2004-11-12 13:30:23 UTC
November 12, 2004
Iris Chang, Who Chronicled Rape of Nanking, Dies at 36
By MARGALIT FOX
Iris Chang, a journalist whose best-selling book, "The Rape
of Nanking," a chronicle of the atrocities committed in that
city by occupying Japanese forces, helped break a
six-decade-long international silence on the subject,
committed suicide on Tuesday near Los Gatos, Calif. She was
36 and lived in San Jose.
Ms. Chang's literary agent, Susan Rabiner, announced the
Ms. Chang was found in her car on a rural road south of Los
Gatos, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound,
the local authorities told The San Francisco Chronicle. She
had left a suicide note at home that she had painstakingly
written, edited and rewritten, her husband, Brett Douglas
said in a telephone interview yesterday.
"The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War
II" was published by Basic Books in 1997, the 60th
anniversary of the massacre. The book documented the events
in Nanking (now Nanjing) during the second Sino-Japanese
War, in the years leading up to World War II.
In December 1937 Japanese troops entered the city, which
until shortly before the invasion had been the Chinese
capital. In less than two months they murdered more than
300,000 civilians and raped more than 80,000 women. Ms.
Chang's book was the first full-length nonfiction account of
Reviewing "The Rape of Nanking" in The New York Times Book
Review, Orville Schell called it an "important new book,"
adding that Ms. Chang "recounts the grisly massacre with
She had a keen personal interest in the subject. Ms. Chang's
grandparents had fled Nanking just before the occupation,
eventually settling in the United States. Growing up in the
Midwest, she heard family stories of the massacre, but as an
adult she was unable to find much about it in print. In
China and Japan, and even in the West, the subject had been
almost completely lost to history.
"The whole issue had scar tissue growing over it, but it had
never really healed," Mr. Schell, the dean of the Graduate
School of Journalism at the University of California,
Berkeley, and a longtime observer of China, said in a
telephone interview. "She sort of threw the curtain back on
a period that the Chinese Communist Party and the Japanese
hoped was shrouded in official declarations of a new
collaboration. But it turned out there was a lot of
Fluent in Mandarin, Ms. Chang traveled to China, where she
scoured archives and interviewed elderly survivors. What she
learned would force her to describe the indescribable:
"Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice
off their breasts, nail them alive to walls," Ms. Chang
wrote. "Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and
sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not
only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs and
the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical
tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their
tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and
watching them torn apart by German shepherds. So sickening
was the spectacle that even Nazis in the city were
"The Rape of Nanking" spent 10 weeks on the New York Times
best-seller list, and close to half a million copies have
been sold, Ms. Rabiner said.
The book drew wide international attention. In Japan it
prompted outrage among conservatives. (A planned Japanese
edition was cancelled in 1999.) Elsewhere it engendered
demands for the Japanese government to make reparations or,
at least, a formal apology, something Ms. Chang to the end
of her life felt had been inadequately done.
"There have been all sorts of little fragments and shards
and bits and pieces," Mr. Schell said. "But no one has done
what Willy Brandt did: got down on his knees in the Warsaw
ghetto and asked forgiveness."
Iris Shun-Ru Chang was born on March 28, 1968, in Princeton,
N.J. She grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where her
father, a physicist, and her mother, a microbiologist,
taught at the University of Illinois. Ms. Chang received a
bachelor's degree in journalism from Illinois in 1989. After
working briefly as a reporter for The Associated Press and
The Chicago Tribune, she earned a master's degree from the
writing program of Johns Hopkins University in 1991.
She published her first book, "Thread of the Silkworm"
(Basic Books, 1995), when she was just 27. It told the story
of Tsien Hsue-shen, a Chinese-born scientist deported from
the United States during the McCarthy era, who returned to
China and founded that country's intercontinental missile
program. Ms. Chang also wrote "The Chinese in America: A
Narrative History," published last year by Viking.
At the time of her death, she was researching a book on
American soldiers who served in tank units on the Bataan
peninsula before World War II, many of whom were captured
and imprisoned by the Japanese. In the course of her
research several months ago, Ms. Chang became severely
depressed and had to be hospitalized, Ms. Rabiner said.
Besides her husband, Ms. Chang is survived by her parents,
Shau-Jin and Ying-Ying, and a brother, Michael, all of San
Jose; and by a son, Christopher.
In a 1998 interview with The Straits Times of Singapore, Ms.
Chang described her reasons for writing "The Rape of
"I wrote it out of a sense of rage," she said. "I didn't
really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me
that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937."