Book Review: The Rape Of Nanking

The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II, by Iris Chang

It is immensely shocking that this book, which was published in 1997, and which I acquired as part of the books on discount at a Portland-area independent bookstore, was the first ever full-length treatment of the Rape of Nanking in English. One might think, not knowing much about it, that the expression “rape of Nanking” is an exaggeration, but that would be mistaken. Over the course of six weeks from the middle of December of 1936 into spring of 1937, Japanese soldiers, led by an uncle of the then Japanese Emperor, killed somewhere around 350,000 Chinese, with tens of thousands of girls and young women raped and murdered in brutal fashion among them. It was among the worst single atrocities of the Second World War, something that horrified and disgusted the local Nazis, one of whom complained about it to Hitler, bringing documentary footage of the atrocity, and ended up being jailed in Dachau for his troubles. FDR received footage of Japanese atrocities, and was more upset about the attack on a single US ship, the Panay, than he was about the hundreds of thousands of deaths of Chinese in Nanking. The Japanese behavior was so outrageous that it led Germans and Americans to join together to create a safe area in the city of Nanking that allowed half of the Chinese population to survive. Yet the atrocity has largely been forgotten, if it has ever been known. It is not the subject of movies, of very many books, it is not taught in classes. I remember hearing about it myself, but I do not know where I learned it from, unless it was from reading material from the Chinese perspective. The author herself wrote about it as the child of two Chinese immigrants who had survived World War II, and who did not forget Japanese atrocities, about which the Japanese are in denial even still.

The contents of this book are brutal and horrifying. The author tells a deliberately Rashomon-like tale from different perspectives. First, the tale of the fall of Nanking is told from the perspective of Japanese military leaders and soldiers who, angry at the long siege of Shanghai, decided to take out their anger at Chinese resistance to their domination on the fallen capital of Nanking, which was vulnerable to being surrounded from the land side once bridges over the Yangtze had been bombed. Then the tale is told from the point of view of Chinese leaders who fled from the doomed city and the more than half a million people who were left to face the tender mercies of the victorious Japanese, half of whom ended up being killed in beheading contests published in Japanese newspapers, continuously gang raped until they hemorrhaged and died, used for target practice and bayonet practice, buried up to their waists naked and then disemboweled by Japanese dogs, and other gruesome deaths that the author details from the memoirs of survivors and from documentary photographs and the discussion of archival video footage. Then the author discusses the point of view of the foreigners, a small group of Europeans and Americans who banded together despite their political differences to save as many Chinese as possible, and who suffered the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of what the peril they experienced and the horrors they saw, which drove one spinster missionary to suicide upon her return to the United States, and which led them all to early deaths. After this the author discusses, with considerable and justifiable outrage, the way that the Japanese were largely let off the hook with no reparations, no massive and public admission of guilt, no thorough de-militarization of their political elite, without being forced to come to terms with the horrors of the genocidal war against the Chinese they had waged, largely due to Cold War political posturing.

It is unclear the extent to which this book will achieve a wide audience. It is deeply horrifying and unpleasant reading, a sign of the thin veneer of civilization that covers the dark and brutal hearts of humanity. It speaks of dehumanization and cruelty, of the way in which the horrors of the world are both inflicted, and then covered over by people who do not want to address the results, of survivors who even decades after the horrors were left deeply scarred and unable to cope very well with the ordinary difficulties of life. Chang writes with passion and compassion, drawing the appropriate parallels between Japanese and German behavior [1], pointing out to the ways in which the Japanese soldiers themselves were brutalized by their officers and thus brought to the point where they were easily capable of brutalizing others. It examines the ways in which the Japanese have sought to use euphemisms to cover their brutal combat and refuse to face the realities of their war crimes, and to the ways in which the survival of such horrors inflicts deep wounds on those who survive and endure. This is a book worth reading, and a matter worth remembering, not least to remind us of the horrors that lurk beneath the surface of all human civilizations, the darkness that must be named, must be faced, and must be overcome.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Rape Of Nanking

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