Map Magazine, December 2009
Yang Xiaming still remembers the day he first met Iris Chang. It was the summer of 1995, and he was working as an International Relations instructor at Jiangsu Provincial Young Managerial Cadres College. He anticipated a light workload and some vacation time. So when his former classmate Wang Weixing asked him if he was willing to work as a translator for “an American writer” researching a book about the Nanjing Massacre for about 20 days in late July and early August, he agreed.
On the sweltering afternoon of July 24th, Yang, along with Wang Weixing and Professor Sun Zhaiwei of the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences Department of History, traveled to Nanjing University’s Xiyuan Guest House, where they had arranged to meet the newly arrived writer. Yang knew nothing of the person he was to assist, so when a smiling, ponytailed 27 year-old Chinese American emerged from her dorm room that day, he was astonished.
“So young!” Yang recalls thinking. “Like a college student, sort of. Her Mandarin was okay. She could basically understand our speaking, but she needed English to express complicated ideas.” Yang, like those who met Chang in Nanjing that summer, doubted that this ostensibly sweet tempered and inexperienced young woman could even complete a book about a subject this dark and complex. Yet, over the course of a few weeks, he and a handful of others would help Chang collect the information that provided the basis and the fuel for one of the most influential and controversial books of the decade.
The book Chang wrote, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, became an international bestseller, launched Chang into literary stardom and made her the spokesperson of a political movement. To date, it has sold over 500,000 copies. One of the first English books devoted to the subject, it has been praised by many prominent historians, and is considered a landmark in Massacre studies in the West. Bill Guttentag dedicated Nanking, the 2007 film about the Nanjing Massacre he co-directed, to Chang. “Anyone who makes a film on this subject owes a great debt to Iris Chang,” he told us.
Iris Chang took her own life on November 9th, 2004. She was 36, the author of three nonfiction books, and considered one of America’s best young writers. In China, she was widely known as “the young warrior” who brought one of the country’s most tragic events to worldwide attention. None who came to know her in Nanjing during that summer could have imagined that she would achieve such heights, or that her story would end so abruptly less than ten years later.
In retrospect, Iris Chang’s path to Nanjing and the ensuing book seemed almost predetermined. The city was home to her maternal grandparents, who escaped just weeks before Japanese troops arrived in the city in December of 1937.
Among Chang’s strongest childhood memories were the vivid stories of the Sino-Japanese War and, in particular, the Nanjing Massacre. The stories had been passed down to her parents, and they in turn told them to her. According to her parents, Japanese soldiers during the massacre “sliced babies not just in half but in thirds and fourths. The Yangtze River ran red with blood for days. Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese in a war that killed more than ten million Chinese people.”
She tried to research the events in Nanjing at her school library, but found nothing. “That struck me as odd. If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents had insisted, then why hadn’t someone written a book about it?”
Chang studied journalism at the University of Chicago, where she was offered an internship at the Associated Press bureau in Chicago. She later worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before winning a fellowship to study writing at Johns Hopkins University. There, instructors at Hopkins quickly recognized Chang’s talent, and recommended her to an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, who was looking for a writer with a background in Mandarin and the sciences to write a biography of Hsue-Shen Tsien, the “father of the People’s Republic of China’s missile system.” The resulting work, The Thread of the Silkworm, was published in 1995.
Chang’s attention returned to the Massacre in 1994, when she spoke with two film producers who had made a documentary about the Massacre. Chang began researching the event, and attended a conference in Cupertino, California focusing on Sino-Japanese relations and unsettled war crimes issues.
If Chang’s interest in the Massacre had recently been rekindled, Cupertino set it afire. The conference included an exhibition of photos taken during the Massacre, which Chang described as “some of the most gruesome photographs I have ever seen in my life. Though I had heard so much about the Rape of Nanking as a child, nothing prepared me for these pictures – stark black-and-white images of decapitated heads, bellies ripped open, and nude women forced by their rapists into various pornographic poses, their faces contorted into expressions of agony and shame.”
