HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 25, 2008
The Rape of Nanking
Iris Chang’s Requiem Mass for the Dead of the Japanese Holocaust of 1937

John R. Guthrie


I came late to The Rape of Nanking, having intended to read it but didn’t until a writer friend recently mentioned it. The book tells in intimate detail the story of the Japanese Army’s invasion and consequent plunder, rape, and destruction of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937.

This compelling volume is divided into three sections. The first provides a very satisfying précise of Japanese history for the hundred or so years prior to the fall of Nanking.

Mrs. Chang states that “...twentieth century Japanese identity was forged on a thousand-year old system in which social hierarchy was established through martial competition.” It was a reclusive state, as self contained as an egg.

The year 1852 is pivotal, because it is at that time that President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to “open” feudal and reclusive Japan to international and in particular US commerce. Commodore Perry, his flag ship the side wheel steamer Mississippi and three other ships, guns bristling, first entered Tokyo Harbor in 1853.

The Japanese were resentful both of the intrusion and of the superior military technology that made acquiescence necessary. They sat out to build s military machine without equal and an empire that included much of Asia. The Japanese schools, military schools in particular, were such that, “Vicious hazing and a relentless pecking order usually squelched any residual spirit of individualism in him. Obedience was touted as a supreme virtue...”

In one of those ironic twists that add intrigue to the reading of history, the first commander of the troops approaching Nanking in 1937 was General Matsui Iwane, “a frail, slight tubercular man with a tiny mustache.” Matsui issue an order that the Japanese soldiers who entered Nanking, were to insure that the city was “completely free of plunder…plundering and causing fires, even accidentally, will be severely punished….” 

Matsui grew feverishly ill as the Japanese Army approached Nanking. While illness was a complicating factor, it was for reasons primarily of Japanese court intrigue, that the emperor’s nephew, Prince Asaka, was inserted chain of command.  Asaka entered a dramatically different and tragic order under his personal seal:

Secret: To Be Destroyed
KILL ALL CAPTIVES

The Chinese troops defending Nanking, some 300,000 of them, were poorly lead. Some of the “soldiers” were boys less than 12 who had been handed a rifle and told “you’re a soldier now.”

The defending troops were quickly routed. The Yangtze River blocked escape on two sides, the invaders to the front. Many Chinese soldiers tried to surrender. They were taken captive and then used for blood sports such as bayonet practice, decapitation practice, and riflery practice. Civilians; men, women and children were subjected to similar deadly abuse by the soldiers and their officers. The catalogue of horrors seems endless. Rape: men forced to rape their mothers, sisters, daughters. Girls of grammar school age had their vaginas enlarged by bayonet so they could accommodate the rapist: the list of atrocities seems endless. In the end, some 300,000 Chinese, perhaps many more, were dead.  

One is thankful there is more to the story. A number of foreigners established the “Nanking Safety Zone.” Often at great personal risk, an astounding number of Chinese refugees were crowded into those 2.5 square miles. These saviors included American missionary Minnie Vautrin; Miner Searle Bates who was a history professor at Nanking University, and American Surgeon Dr. Robert O. Wilson. The most surprising and the most effective of these brave souls was John Rabe, a vice- president of the Nazi party. Swastika armband and all, Rabe has been described as “The Oskar Schindler of Nanking.” He was able to intervene where others weren’t because Germany and Japan were allies. He wrote personal letters to Nazi authorities including Adolf Hitler concerning the atrocities taking place.

The third section consists of an interesting compendium of international response, and lack thereof, to the holocaust in Nanking.

Miss Chang proves to be a capable writer as well as a thorough historian. Her style is vivid, clear, and to the point. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chang also did a graduate writing fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Her awards are many, to include the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation Award and honorary doctorates from Ohio’s College of Wooster as well as California State University Hayward. Her other books include  The Thread of the Silkworm, which chronicles the story of Tsien Hsue-shen who became the father of the Peoples Republic of China’s missile program after being driven from the United States.  Miss Chang eventually began working on a history of the Bataan Death March. She became depressed and took her own life in 2004. One cannot read her moving and thought-provoking The Rape of Nanking and of her death without reflecting not only on the tragedy of Nanking, but the additional tragedy of the loss of such a promising young historian.         

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
by Iris Chang
New York: Penguin Books, 2006
290 pages
ISBN 0140277447


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He them garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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