stephanie's Reviews > The Rape of Nanking

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
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Mar 12, 12

bookshelves: history-memory, modern-euro-history, wwii, would-never-rec
Read in January, 2004

this book is what it is - which is shoddy, shoddy history.

it is, however, excellent, excellent memory.

(ahh, see how compelling this distinction can be??)

chang is a journalist, but she doesn't seem to be one in this book, as she blindly does what she accuses the japanese of doing - which is presenting a one-sided reality.

no matter what chang said, the captions on the pictures were mislabeled. the japanese historians - by which i mean, historians focused on japan - resoundingly pointed out errors in the book. the numbers she uses are subject to debate, even the title of her book is subject to question (it's called the "massacre at nanjing" in china, and the "nanjing incident" in japan). it's sensationalistic, and based mostly on oral history - chang is not fluent in any form in japanese, therefore, all her first account materials had to be sifted through another source.

(i know because carol gluck was one of the people chang asked to help with translations/the japanese perspective. she taught my WWII seminar - told chang the captions were wrong - and chang just said okay, and thanked her in her acknowledgments - thereby trying to gain legitimacy by using one of the foremost japan scholars as "evidence" that her text isn't biased.)

but. regardless. the fact remains that people died in nanjing. the fight over numbers is emblematic of the fight between history and memory. the journal of rabe, which chang found, was supposed to shed light on the situation - but again, the question remains, if you are in the middle of a war, are you going to be a biased source? history tries to purport itself as "objective" - this is not objective in any sense.

it was ground-breaking for being the first english language book on the topic. it did bring the issue back to the forefront of national debate - much like paxton did with Vichy France. the problem is that her "history" relies almost solely on told accounts, from the chinese.

can you blame them for a bias?

still, pretty much an essential read if you want to know anything about the topic, especially if you want to know what the chinese think. (the japanese are not as reactionary as chang claims, though japan's "textbook wars" have become pretty famous in history circles.)
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Katy Did Carol Gluck every post or write anything with the captions as she recommended? I'd be very interested in seeing them!


Vicky Please judge a book, especially a history book after you have investigated it thoroughly. If you think Iris Chang is lying after all the researches she has done in order to write this book...then what makes you feel like you are right? No offense...


stephanie Vicky wrote: "Please judge a book, especially a history book after you have investigated it thoroughly. If you think Iris Chang is lying after all the researches she has done in order to write this book...then w..."

i have investigated it - all sides of it. the chinese, the japanese, i've read the rabe journal. that is why i made the review i did. my point was that she only used one perspective and presented it as fact. she did not use primary sources for the japanese facts because she could not read japanese. i did not say she was lying, i said she did not do good history.

this is a book based on memory, a very specific subset of memory, not history. that is my problem with it, especially since i heard from the source first hand that the captions were incorrect and that she did not fix them as recommended by one of the foremost japan scholars in the world.

it's the problem with writing all history - you have to pick a perspective usually that you think is more true/valid than another. there are reasons there are history wars. but to me, chang didn't even really try to get it right. she had made up her mind before she started writing the book, since she did write it for her grandparents. you can't really fault her for choosing that side, but to not give any acknowledgment of the other sides? and because it is a bestseller from an author that people know well outside history circles, that puts more responsibility on the author to present facts objectively.

this is all my opinion, of course. but that is why i wrote what i did.


Vicky Thanks for your reply.


Alice You know, that's not the point of her book. What it really comes down to is this: Chang wanted to bring awareness and justice for the victims of the Nanjing massacre. People know about the Holocaust, it's only fair to the victims of Nanjing that the world knows about this too.

Germany has expressed their regrets to the Jewish numerous times, but there has not been a single apologetic sentiment from the Japanese government to China. Not even a tiny one. The mayor of Nagoya, on the other hand, had the audacity to claim that it never happened. And when people called him out on it, he said he refused to apologize. Heck, the Japanese have even censored this out of their own history books.

Despite what the Japanese have to say, it was indeed a massacre (there are accounts from both Western and Japanese perspectives). And of course the Japanese are doing to deny it, it reflects badly on their country after all.

Back to your point about "shoddy history." All documented history is biased, thus, everything you've ever learned about history is biased. It's up to you to draw your own conclusions. But to say: "as she blindly does what she accuses the japanese of doing - which is presenting a false reality?" That is just plain disrespectful to all the victims of Nanjing, regardless of the number. Murder is murder, even if it's one person or few hundred thousand, it's unforgivable. I cannot even begin to fathom why you would say something so insensitive like that.

