Historian Iris Chang

Through painstaking digging and unflinching writing Iris Chang exposed one of the greatest atrocities of all time, sparking international outrage that hasn’t died out to this day. In The Rape of Nanking Chang chronicled the most brutal moments of Japan’s WWII invasion of China. In the process of bringing to light this dark time, Chang became a highly visible champion for American soldiers who had been enslaved by Japan, as well as the other survivors of Japanese atrocities. Not even her tragic and baffling death has dimmed the light she managed to shine with her writing.

Iris Chang was born on March 28, 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey to two university professors who emigrated from China. She was raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where she earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois in 1898. She later revealed in an interview that she initially majored in math and computer science, but switched to journalism, because she “knew [she] wanted to become a writer one day.” She had a brief stint working as a reporter for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune before completing her graduate degree in writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

Chang launched her writing career with her first historical novel, “Thread of the Silkworm” (1995)—a powerfully ironic account of Tsien Hsue-shen, a Chinese American scientist wrongly victimized during the Red Scare and deported to China. Tsien went on to develop the Chinese Silkworm missile that would later threaten American warplanes during the Vietnam War.

It was Chang’s second work, The Rape of the Nanking (1997), that propelled her into the literary and political spotlight. Her book reveals the atrocities of the Second Sino-Japanese War through frightening accounts of tortures, gang rapes and brutal slaughters of thousands of Chinese by Japanese soldiers. Chang claimed that the Nanking Massacre was the second most horrific massacre in all of history, deaths outnumbering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. But it wasn’t the number of the deaths that was so terrifying for Chang. It was the manner in which the victims met their death.

“The Japanese turned murder into sport,” she noted. Even more chilling, these murders were perpetrated by “model citizens,” many of them who would later return to become respectable members of the community. The Rape of Nanking would remain on the New York Times Bestseller list for 10 weeks.

After its publication Chang campaigned to persuade the Japanese government to apologize for its troops’ wartime conduct, pay compensation and stop censoring the event from its history textbooks. In one memorable incident Chang confronted the Japanese Ambassador to the United States on public television, demanding an apology and rejecting his half-hearted acknowledgment “that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military”. She argued that it was this very attitude of vague indifference that left the Chinese people “infuriated”.

Her third and final work, The Chinese in America (2003) addresses the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racial discrimination the Chinese-Americans have had to face since the 19th century. Her book states that Chinese Americans have always been treated as perpetual outsiders despite the fact that America “would not be the same America without the achievements of its ethnic Chinese”.

Even without any formal historical training Chang earned the praise of leading historian Stephen Ambrose who said Chang “may be the best young historian we’ve got, because she understands that to communicate history, you’ve got to tell the story in an interesting way.”

Chang’s work didn’t stop at the written page. She gave hundreds of speeches and interviews to promote her views. A strong believer of “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Chang wanted truths exposed and injustices addressed.

In the fall of 2004 Chang suffered a nervous breakdown. While researching for her fourth book in Louisville, Kentucky, Chang was unable to leave her hotel room and was soon checked into the Norton Psychiatric Hospital. She was diagnosed with reactive psychosis, a stress-induced condition, and placed on medication for three days. She was released by her parents, but continued to suffer from depression.

On November 9, 2004 Chang was found dead in her car on a rural road in Santa Clara County. Investigators concluded that Chang had shot herself through the mouth with a revolver. Three suicide notes were found, each dated the day before her death. Chang expressed her remorse and desire to be remembered as she was in her “heyday as a best-selling author,” not as “the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville.” She also alluded to suspicions about being followed and harassed by government agencies, culminating with her detainment in the Norton Hospital.

The news of her suicide devastated the Nanjing Massacre survivor community. A memorial service was held at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Cupertino, California at the same time as her funeral. In 2007, the documentary“Nanking was dedicated to Chang along with the Chinese victims of Nanking.

“Your first duty as a writer is to write to please yourself. And you have no duty toward anyone else,” Chang once propounded in an interview. Her words resonate with a poetic irony. The bronze statue of Chang in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall stands as a reminder to the world of mankind’s first duty to fight inhumanity in any form.