A brutal, forgotten history

…its aim is not to establish a quantitative record to qualify the event as one of the great evil deeds of history, but to understand the event so that lessons can be learned and warnings sounded. Differences in degree, however, often reflect differences in kind, and so a few statistics must be used to give the reader an idea of the scale of the massacre that took place sixty years ago in a city named Nanking. – Iris Chang, Introduction to The Rape of Nanking.

I heard about the Nanking massacre only about four years ago, from a labmate who was brought up in Nanking. She was the one who told me about Iris Chang‘s book. Even though it figured in many group conversations, I have been putting off reading The Rape of Nanking for many months because I feared that the book and its gruesome contents would spill over into my life and mess up my mind. Now, with the thesis in the committee’s hands for perusal, it is probably alright to start reading about the forgotten holocaust of World War II. Ordinarily, it would make sense to wait until one is in the right frame of mind to read a certain book. But I wonder what frame of mind is “right” for a book like this.

I had made a scrapbook on Japan in my middle school days, as part of a competition. This was pre-internet, so the source material was encyclopedias and magazines such as the National Geographic and Time, much of it painstakingly gathered by my mother . Needless to say, we didn’t encounter any material about the massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking in the late 1930s. I have only just begun the book, but in the following pages, I hope to find out why the killing of more than 250,000 people was left out of the history books. I hope also to find why some people deny that the genocide ever took place (much like those few who ignore mountains of documentary and photographic evidence and eye-witness accounts to assert that the Jewish Holocaust never happened).

The book contains a few photographs which are unbearable to look at, with disembodied heads, contorted and tortured bodies and their grinning captors. In this last respect, they are reminiscent of the recent graphic images from Abu Ghraib with the prison officers taunting the prisoners. It is natural to wonder how whole groups of human beings can bring themselves to kill, maim and torture while actually enjoying the process. What does it take to strip the varnish of civility and expose our prehistoric tendencies to serve the law of tooth and claw?

[In late 2004, Iris Chang committed suicide following a nervous breakdown.]

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1 thought on “A brutal, forgotten history”

  1. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for ages but have been worried about reading it for similar reasons to yours. I will be curious as to what you make of it. It’s one of those subjects I want to know more about but don’t want to because it is so horrific. I had no idea Chang committed suicide in 2004. How very sad.

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