Faculty recently received a notice from Lily Kun in our college library about new films added to our Films on Demand subscription for our collective use. I will make the confession here that I usually pay little attention to such notices because past experience indicates that there is usually precious little of interest to me or my classes. For whatever reason, this time I decided to flip through the titles. I was rewarded by finding a film called the Rape of Nanking which documents the career of Iris Chang, the author of a controversial book on this subject. For those who might not know, the subject matter of her book was the atrocities inflicted on the Chinese residents of Nanking (then the Nationalist Chinese capital) by Japanese troops when they occupied the city in 1937.
The book itself was, as I said, controversial. It documents a massive, repulsive and totally shocking persecution of the Chinese of Nanking perpetrated by their occupiers, almost as a form of entertainment. In Chang’s opinion, it constituted a holocaust that paralleled the German persecution of the Jews in Europe. And, unlike the Germans, the Japanese have been reluctant to admit wrong doing, and their failure to do so has poisoned Chinese-Japanese relations Japanese nationalists up until today.
The view of what happened in Nanking has been disclaimed by Japanese nationalists, in particular (though they are not alone in their views). They claim the story is Chinese propaganda and there was no persecution on a large scale. Some atrocities may have occurred but there were far fewer than were claimed and committed by soldiers out of control than as a result of official Japanese policy. I will not comment on this assertion but leave it to those of you who watch the film to decide.
The film itself focuses on Iris Chang, and how she researched the Rape of Nanking and the impact it had on her. The work was both documentary and field research. She miraculously found some survivors to talk to (miraculous both for what they had gone through and the very time that had elapsed since 1937), who shared incredible stories of horrors they personally witnessed. To verify what happened, she reviewed diaries and memoirs by some of the westerners who were resident in Nanking at the time. In these, she found the stories of unsung heroes who tried to protect Chinese men, women and children from the events which were unfolding. These included American missionaries but also the representative of Nazi Germany in the Chinese capital, John Rabe. Rabe was a card carrying member of the Nazi party and a businessman. His actions were reminiscent of those of Oskar Schindler in Europe (the subject of the film Schindler’s List).
To say Chang was deeply moved by her research would be a gross understatement. It came to consume her even after her book was completed and she moved on to other things, both professionally (new books) and personally (she had a child with her husband). Ultimately, she sunk into a deep depression and committed suicide. I came away from the film with the feeling that the world lost a great soul when she took her own life. I have rarely been so moved as to learn about her commitment to documenting the Rape of Nanking, for its victims, for herself and for the world at large. She grappled with the question we all need to ask, namely, how do seemingly normal people otherwise commit evil acts. In Chang’s case, the question overwhelmed her in the end. Please do take a look at this film. It will be well worth your time.