The Rape of Nanking
© 1997 Iris Chang
Long before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were at war in China. ‘War’ is not quite the word to describe the aftermath of their invasion of Nanking, however. There the vilest work of man was let loose, a genuine catalog of horrors, the ancient glory of China reduced to bedlam that numbs and horrifies the soul. Throughout history, cities on the verge of conquest have been offered the same sadistic terms by whatever army approaches: surrender and we’ll only steal from you; resist and you and your family will be brutalized and ground into the dust. Japan’s advancing army made good its threats; in the eight weeks that followed the city’s capture, every dark impulse, every hidden curiosity, every taboo in the human psyche was pursued and exercised. Approximately three hundred thousand people were murdered – shot, stabbed, beheaded for sport, thrown in rivers, set on fire, run over, etc — publicly, coupled with systematic rape, forced sodomy and incest, and the outright desecration of anything imaginable. The Rape of Nanking testifies to war’s ability to make evil corporeal. Some meager consolation is offered in recording the outstanding bravery of the victimized, some who clawed their way out of bits of death, and of a few righteous souls in the city who stood between death and the innocent. Such courage comes from an unexpected courage, the ranks of mild-mannered professionals, teachers, and physicians working in the city prior to its tortuous wasting. Creating a safety zone and defending it to the best of their ability — sometimes physically separating bestial soldiers from their intended victims — their actions preserved the lives and hope of thousands. The Rape of Nanking was written to horrify; its author, Iris Chang, had heard stories of it growing up and found the lack of mention in history books disturbing; the incident had become hidden by peacetime politics, the Japanese were seen as a check against postwar Soviet aggression. Chang herself was not an historian, though she does a credible job of presenting differing estimates for the slaughter and draws from Chinese, Japanese, and western accounts alike. I suspect Chang succeeded in her goal of speaking for the dead and abused; for this is an account so pointed and severe that it breaks through mental callouses. The weight of the horror is hinted at at in the fact that its author later committed suicide at the age of thirty-five.