“In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself,” she wrote. “I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history…unless someone forced the world to remember it.”
Hearing of Chang’s plans to write a book on the Massacre, the conference organizers, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II, provided her with funding, grant writing assistance, travel contacts and the names of Nanjing Massacre historians.
One of those experts was Wu Tianwei, a history professor then based in Illinois. Professor Wu wrote a letter to Sun Zhaiwei, asking him to assist Iris in her research and find her an English translator in Nanjing. Sun agreed, enlisting Wang Weixing to collect related documents and Yang Xiaming to translate.
Yang speaks with us on a cold, grey mid-December day in the living room of the Long Jiang Xiao district apartment in West Nanjing that he shares with his wife and daughter. He is currently a history professor at the Jiangsu School of Administration, and is considered one of the leading experts in Nanjing Massacre history. He traces the origins of the inspiration for his work directly to Chang’s visit. “At the time I didn’t know very much about this subject,” he tells us. He estimates that he spent much of the last 12 years researching the Massacre. Chang’s commitment, compassion for the survivors and sense of duty inspired Yang. “I changed my entire academic research area because of her,” he says.
Recently, he completed the third Mainland Chinese translation of Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Though he stays very busy with his classes and research and does not consider himself a translator, he said that when the book’s Mainland publisher and Chang’s parents requested that he undertake the project, he didn’t hesitate. “The book wasn’t complete here,” he says, referring the notoriously poor prior Mainland Chinese translations. “I said to her mother, ‘I am not the best translator, but I witnessed the book’s birth. I also have the background. Even more, I want to do this work and make it good for Iris.’”
Though 12 years have passed since he and Chang worked together, Yang has seemingly lost none of his enthusiasm for speaking of his friend. He talks readily, getting up frequently to show examples of Chang’s work or evidence of her time here.
Yang recalls that Chang’s planning and sense of purpose allayed his doubts about her abilities. At their first meeting at the Xiyuan, Chang told Sun, Wang and Yang her goals for her time in Nanjing. She wanted to interview survivors, visit massacre sites, see Nanjing itself, and translate related historical documents. “She was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish during her time here,” Yang remembers. After she told him of her previous book and success at Johns Hopkins, “I knew she was quite capable of doing something like this.”
Yang, Sun Zhaiwei, Wang Weixing and Chang set to work immediately. Sun contacted Duan Yueping, then assistant curator at the Nanjing Massacre Compatriot Victims Memorial Museum, and asked if she could help them find and interview local Massacre survivors. Wang Weixing was asked to gather related archives and data, while Yang was to serve as Chang’s local guide and translator. He estimates that he spent nearly every one of the following 20 days with Chang.
On their first day of research, Sun Zhaiwei, Duan Yueping and Yang accompanied Chang to massacre sites. At each site Chang took photos of the monuments’ inscriptions and the surrounding environment. Yang remembers that Chang “often stood alone in front of the monuments for a long time, immersed in thought.” The following day, the two visited a number of city landmarks, including Jiming Temple and the city wall at Zhonghua Gate.
Yang, Duan Yueping and Chang began interviewing survivors on Chang’s third day in Nanjing. Tang Shunshan was her first interviewee. Chang, Yang remembers, always asked the survivors the same three questions at the beginning of each interview. “She first asked permission to use the interview as content. She then asked for autobiographical information. Finally, she asked the subject to describe his or her experience during the Massacre.” Chang videotaped the interview on her camcorder while Yang took notes. The majority of the survivors were clearly eager to tell their stories. Tang, Yang remembers, spoke continuously for nearly 40 minutes.
Yang and Duan Yueping recall that Chang asked highly specific questions of the survivors regarding their lives before the Massacre. She would ask “different questions for different people, like ‘When did you get up?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘What kind of shoes did you wear?’ ‘What did you do when it rained?’ ‘Where did you have lunch?’ ‘What were roads like then?’ Very detailed. That’s what made her different from historians. We just try to write the facts. She tried to describe the humans. Not just history, but history with a human face.”
