that had largely been ignored by the Western world. Indeed, one of the most telling and memorable aspects of the book is how it ties the massacre into a century punctuated by similar atrocities, a trait that was identified and emphasized by the more perceptive of these reviews. With the backing of such high-profile reviews, the Nanking massacre became a cause célèbre of sorts: Chang embarked on a lengthy book tour and various speaking engagements, while some members of Congress - exhibiting the type of political savvy that's in big supply for such issues - advocated a resolution requesting an official apology from the Japanese government. It's easy to see why Chang's book evoked such responses from usually reserved and straight-laced critics, academics and politicians: The Rape of Nanking is a moving and thorough account that speaks to the violent side of human nature as well as the dignity and determination of Nanking's victims.

Yet it's impossible to consider the book above reproach. While some of its detractors clearly have political or ideological agendas that drive their criticism - most notoriously, there is a small but vocal minority who claim the entire Nanking story is fabricated - several concerns about the book's accuracy and research methods are valid. Chang sometimes lets her emotions and personal beliefs get in the way of objective historical reporting, while her amateur psychological analysis of the Japanese mindset comes precariously close to racial stereotyping. Chang's contention that Japan hasn't done enough to acknowledge Nanking is open to debate: she fails to acknowledge conciliatory steps like a 1995 government resolution and apologies from high-ranking Japanese officials, and also ignores the fact that Japanese-language works - including some memoirs by Japanese soldiers present at Nanking - continue to objectively examine the origins and impacts of the massacre. Chang's death toll numbers have likewise been called into question; the author's estimation of over 300,000 murders was challenged by both Nanking deniers and those who acknowledge the atrocities but consider such numbers grossly inflated.

Perhaps the true impact of The Rape of Nanking can be found beyond both the effusive praise and often-pointed criticism of the last 10-plus years. Chang's work unquestionably introduced many Western readers to these events for the first time, contributing to a better understanding and more complete picture of a world that would soon erupt into global warfare. The book speaks to how the past continues to shape relations between countries and how such tensions persist due to events from decades ago. Though Chang's methods can be questioned and her study sometimes tramples the fine line between reasoned argument and a writer's overzealousness, her book ranks among the most thought-provoking historical narratives ever penned. The success of The Rape of Nanking came at a cost to its author - death threats from extremists were common, while she too often viewed any criticism of the book as a personal attack - but the book has become one of those rare historical accounts that transcends academia and finds a broad audience among readers mostly unfamiliar with its story.


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