Iris Chang first heard stories about the Nanking massacre as a young girl. During World War II, her parents told her, Japanese soldiers had slaughtered babies with bayonets. The Yangtze River had run red with blood; thousands of Chinese civilians had been tortured and raped. They were grotesque tales, almost fantastical in their horror. How could such things happen, she wondered, and yet not result in a single book about it in the public libraries in her hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois? Years later, in 1994, Chang attended a conference commemorating the victims of the massacre, which had taken place in December of 1937. On the walls were poster-sized photos confirming the truth of those childhood stories. “Nothing prepared me for these pictures,” she later wrote. “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 unforgettable expressions of agony and shame. In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself.”
Chang had gone to the conference to gather information about the massacre, hopeful that the material she found there could form the basis of a book. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm (Basic), the story of a Chinese-born physicist who was deported from the U.S. as a Communist sympathizer, was due to be published the following year, and she was eager to begin work on a second. Chang was 26, tall, slim, with straight jet-black hair and a regal manner, but she looked years younger. “I’m working on a book project,” she told Ignatius Ding, whose organization, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, was hosting the conference. “She looked like a high school kid, so I told her, this is not a subject you want to write your book report on,” he says. “No, no, I’m a professional,” she replied. Ding tried to dissuade her from the project—it would be too tough to get information, for one thing, since neither the governments of China nor Japan nor even that of the U.S. were all that keen on the subject—but Chang was adamant.
Three years later Chang published The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic). It described the Japanese atrocities in graphic detail—victims were gang-raped and mutilated, others buried alive—and became a bestseller, sparking an international call for Japan to atone for its war crimes. Critics and historians heralded the book; right-wing Japanese nationalists called Chang a liar, and worse. She became a popular speaker on college campuses, completed a third book, The Chinese in America (Viking), and began work on a fourth, a history about the Bataan Death March.
And then, last November, she committed suicide, firing a single pistol round into her mouth on a quiet dirt road about 25 miles from her home. Internet chat rooms buzzed with conspiracy theories; she had been murdered by right-wing Japanese nationalists, many thought, or by the yakuza. The rumors continued even after her parents revealed that she had been suffering from clinical depression for months, and had been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs.
Many believed she was driven to kill herself by the sheer horror of her research, that years of listening to tale after tale of brutality had finally taken their toll. Helen Zia, journalist, activist, and author of the book Asian American Dreams, says it would “just compound the tragedy of her death if people were to think that speaking out about hate crimes, about human rights violations, about genocide, is bad for you.”
Him Mark Lai, board member of the Chinese Historical Society of America, remembers watching Chang going after sources at a group luncheon, “making a beeline for them and picking their brains.” When preparing to write The Rape of Nanking, she studied how certain books become bestsellers. “She deliberately created that phenomenon,” says Ding. “She did marketing research, what’s unique about this book, when is the best time to hit the market. She would ask authors, ‘Which of your books was the most popular, and how long did it take, and what happened?’ She was scary in her research.” He remembers phone conversations when he could hear Chang furiously typing on the other end. “She would write down everything. I felt like I was talking to the FBI. You couldn’t lie; she would remember—’See, three years ago you told me this.’ ”
Sam Chu Lin, a radio and television journalist, recalls the time Chang was going through files in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and became trapped inside the building. “She was so involved in her research that she forgot the building was closing,” he says. She called her husband, who told her to dial 911. She refused, afraid that the incident would be reported in the national news. “Iris was the type of independent person who didn’t want to be embarrassed,” says Lin. Eventually she found a security guard, who let her out. Lin joked about it at Chang’s memorial service, but it was a telling moment, that a writer so fearless could also be so concerned about revealing even the smallest of mistakes.
UCLA history professor Henry Yu, co-founder of a group of historians who are writing textbooks about the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, recently taught Chang’s The Chinese in America in an undergraduate class. The text is a diatribe against 150 years of homegrown bigotry, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Wen Ho Lee. His students loved it. “The early parts of the book, where she talks about the early histories, they piss you off,” he says. “That’s a valuable thing, teaching-wise. I want my students to be pissed off.”
It’s too soon to know what Chang’s legacy will be, whether she will be remembered more for her books or for her activism or for her untimely death. Her suicide was so sudden that people still lapse into the present tense when speaking of her, describing her quirks and idiosyncrasies as if she were still alive. Her official website, irischang.net, makes no mention of her death and continues to list her speaking schedule and contact information. There are concerns that her suicide will overshadow all else, but it’s likely, as with the suicides of other famous authors, that the shock of hers will diminish with time as well. Certainly the international movement sparked by The Rape of Nanking will continue, albeit in unforeseeable ways. “I think that’s going to be an impact that we’re going to feel for generations,” says Zia. “We don’t even know what that impact is going to be yet, because this brewing tension between China and Japan right now is big, and has the potential to become even bigger. And Iris, her work, was a huge part of that.”
Robert Ito is a regular book reviewer for Los Angeles Magazine.