Iris Chang and The Rape of Nanking

24 Jun

I was aware of what is now called The Rape of Nanking, Japan’s entry into the Atrocity Sweepstakes (by this I do not mean to trivialize or make light of the horrors of this ugly episode but to suggest that there are many such unacknowledged crimes in human history) when I talked with Iris Chang in 2003 but I had not read her well received and much lauded book The Rape of Nanking. Our conversation focused on her newly published The Chinese in America: A Narrative History which was a serviceable and enlightening survey of another previously ignored subject in American history.

Sadly and shockingly, Iris Chang committed suicide a few years later.Speculation abounded that a depression resulting from her expose of this second holocaust(eventually costing between 200,000 and 300,000 lives) and the persistent, unshakeable image of a photo of a river choked with the bodies of hundreds of Chinese civilians. Oddly, having only met her once I was still contacted regularly by puzzled individuals requesting my opinion. I put down this grabbing for straws as the shock of suicide.

Now come two items that continue this complex narrative. Iris’s mother,Ying-Ying Chang has written The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking (Pegasus) which is touching account of Chang’s life and struggles and moved by the imperative that Iris Chang’s life and legacy not be defined by her final act. Most significant is Ying Ying’s claim,”I believe Iris’s suicide was caused by her [prescribed] medications.”

The newly released film City of Life and Death by the Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan, as Richard Shickel reports is:

the second film about Nanking, and it is a work that aspires to the definitive and almost achieves that status. It is shot in black and white, often with hand-held cameras, so that it has the look and feel of an epic newsreel. What is perhaps more remarkable about this film is its evenhandedness. The press notes about it stress the fact Nanking remains, to this day, central to the relationship between China and Japan—a source of suspicion, not to say hatred, on the part of the former. It therefore required courage on Lu Chuan’s part to undertake what amounts to a more or less objective and determinedly non-sensational account of this story.

So it goes.

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