It has been over twenty years since I read Irish Chang's incredible book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II about the horrible massacres and mass rapes of Chinese civilians (the death toll was over 250,000 with over 100,000 women and very young girls raped) but I have never forgotten the things I learned from this book. I am a devotee of the Japanese novel and one of the paradoxes one must deal with is how a culture that could produce such profound and exquisite literary works could also let loose such horrors on millions of innocents in completely unprovoked warfare and then deny it ever really happened. Irish Chang (1968 to 2004) was an amazing person as is her mother, Ying Ying Chang.
Ying Ying Chang is the mother of Iris Chang. She has a PhD from Harvard in biochemistry and her husband has a PhD, also from Harvard, in physics. Both had long and successful careers as scientists. This loving, wonderful, wise and in a way heart breaking book is her account of how her daughter came to write the book she is famous for but it is overall an attempt to come to terms with why her daughter killed herself at 36, after having achieved tremendous success. It is about family and about the Chinese-American experience. There is so much to admire, learn from and just love in this book I do not quite know where to begin.
The book was clearly born of Professor Chang's desperate need to try to understand why her daughter killed herself. She seemingly had everything, career success with a New York Times best selling book, world wide acclaim and respect, a loving husband, great friends and family including a very young son. I think it is good that Mrs Chang starts out by telling us in the opening pages that her daughter killed herself. I think most potential readers of this book already at least know this and the basic facts set out in The Rape of Nanking. I do not quite know how to post on Ying Ying Chang's book so I will just make a few observations of things that struck me.
The first time the book touch me personally was in the opening pages where we learn the family adopted a stray cat who ended up living with them for 21 years. Iris Chang was totally into the reading life. Her mother tells us that in books she felt liberated and that books set her free and comforted her. She was from a very young age deeply into classic literature. You can see in the child rearing patterns of the Chang family why Iris Chang and her brother both became very high achievers.
When The Rape of Nanking was first published the Japanese ambassador to the United States said the book was one-sided and contained many errors. Iris Chang responded by asking why is there no outrage over this as there would be if a German ambassador condemned an American book on the Holocaust. There seems to be an undercurrent of racism here in that there is more outrage generated when the victims of war crimes are white than otherwise. It is hard to deny this. Chang began to fear that Japanese right wing groups might harm her. In one very interesting segment of the book, her mother tells us how Newsweek published an extract from her book in an issue which contained no advertisements from Japanese companies when all the other issues were loaded with them.
There were similar atrocities committed here in Manila. There were mass rapes and people were beheaded for not bowing quickly enough to Japanese soldiers. One of our neighbors, now in her 80s, tells of hiding in the mountains to escape rape gangs when she was barely ten. When the Japanese knew they would have to lose Manila, they had plans to kill all of the civilians but the brave resistance of the people and the timely arrival of the American Army prevented this but still Manila took on huge civilians loses. Where we live now was once a terrible battleground. One of the points of the work of Ying Ying Chang and her daughter is we need to keep memories alive. Very few people are left in the Philippines and elsewhere with living memories of WWII days. We need to get these memories down before it is too late.
As to why Irish Chang killed herself, her mother concludes she had some, perhaps brought on by fear of the Japanese right wing (this is not an unjustified fear, even the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe has been plagued by them), depressions and when she sought medical care she was given drugs that drove her to suicide. This was in part caused, maybe, because the health insurance of her husband did not include among the approved psychiatrists, any first rate doctors.
It was very interesting to be reminded of John Rabe, the Nazi living in Nanking at the time, who saved many people at of Minnie Vautin an American missionary who saved 1000s of women.
I have not done justice to this great book. Even though you know what is going to happen it is still very exciting to learn the details revealed to us in this book that only a mother, a brilliant mother, could have written.
I recommend this book to any and all. There is a huge amount to be learned and the prose is beautiful.
There are lots of wonderful and generous quotes from letters and the works of Iris Change which are enough to convince anyone that she was a great writer.
Youtube has some long and short interviews with Irish Chang as well as documentaries on the history behind The Rape of Nanking. She was a very good public speaker and one of the interesting threads in her mother's book is how Irish Chang went from shy young girl to someone who was in demand all over the world as a speaker.