AMONG the many issues that bedevil relations between China and Japan, the most intractable occurred almost 70 years ago. In 1937 around 50,000 Japanese troops descended on Nanking, China's former capital, and took charge there. What happened next
is a matter of lasting controversy. The Chinese say that more than 300,000 civilians were killed, and 80,000 girls and women raped. The Japanese divide into different schools of thought. At one extreme, the “Great Illusion” school argues that almost no
civilians were killed, and that most of the deaths were legal killings of soldiers in plain clothes. At the other, the “Great Massacre” school thinks as many as 200,000 Chinese may have died. Scholars on both sides continue to revile each other either as
Japan-bashers, or as apologists for imperialism.
In Japan, the Nanking “Incident”—still too controversial even to have a settled name—is central to a wider debate about history teaching in Japanese schools. In China, it is crucial to the nation's modern identity. After the war, the atrocity was played
down: Japan, seared by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was seen as a victim nation, not as an aggressor, and the Americans were keen to cultivate it as a counterweight to dangerous Red China. To deny the Chinese version of Nanking, therefore, is to continue to
gang up on China and to stifle its account of history.
Into this maelstrom of nationalist pride and pain stepped, in the 1990s, a 29-year-old Chinese-American. Iris Chang was not an historian by training. She had studied journalism at the University of Illinois, then taken a master's in science writing, and
had worked for a while on the Chicago Tribune. Her interest in Nanking was aroused incidentally, by hearing her grandparents talk about it. Like many others, they had fled the city before the Japanese arrived; what they knew was hearsay. But it was
sufficiently terrible for Miss Chang to spend a day “walking around in a state of shock”, before deciding to devote herself to making the massacre known.
For two years she did research in China, rifling the archives and talking to survivors. She pinned a map of Nanking on her study wall, covering it with pictures of tortures and killing in the places where they had happened. Some civilians had been
mutilated with broken beer bottles, some impaled on bamboo. Women's breasts had been cut off and nailed to walls. The Japanese killed so many men that they found it quicker to bayonet them as they stood in a line, rather than behead them.
As the grim stories accumulated, Miss Chang lost weight and broke down. She went on, defying exhaustion. When her book on Nanking came out, in 1997, she spent a year on the road talking about it. More than half a million copies were sold in America
alone; she became a celebrity, leaving audiences astonished that this pretty, smiling girl could tell such tales of horror. But she did not care, she said, whether she made a cent from it. All she wanted to do was get the story out.
Facing the ambassador
“Proper” historians cavilled, and with some reason. Her book, several said, was too polemical, and was riddled with mistakes which she refused to correct. Her reliance on oral history, especially the fading memories of Chinese witnesses, was unwise. Even her use of the invaluable diaries of foreign “bystanders” in Nanking was suspect, for these people—who had organised a “safety zone” both for foreigners and Chinese—had no idea of the actual numbers killed. When her book was translated into Japanese, supporters of the Great Massacre school found they could not defend her figures, which were higher even than those claimed in China.
Miss Chang could not bear this nit-picking. A great injustice had occurred, and had been all but covered up. There was no doubt at all that it had happened, with immense human suffering. She had no time for semantics: whether to include deaths outside
the city walls, whether the plain-clothes soldiers had been billeted with civilians, and so on. What she wanted, at the very least, was an official Japanese apology. Face to face on television with the Japanese ambassador to America, she demanded one.
When he muttered that there had been “perhaps some unfortunate incidents”, she was outraged.
When she died—apparently by shooting herself in the head, on a rural road in California—she had started work on a book on the Bataan Death March and the abuse of American prisoners-of-war by the Japanese. Again, the stories were affecting her: she had
been taken to hospital, suffering from depression.
She had been planning, too, to publish the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary in Nanking during the massacre. Vautrin, like her, came from Illinois. She had saved thousands of Chinese civilians from the Japanese, sometimes giving them her
own last ration of rice. In 1941, however, a year to the day after leaving Nanking, she had committed suicide, convinced that she had done too little.
Friends wondered whether Miss Chang had felt the same. This was certainly likely. But she was also aware that her writings had played into the hands of the massacre's deniers: that she had perhaps not only done too little, but protested too much.