The information she gathered from such questions such as these allowed Chang to create the vivid descriptions of Nanjing circa 1937 found in The Rape of Nanking. One description of old Nanjing found in the book, Yang notes, originated almost entirely from the memory of survivor Pan Kaiming.
The survivors’ living conditions, coupled with the continued denials of many Japanese nationalists that the Massacre ever took place, greatly disturbed and incensed Chang, Yang and Duan Yueping remember. “She was very angry that the survivors were suffering,” Yang says. “That the perpetrators lived much better than the survivors.” Visits to two survivors left Chang particularly shaken. Survivor Chen Degui’s house was “utterly destitute,” Yang says. “The apartment was only six square meters,” with “space only for a bed.” Another survivor, Liu Yongxing “had no bathroom. He washed himself with a towel that he used in a washbasin with a bit of black water in it. His house was narrow, small, disordered, damp and dark.”
Chang would later tell interviewers that her time with the survivors’ solidified her commitment to the work. “I wrote the book out of a sense of rage,” she said. “I didn’t care if I made a cent from it.” Yang believes that Chang’s time with the survivors caused a fundamental change in her perception and goals. “After interviewing [survivor Liu], she told me she was going to quit writing and learn law. She wanted to be an advocate for the survivors. When she first came, her intention [with the book] was to write something in remembrance of those who died. Because many didn’t know who they were.” But later, “she changed her plan and tried to prove the nature of human beings. I think this change took place because of what she saw here in Nanjing.”
Though her experience in Nanjing clearly emboldened Chang, it also took a toll. “I was weak during the whole time I was writing the book, and physically unwell during the month I spent in China,” she said in interviews. “I lost weight and I lost hair. I got sick frequently. I was very unhappy.” Yang confirms that Chang “was sick all the time.” However, like Yang, Duan Yueping remembers Chang’s overall mood was positive while she was here.
Chang had only one confrontation during their work in Nanjing, though it was to have important consequences. Following the survivor interviews, Yang accompanied Chang to a number of landmarks in the city and sites of important events during the Massacre. While filming near the former home of Massacre photographer John Magee, they were loudly approached by an older man. Though they were filming legally, the man implied that he wanted to confiscate Chang’s film.
Yang subdued the man, but Chang “didn’t talk for some time” after the confrontation. Later, she “insisted that her videotapes be copied and left here in case someone confiscated them. She thought the tapes were the most valuable thing she had made during her time here.” Yang walks into his study, returning moments later with five VHS cassette tapes. He indicates the sides of the tapes where Chang wrote detailed names, dates and places. He is surprised to learn that, according to the producers of the recent film Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, these tapes are the last known copies of the videos Chang made while in Nanjing. The tapes, the films’ coordinators tell us, were essential for recreating the story of Chang’s time in Nanjing.
Chang and Yang became good friends over the course of their work that summer. He recalls the afternoons they spent, along with Wang Weixing, at Nanjing University’s scientific research center, where they translated documents and the videotaped testimony. Yang’s wife and daughter would bring them lunch, and they stayed to enjoy the building’s air conditioning during that exceptionally hot summer. Chang was also a frequent dinner guest at the Yang family home. She would play their piano or spend time with their daughter, with whom she bonded over a mutual love of books and music.
He remembers the day when Chang told him that she discovered the diary of Minnie Vautrin, the missionary known as “The Living Goddess of Nanking.” Vautrin saved an estimated 10,000 women and girls from rape and murder by turning Jinling College into a safety zone, and her detailed diary provided invaluable insight into the event. Chang, Yang remembers, called her mother with the news, her voice trembling. Mostly, he remembers her idealism and compassion. “We talked a lot about social justice, how to be fair. Though she gave me the impression that she believed in individualism, she very much empathized with the survivors. I was very impressed with this.”
