Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking

In my quest to get through all of these unread books, I picked up "The Rape of Nanking," an unread war book that has been on my shelf for years. I read a lot of distressing books (see the recent entries on the books about US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan), but this is the first book I can remember that gave me nightmares. I did not have distinct nightmares about the atrocities mentioned in the book, but about war in general. If you have a few days, and the stomach to do it, read this book.

Leading up to and during World War II, Japan waged war on China. The war lasted from the early '30s to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan's eventual surrender. We don't hear much about this in the US, and Chang writes that honestly, even if we lived in Japan, we wouldn't hear much about it either. Holocaust denial is considered beyond the pale here, but in Japan, who was responsible for over 19 million Chinese deaths during the war years, denial of the events is commonplace, and even expected. The events described in the book- the takeover of the Chinese city of Nanking by Japanese forces and the subsequent atrocities- are still considered by the Japanese to not have happened at all, or at best, to be the result of a few misguided individuals. (Is this ringing any too-close-to-home bells, yet?)

Chang's extensive research shows that the 300,000 Chinese who died (estimates vary on the exact number, but this is the figure that Chang uses most often) did not die do to the mistakes of any individual. She describes a culture of emperor-worship and of the need to aggress into China. She tallies individual atrocities and group ones: rapes of old women and severed heads, and "killing contests" proudly published in Japanese newspapers. A few brave foreign residents set up a "safe zone" in the heart of the city for Chinese residents and refugees that the Japanese refused to honor, and Chang calculates that without this zone, no resident of Nanking would have survived the brutality of the conquering Japanese.

And then, most poignantly for me, Chang talks about why the massacre happened and why it has been largely forgotten. "The Rape of Nanking" was written 10 years ago, before the series of abysmal wars that Bush Jr. is fighting, but many of Chang's points could be in Coll or Hersh's epilogues: "A third factor was religion. Imbuing violence with holy meaning, the Japanese imperial army made violence a cultural imperative every bit as powerful as that which propelled Europeans during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition." (218) Chang writes that "civilization itself is tissue-thin... the sheer concentration of power in government is lethal- that only a sense of absolute unchecked power can make atrocities like the Rape of Nanking possible." (220) And finally, Chang calls us to task on becoming numb to the horrors that we see daily on the news, the Internet, etc:

And there is yet a third lesson to be learned, one that is perhaps the most distressing of all. It lies in the frightening ease with which the mind can accept genocide, turning us all into passive spectators to the unthinkable. The Rape of Nanking was front-page news across the world, and yet most of the world stood by and did nothing while an entire city was butchered... Apparently some quirk in human nature allows even the most unspeakable acts of evil to become banal within minutes, provided only that they occur far enough away to pose no personal threat. (221)

After hearing how individuals risked their lives to tear rapists off of women's backs and kick looters out of the safe zone; how they guarded the last hospital in Nanking from the Japanese and fought back from 37 bayonet wounds, this is a particular challenge. What choices will we make when faced with far away evils? What will we stand for, and what will we fight? How close to home do atrocities have to be for us to say something? Who has to commit them? Where do we draw the line?


wildtomato said...

I've been on the fence about reading this book - I know I would like it and I'd learn from it, but do I really want to expose myself to it?

To this day, my grandmother has a profound hatred for the Japanese. Sure, it's wrong, but she witnessed and heard about so many acts of evil delivered by the Japanese troops.

themacinator said...

If you want to read it, I'm more than happy to lend it to you, or even give it to you. I'm trying to cut down on the vast quantity of books on my shelf. The book itself is not very good- would have been better off as a long magazine article- but it was a book that had to be written. At the time Chang wrote it, not one scholarly book had been written in English about the "rape of Nanking". Let me know if you want to borrow it- you can keep it as long as you'd like- till you're ready to pick it up.