In high school when we were studying WW2, I learned about the atomic bombings in Japan, I learned about the holocaust, I learned about Pearl harbour, but I did not read a single thing about the horrific events that occurred when the Japanese occupied China. We sympathize for the victims of Japan, we sympathize for the victims of America, and we sympathize for the Jewish victims, so why can't we raise awareness so people will not forget about the Nanjing Massacre?

Many essentially know nothing about this event because it's often been simplified to one line in history textbooks: "Japan occupies China's old capital Nanjing in 1937."

Chang tries to reveal perspectives of the Japanese, Chinese, and Westerners. That's as objective as it can get, because like I mentioned, all history is biased. As you read about the Japanese scholars critiquing the book, you should remember that their historical documents are biased as well. So nowhere do I see this "blind accusation" you are talking about. She did her research. In fact, she dedicated her life to it. And in the end, she committed suicide. If she is "blindly accusing" the Japanese, the they are "blindly accusing" her as well.

My great grand-mother experienced the effects of the Nanjing Massacre (she lived in one of the villages that was on route to Nanjing) and there was nothing remotely even like a "false reality" about it.

Ultimately, Chang, like I, just wish to bring world awareness to this tragic event. All we want is justice for our families and ancestors. Because really, having it brushed off like it's nothing? That is just as bad as the Nanjing massacre itself.


stephanie Alice wrote: "You know, that's not the point of her book. What it really comes down to is this: Chang wanted to bring awareness and justice for the victims of the Nanjing massacre. People know about the Holocaus..."

sure. where is the book about the korean comfort women? where is the book about the armenian genocide? what about everything that happened under pol pot? did you learn about jefferson's racism in school? or what really happened with the spanish american war?

there can never be enough knowledge. everything is chosen. that's why historiography is fascinating, and why i love the exploration of the difference between history and memory. *how* did you learn about the holocaust? what words were used? what stories? to compare anything to germany apologizing for the holocaust is fruitless - if west germany was to survive, it had to apologize. again and again. easy germany had a different experience of the post-holocaust period.

how many times has russia apologized to chechnya? or georgia? or to the jews themselves? what about the hungarians?

i said this in a comment above: it's the problem with writing all history - you have to pick a perspective usually that you think is more true/valid than another. there are reasons there are history wars. but to me, chang didn't even really try to get it right. she had made up her mind before she started writing the book, since she did write it for her grandparents. you can't really fault her for choosing that side, but to not give any acknowledgment of the other sides?

this is excellent memory. in my review, i did say it was revolutionary. however, i think it could have been better and i think there should be a different book that people go to in order to learn about the massacre/incident/rape/whatever, mostly because i believe in the use of primary sources when doing history. i never implied the book shouldn't have been writing. i did say i wish it had been written differently.

i have a very specific definition of history and a specific definition of memory. can history even be objective? you say no. i haven't decided yet. the idea of collective memory and contemporary history are fascinating to me. memory is personal. history is political. how shall the two meet? there lies the struggle that makes history interesting for me.


Vicky Thank you for your detailed and thorough explanations. I think the heated discussions surround this book are exactly what Iris Chang wanted. I agree with your point that all history is biased. However, when you make a point like that, you suddenly bring this discussion to a philosophical level. What is truth after all? It is hard to say...are the primary sources as true and correct as we think? If Iris Chang wrote this book for her grandmother, those primary sources could also have been written by people who were writing for someone too. There are all sorts of possibilities when you were not there to witness the historical moments for yourself. I agree with almost all of your points, but as to the objectivity of the book, it is really hard to give a certain and definite answer.


message 8: by Xena (new) - added it

Xena I agree with Alice--all accounts of history are essentially biased (based on one's point of view of course).
But, at this stage, I think to put the focus on disputes over mislabeling and miscounts of numbers of killings, and to accuse her of "blindly accusing the Japanese"--all of this to me only trivialize the suffering of the victims of that war and the atrocities committed--no matter how many, they DID kill people.
They DID rape and torture Chinese women.
They DID go on wild killing contests.
They DID use bio-weapons against their victims.
That the numbers are debatable does not in anyway extenuate the inhumane nature of the crimes--and I think that, was the main point she was trying to get across.
Chang's purpose was to bring awareness to an event that deserves but never quite received sufficient attention outside of China--and this she did successfully. It's comforting to see Japanese readers reading this and being shocked, because they weren't previously exposed to the atrocities committed by their ancestors.
It does not, of course, excuse her refusals to correct the mistakes in her book, but I think her book has much value and merits for the responses and discussion it has generated.


message 9: by Xena (new) - added it

Xena Alice wrote: "You know, that's not the point of her book. What it really comes down to is this: Chang wanted to bring awareness and justice for the victims of the Nanjing massacre. People know about the Holocaus..."