Yang accompanied her to the airport the day Chang left Nanjing. It was the last time he saw her. “I never thought it would be a yongbie, a farewell forever. Never thought that.”
The two stayed in touch after Chang left, corresponding via mail and email, where they shared news of new projects and mailed each other books and archives. He remembers his surprise at The Rape of Nanking’s success after its publication in 1997. “I didn’t realize that the book would be so popular. I think she didn’t realize either. At that time, the best I could hope was that maybe some specialists would read it.” Only when the book was a success in the West, Yang says, did he recognize “the significance of her work when she was here.”
While the book received high praise, it was also fiercely attacked by some critics, who charged that it contained historical errors, was one-sided, too subjective, and lacked sufficient analysis of the reasons for the brutality it describes. Her book’s position on the Massacre and charges against Japan’s government also incensed many, especially Japanese ultranationalists, who sent her “torrents of hate mail.”
Yang received his last email from Chang several months before she died. He last spoke to her from Washington DC in December of 2003, where he was doing research at the National archives. “We talked for several hours,” he says. “I thought she was very happy. I didn’t sense that anything was wrong with her. Never. She told me about her plans for her fourth book, about American POWs at the Bataan Death March. I even shared with her some information that I found in the archives.”
When Chang took her own life in San Jose, California in the fall of 2004, Yang, along with others who had come to know her during her time here, was stunned. “I never saw it coming,” he says. “I never thought she would kill herself. Because she was so young, you know?”
“I was in shock” says Duan Yueping. “I couldn’t believe it. I wondered, ‘How could she end her life at such a young age?’” She believes that Chang “came into contact with too many fierce and brutal things. Not only did she write about the Nanjing Massacre, she also wrote about other atrocities later, which were too much for her to take.”
Yang, who has remained a Chang family friend, sees other reasons for her death. “I think she was too young for such success. She never thought her book would be so successful. She had a two year-old son. Her parents told me that she used to work at night and sleep in the daytime, and that he was very ill for the last three months of her life. They said that she had a breakdown three months before her death, and saw a psychologist. I think she felt a lot of pressure, and many people criticized her.”
Following her death, the Nanjing Massacre Museum added a statue in honor of Chang. Museum director Zhu Chengshan, who also assisted Chang while she was in Nanjing and later visited her in the US, believes her impact locally and abroad is clear and lasting. He estimates that the number of annual visitors to the museum doubled to 1.2 million people after the book was published. The book has also improved the museum’s international recognition and funding. “We all think she contributed so much,” he says. “Her spirit will never die, especially in this fight. Her influence won’t die.” Sun Zhaiwei agrees. “I sincerely believe that her contributions to Nanjing and to world peace will always be with us.”
The Rape of Nanking, Yang says in his translation’s afterward, “is an important contribution to Western consciousness.” While it contains some errors, as an historian he believes “it is a very complete work, even ten years after it was published. In terms of source material, her book is very detailed. Nothing’s missing. She did a very good job.”
“Iris never called herself a historian,” he writes. “She called herself a writer. She wanted to make a contribution to understanding and encourage other writers and historians to investigate the survivor’s stories. I think she completely accomplished her goal.” It’s a work, he says, that came from Chang’s “desire for justice, her sympathetic heart, and her interest in mankind and its future.”
At the end of our interview, Yang shows us some of the few photos he still has of Iris Chang during her time in Nanjing. She appears exactly as Yang Xiaming, Duan Yueping and others remember her: young, vibrant and confident. “Like a typical American girl,” Yang says with a smile. Nowhere is there any hint of the arc her life is to follow. In the final photo, Chang stands in front of Gulou park with Yang’s daughter. She wears her hair pulled back, tennis shoes for sightseeing, and a t-shirt and shorts against the heat. She smiles easily, her eyes anticipating, as if staring out over something limitless.