Keeping victims' story alive Massacre: Iris Chang's family barely escaped the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, China. She would not let their tale, or those of the murdered, be lost forever.

November 18, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Through three generations, the tale was passed down. From father to daughter, to daughter again.

Of how Japanese soldiers plundered the city of Nanking in December 1937, killing and torturing more than 300,000 people in less than eight weeks.

Of how they stormed the streets, killing for sport, slashing people into pieces, raping thousands of women and young girls and then mutilating their bodies.

Of how the Yangtze River that snakes past the city literally ran red with blood.

And now, 29-year-old Iris Chang has woven her grandfather's tales of the Nanking massacre into the first English-language book on the topic: "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." Tediously researched, it is a stomach-turning, tear-wrenching, thoroughly riveting book -- which is exactly what Chang hoped to achieve.

It will be officially released in stores next week -- just before the 60th anniversary of the massacre. Chang is in Baltimore today to speak at Johns Hopkins this afternoon and sign books at Louie's, The Bookstore Cafe, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"I feel that I'm fulfilling my family's legacy," Chang says before a book signing in Washington yesterday. "With this book, I can preserve their stories. It's ensuring that they live on."

Her book looks beyond the atrocities in Nanking -- the former capital of China now known as Nanjing -- into the psyche of the Japanese who allowed the massacre to occur, the Europeans and Americans who tried to save the Chinese, and the Japanese denial of the events ever since.

It also includes information from the diary of a German who lived in Nanking at the time, information never before released. John Rabe, whom Chang calls the "Oskar Schindler of China," was a German businessman and leader of the Nazi Party in Nanking when the Japanese invaded. Rabe led a group of Europeans and Americans in establishing a "Safety Zone," which Chang credits with saving almost 300,000 Chinese.

Frederic Wakeman, director of the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of East Asian Studies, said Rabe's diary sets Chang's book apart from anything that's been written about the massacre in the past.

"His chronicle is absolutely riveting," Wakeman said. "Think about it, here's a Nazi writing about this and even he was shocked. It's one of the most bestial acts of human history."

A journalism graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and 1991 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University's writing seminars program, Chang is also the author of "Thread of the Silkworm," the story of the father of China's missile program. She says she decided to write about Nanking because it had been threaded into her psyche since she was a child.

Growing up in the university town of Urbana, Chang's professor parents first told her about the massacre when she was in grade school. Sitting around the dinner table laden with stir-fried vegetables, chicken and rice, her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, would spin tales her father had told her.

Especially the one of her own parents' narrow escape, which Chang details in her book.

Chang's maternal grandfather, Chang Tien-Chun, was a poet, journalist and Chinese government official in Nanking.

A few weeks before the massacre, he left their family home in a village just outside Nanking to go into the city. When Chinese officials began evacuating the city, he sent word for his wife to meet him at Wuhu, a town on the banks of the Yangtze River, where they could sail to safety. As the Japanese had bombed the railroads, the only route his wife could take was on a boat meandering through a small waterway.

After four long days, boatload after boatload of refugees arrived, but Chang's wife still had not shown up. As the final boat was preparing to leave Wuhu, he screamed his wife's name, "Yi-Pei!" in despair. In the distance, from the last tiny boat approaching the docks, an answer came.

Chang's grandmother had barely made it.

"In that context," Chang says, "it's a miracle I'm alive."

Her mother's tales, told with a quiet voice and quivering anger, instilled in her a deep curiosity to research and report all she could about Nanking.

"I want the rape of Nanking to penetrate the public consciousness," says Chang. "Unless we truly understand how these atrocities can happen, we can't be certain that it won't happen again."

Yesterday, Chang's book tour took her to Trover Bookstore near Capitol Hill in Washington. Handfuls of people walked by, leafing through her book and approaching her to sign it.

One of the first in line was Dimon Liu, who said her parents also had survived the massacre.

"It's long overdue," said Liu, an independent policy-writer in Washington. "I want the Japanese to remember what they've done. I want their younger generations to remember the shame of their forefathers."

Japan's acknowledgement of the terrible events of 1937 have long been a point of contention between China and Japan.

Yesterday, Hidehisa Horinouchi, a spokesman for the Embassy of Japan, declined to comment specifically about the book, but said Japanese leaders have acknowledged their atrocities in Nanking.

"We want to face the past history squarely without avoiding the truth," he said.

For her part, Chang says she had no choice but to do just that in writing her book. She's glad it's finally out.

"I lost a lot of weight and hair researching the book," she says. "I couldn't leave [the victims' stories] behind and I had a hard time sleeping at night. There were times when I'd start shaking all over and I felt this tremendous pain inside me."

Which is why Ying-Ying Chang has told her daughter to pick a "light topic" for her next book.

"You don't want to dwell on this for so long," her mother said. "I'm very concerned for her health, but I'm so proud of her."

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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