Well-said.


message 10: by Sammie (new) - added it

Sammie Stephanie, if you're going to write a review criticizing the author, claiming that many of the things she wrote were false or sensationalized, then please provide evidence. You can't casually make such accusations without providing proof. You say you did your research, but your review is moot with proper back up.

You call Chang's book bias, but it is clear that she did her research. She did the work. What did you do? You met Carol Gluck and accepted everything she said without question. Your review is bias and ignorant.

Like another commenter said, your review trivializes the events that took place at Nanking.

And of course Chang would be bias. She's Chinese. How is it possible to remain objective about something that impacted her ancestors and relatives, her country?


Caryn Stephanie: Well, I was going to write a long reply, but Sammie, Xena and Alice beat me to it.
Yes, if you are accusing Chang of not providing concrete proof, then you need to provide concrete proof to back up your claims. in fact, I think you'd need to start with detailing exactly where she is incorrect. Apart from the numbers, (I read this a long time ago, so forgive me if I'm inaccurate, but I do think Chang herself did a fair amount of waffling and explaining on the numbers, i.e.:(This source says this number, that source says that number....) Of course that's only my memory, not history, (haha!) but I do remember it stalling the flow of the book considerably.

Stephanie wrote: even the title of her book is subject to question (it's called the "massacre at nanjing" in china, and the "nanjing incident" in japan).

So, if THIS is the calibre of inaccuracies or biases you are talking about, I really don't know what to say. IMHO, it's simply ludicrous. As Xena said, the did commit these atrocities, (or maybe we should say: faux-pas?) or perhaps to be fair to both sides we should relabel a few others: "The Mai-Lai dust-up", "That little kerfluffle at Wounded Knee", or as (true) the Vietnamese call the American wing of the infamous Hanoi-Hilton prison, "Guest residences". Stalin really needed a better PR person, "gulag" just does NOT have a nice ring to it. IMHO, your argument would be stronger without that paragraph. It is insulting.

And lastly; I also agree with Alice: History truly IS written by the victors. It is always biased. I know you are trying to deal with that by compartmentalizing; 'History' vs. 'Memory'. But if that is a viable means, then what exactly IS in the history compartment?

In this age of over-abundance of information at our fingertips; one of the downsides I have noticed is that whatever one thinks or wants to believe, on pretty much any subject can be bolstered by SOMETHING out there on the net. Truth itself is subjective these days. You can pick and choose! Snark aside, the best we can hope for is information agreed upon by various sources who 'probably' have no investment or agenda.

You also say 'historians' (plural). Who other than Carol Gluck are you referencing? Or is this all from that seminar? Just wondering.


message 12: by Marius (new)

Marius Pontmercy The main problem is that in Japan (and China too, no doubt), history is not written by historians, but by politicians...


Caryn Marius wrote: The main problem is that in Japan (and China too, no doubt), history is not written by historians, but by politicians...


Yes, but they are not the only ones. The only silver lining I find, living here in China is that Chinese people are overwhelmingly aware that their 'Officials' are probably lying to them. Americans are, I think as a whole, just waking up to that knowledge. The internet is changing everything.


message 14: by Marius (last edited Apr 27, 2013 06:37PM) (new)

Marius Pontmercy >the japanese historians - by which i mean, historians focused on japan - resoundingly pointed out errors in the book.

There are no Japanese "historians". There are only Japanese politicians who happen to (re)write history. And the "errors" they point out are basically like this: someone writes that Japanese regiment X raped and killed near village Y on date Z. Then the Japanese "historians" point out that "regiment X was not near Y on date Z, but 10 km away". Conclusion by the Japanese historians: all this is fake and fabricated.

