“The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang

I do a lot of reading. and in particular history, in part because as I read I find references to other books that capture my interest that I should read.  I just love the journey reading takes me on.  Thus far I have shunned doing too many book reviews but as part of my journey I recently read “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang.  It is a powerful and disturbing book.  The events covered take place in Nanking, China in 1937 and covers one of the worst war atrocities in the  history of mankind.  Unfortunately to most of the western world it is one that has been largely forgotten in the passage of time.  At the same time when you hear about hostility between China and Japan in the media, this historical event helps explain a lot of the animosity between these two global economic powers.  A note to readers I will try to be delicate as possible when discussing what took place in Nanking, but in some instances to portray history that may not be possible. Consider this your reader beware notice.

Japan at the time wanted it’s place on the global stage as a word power.  The conquest of China was a primary objective of the Japanese empire, though we often think the second world war started when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 te reality was war was already waging in other parts of the world.  Following the fall of Shanghai the Japanese marched onward towards the ancient Chinese capital of Nanking.  At the time it was also the capital for the Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  Despite an overwhelming superiority in numbers the Chinese would flee and surrender rather meekly to their conquerors.  There was no valiant last stand, no great battle,if they had known what was to follow they would have fought until the last man stood. The date was December 12, 1937 when Nanking fell.  Many people fled the city, however their were still over 600,000 people left in Nanking.  When all was said and done after 6 weeks only half of them would survive to live another day.

When the Chinese surrendered it meant a great many Chinese soldiers were left to surrender to their Japanese conquerors.  In some descriptions it created both logistical and  budgetary issues and the Japanese were not willing to own up to  this new responsibility.  So they decided to forgo the Geneva convention, deciding that mass execution would be the easier route to go. The captured soldiers by all accounts had no idea what was going to take place. At first the Chinese soldiers were separated into smaller more manageable groups. They were then taken to a smaller more private setting where they were executed and dumped into the Yangtze, mass graves etc..It was all very systematic at first but along the way a certain madness seemed to take hold of the Japanese Military and it seemed to become more sport as they would have “games” to see how fast they could decapitate a human.  We have all probably seen photo’s of military personal practicing on human dummies, but in Nanking the practice was horrific in its reality.  Bayonet practice was a game where you would tie up a prisoner and let the soldier repeatedly use their weapon on a live human being.  Other events were decapitation.  How fast could a Japanese soldier decapitate a Chinese prisoner.  As bodies littered the streets and rivers of Nanking, the city became literally a sea of red.  A blood lust had overcome of the Japanese military stationed in Nanking.

The woman endured perhaps the worst having to be subjected to repeated rapes by groups of Japanese soldiers.  They hid, they were found, they were raped, and then either butchered or left for not.  Age did not matter, nor if they were pregnant. It did not matter where or who was present.  Adolescent girls were raped until they could not stand.   Old woman would die as their withered bodies could only withstand so much. There was an international safety zone in Nanking where they could  be in peace, but that did not last long as Japanese soldiers were constantly trying to break in and drag off woman.  The people leading the safety zone were being woken at all times of both day and night, having to rescue Chinese woman from being dragged off by Japanese soldiers.  Nanking is believed to be the second largest case of mass rape in human history, behind the rape of Bangladesh woman in 1971.

There was one savior in all this madness.  It leads to one of those odd paradoxes in history.  It was a German named Jonathan Rabe, besides being German, he was a staunch supporter of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.  As events occurred he would lead the International Safety Zone in Nanking.  He would confront the Japanese who tried to remove or simply take Chinese citizens from the compound.  He used the fact of the burgeoning relationship between Germany and Japan to try to stop the savagery that was taking place but it would only slow the Japanese, but it would not stop them. He was on call 24/7 and would stay during the duration of the massacre.  The noted German Oscar Schindler saved thousands of Jews from Auschwitz. It is estimated that Jonathan Rabe saved the lives of over 250,000 Chinese men, woman and children.  When he returned to Germany he tried to get an audience with Adolf Hitler to discuss the atrocities in Nanking.  He was unsuccessful and would fall into poverty in Germany.  Years later when his plight was discoverer din Nanking, the people of Nanking sent food, clothes and whatever else they could get to help their patron saint, Jonathan Rabe.

Following the war the greatest criminal act was the lack of historical recognition in Japan and not owning up to the incidents that occurred in Nanking.  Many of the war criminals, in fact most never stood trial.  They would go home to Japan and live out the rest of their lives in peace and harmony, with only their conscience to confront.  There would be no Simon Wiesenthal to continue the fight for justice, because most of the world did not know.  If you do not know you do not care, in the case of Nanking that is an insult and tragedy to those lost and those who survived.

Why tell this story?  Because though there are genocides we know of such as the Holocaust,the Killing Fields, the genocide of Rawanda, there are many that get lost in the passage of time.  It would almost be nice if it were just the ones we knew about but man is not that kind.  For every murder we hear about there are a thousand that go unnoticed in our daily lives.  The same can be said for genocide.  The massacre of Armenians by the Turks in the first World War.  The purges of Stalin behind the iron curtain that would cost the lives of millions of people in the Soviet Union.  Ruthless dictators like Idi Amin, the Shah of Iran, Mao Tse Tung etc..all in the name of what?  The people?  It was never about them, but a few men who decided the fate of millions.  As we move forward in this young century we have not seen the mass genocide of years gone take root yet, but we do see madness in our societies.  Small pockets festering and being reported each and every day.  Where will that lead us?  As Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, “To forget a holocaust is to murder twice”,  This is why Nanking is still important and why its history should continue to be shared.  Otherwise the murderers will not be those who commit, but those who forget.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann April 19, 2011

2 thoughts on ““The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang

  1. Thank you for this review. I also have enjoyed reading history, yet have also read some current nonfiction by Americans, in China. James Fallows has 2 great reads, by example. From a historical perspective you would enjoy, “The Man Who Loved China”, the biography of Joseph Needham, by SImon Winchester. More of 1st person history, than a biography. Same time period, but Needham traveled All of China. Very interesting. Thanks again.

    1. Mark – thanks for reading the review and thanks for the recommendation. I shall add Joseph Needham to my list. I don’t write a review for every book I read but Iris Chang’s book is very haunting and hard to put down, as well as an excellent historical account.

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