Or another one: a witness says that Japanese regiment X decapitated victims and put their heads on display. The Japanese historians point out that "regiment X had at that time no habit of displaying heads of decapitated captives". Conclusion by the Japanese historians: all this is fake and fabricated.

>the numbers she uses are subject to debate, even the title of her book is subject to question (it's called the "massacre at nanjing" in china, and the "nanjing incident" in japan).

But then again, the entire Second Sino-Japanese war as called a series of "incidents" in Japan.

>it's sensationalistic, and based mostly on oral history

Let's remember this one for the next August 6th when Japan each year remembers WW2 (yes, all they remember of WW2 is the atomic bombings): the tv will show nothing but sensationalistic, oral stories about how noble Japanese were attacked suddenly and for no reason by the "white devils".


message 15: by Marius (new)

Marius Pontmercy To Caryn: I guess you are rigth. But I can imagine that Americans (like Chinese?) at least have an urge to know the truth. The average Japanese has no such urge. Quite on the contrary; they want to be told again and again that they are better.

Hence the presence of "historians" who actually tell them that they are better and that all these ugly "incidents" are fabricated, in order to get elected.


Alice To Vicky, Xena, Sammie, Caryn:

You go girls! A-freaking-men to everything you guys have said.


Caryn Marius: Yes, I think that's true on both counts!


message 18: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Cusack Great review Stephanie, bang on.

This book should be praised for its accomplishments as literature, as a massively successful advocate of awareness, and a stirring editorial. Readers should also be aware of its historical (and anthropological) difficulties.

Historian David Kennedy's review – written in the immediate aftermath of its release (1998) – is probably the most authoritative analysis of the book as text: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/a...


Caryn Jeff wrote: "Great review Stephanie, bang on.

This book should be praised for its accomplishments as literature, as a massively successful advocate of awareness, and a stirring editorial. Readers should also ..."


Thanks Jeff, That was a very nicely written article. It would have been helpful, however, if Kennedy had linked sources with more plausible theories or even posited his own theory of "Why did the Japanese soldiers so run amok?" If he felt that Chang missed the point with her descriptions of the soldiers' training/upbringing from birth as a possible or probable explanation. Personally, I didn't see it as impugning the Japanese character any more than (as Chang stated a few times in the text) impugning HUMAN character. The point is that these men were/are NOT born monsters. Any one of us can be turned into such a 'monster' under the right conditions. IMHO, that is by far, the most important message in the book.

He does link some good sources of mindset and motivations for the German army, but as he rightly says, the two theaters of war cannot be compared, the two atrocities cannot be compared. One was a rigid systematic destruction, the other was (as he rightly describes it) a bacchanalia of blood-lust. It would be fair to say that the motivations of German soldiers and Japanese soldiers are also incomparable. So Why did they do it?

As for his assertions that this massacre has been well documented and made public to the West, as comparable, (here we go again!) to the Holocaust in Europe; Hmmm, weeeell, I'm sorry, I'm just not buying that. I'm sure it hit the papers at the time, but the giant East/West cultural divide probably pushed it to the periphery of Western consciousness, (we still do this today, even in the current 'global village'). I wasn't alive back then, so I don't know. I do know however, that as a reasonably well educated Western lay-person, I have been exposed to thousands of sources, books, movies, fictional and non-fictional accounts of every inch of the Holocaust and WW2's European Theatre but without actively seeking it out, there is still simply not that much out there about the Nanjing massacre, (in the review, Stephanie says this is the first English language book on the topic!? Is that true?), although memoirs and personal accounts of US soldier's experiences in the Pacific Theatre have become more common. Perhaps Kennedy himself has been exposed to this info, but he is a historian, so that may be a 'can't see the forest for the trees' situation?

I'm not really sure what you mean by "...the most AUTHORITATIVE analysis of the book as text". (?) I understand that YOU agree with it, but that declaration would imply something far more universally accepted as official and finite! Is that what you mean?


message 20: by Sophia420 (new)

Sophia420 May be I'm late. I want to know which books should I READ , if I want to see both perspective? I mean, just learn the historical knowledge more truly like you? I am not joking, I am serious.


message 21: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Brava, Juanita. Reviewer's mullings are trivial.


Juanita Ya know Sketchbook, I thought I was writing to a guy who posted some weird rant on my review of Nanking - lol!!! I'm gonna erase this since it's addressed to someone else. Thanks so much for your encouragement!!! <3


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