Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Iris Chang One Year Later...

As a little girl, Iris Chang went to her school library looking for a book about the Chinese city of Nanking. Her parents had often told her stories about something that had happened in Nanking a long time ago, something very terrible that a youngster could barely grasp. Many people died, she knew, and the famous Yangtze River “ran red with blood.” In fact her grandparents had fled Nanking in that year of 1937 narrowly escaping unimaginable terror and death.

Iris’ parents who had relayed the story could be described as intellectuals that immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. Iris was born in Princeton, but her family settled in the quiet college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where both parents became professors, one of physics, the other microbiology, at the University of Illinois. Growing up within her parent’s academic world around the university, it seems that Iris was a curious and precocious child who enjoyed books and writing. At home she kept a book of poetry and was fluent in English and Mandarin.

But on that day at the library somewhere around 30 years ago, Iris found no book about Nanking. In fact, if Iris had looked for such a book in almost any other library outside of Asia, she wouldn’t have found one there either.


One year ago on November 9, 2004, Iris Chang, the beautiful, gracefully articulate, now 36-year old historian and best-selling author drove her 1999 Oldsmobile Alero alone in the dead of night just east of San Jose, California headed west on Highway 17. She had slipped out of bed some time in the early morning, leaving her husband of thirteen years Brett Douglass, an engineer at Cisco Systems, asleep in their Sunnyvale home. Their two year old son Christopher was staying with Brett’s parents in Illinois.

It’s hard to imagine what was going through the mind of Iris Chang that early morning as she followed the dark turns through the back hills of Los Altos. It’s a rural wooded area with miles of trees and rolling hills. We can surmise there were few other cars out at that hour, and she had little to do but think. It was a clear night. We know little else about that drive.

It appears that she simply drove for a while – probably less than 30 minutes -- until it seemed that she was “far enough” away. She pulled off the highway onto what was described as a steep utility road and parked. At that time it may have still been dark. The details of exactly how things happened after that are excruciating to imagine.

She had brought with her a large-sized handgun in a cardboard box on the passenger’s seat. She had secretly purchased the Civil War era “relic” the day before at an antique shop. Antique guns have no waiting period for purchase in California.

At sometime that morning probably just around sunrise, she loaded a bullet into each chamber of the gun and placed the barrel upward inside her mouth. In an instant Iris Chang died alone inside her car on a dusty turnoff near the Lexington Reservoir, her head fell to rest against the driver’s side window. A passerby would find her about two hours later. In the back seat behind her there was child’s car seat with a teddy bear toy.


Later that day, probably about five hours after that gun fired, I would be sitting in my office at Intuit Inc in San Diego browsing headlines on I remember I saw “Author of The Rape of Nanking dead.” I didn’t recognize title, so I passed this item over. Later, I browsed the same page again, and saw the same headline. On a whim I clicked on it.

The first accounts of a young author my age committing suicide – who had written an important historical account (of which I knew nothing), was a suddenly a bit arresting. I decided to do a quick Internet search on this new name “Iris Chang.”

On Google, lots of things popped up – her three books, interviews, even a few audio interviews on public radio. I remember this story suddenly felt eerie, and I quickly realized that an immense tragedy had just occurred.

Iris had contributed immensely to the cause of history – in particular, her second book, published in 1997 before she was thirty, was perhaps one of the most controversial and important of the entire decade.

“The Rape of Nanking” shed light on a forgotten tragedy. The scope of this tragedy, Iris had discovered long after that day in the library as a little girl, was huge – so huge, it put an entirely new perspective on the Second World War. In fact, it turns out that there wasn’t just one holocaust, there was another – and stunningly, this one seemed every bit as horrifying as the Jewish Holocaust.

Her book became the first comprehensive documentation of the Nanking holocaust published in English. It became a bestseller, and made Iris Chang a celebrity and advocate for the cause of bringing this tragedy into public awareness. At the same time, the magnitude and shear horror of working on this cause would also bring her life tremendous sadness and pain.

This was a woman of conviction, courage, intellect, talent and tremendous empathy for the suffering of others who was suddenly lost while a new mother and in the prime of her life. She had everything to live for. It felt like this was life at its cruelest.


The story of what happened in Nanking – a story that was very close to being completely forgotten before Iris’ book -- is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

When the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the then capital city of Nanking China in late 1937 on an expansionist rampage, they had been keenly inculcated into a belief system that taught them they were wholly superior to their enemy in every way. Soldiers where eager to literally stomp out the Chinese people without remorse as if they were mere insects.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese civilians would be tortured and killed in a matter of weeks. The numbers were very big, but the scope of it all wasn’t just about the numbers. In this single paragraph from the Introduction of The Rape of Nanking, the immensity of the horror becomes more clear as Iris begins her disparaging portrait of insane human barbarism:

The Rape of Nanking should be remembered not only for the number of people slaughtered but for the cruel manner in which many met their deaths. Chinese men were used for bayonet practice and in decapitation contests. An estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were raped. Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, nail them alive to walls. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs, and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by German shepherds. So sickening was the spectacle that even the Nazis in the city were horrified, one proclaiming the massacre to be the work of “bestial machinery.”

In total, somewhere between 19 million to 36 million Chinese civilians were ultimately killed as a result of the invasion of China by Japan in WWII, a rather stunning statistic when you figure that six million is the commonly accepted number of Jews murdered by the Nazi’s during the same general period. The world’s collective amnesia about an event of this magnitude is simply inexplicable.

An important part of Iris Chang’s contribution was as a skilled researcher. Before The Rape of Nanking, some of the horrifying details were not well documented (barely documented at all in English), a factor contributing to the event’s obscurity. She had a tireless persistence to comb through archives (one story relays that she stayed in the library so late and concentrated so intently, she once found herself still inside a library after it had closed and the staff left). Another important ability was her fluency in Mandarin which allowed her to conduct interviews with survivors in China. Among many there she would ultimately become a hero.

One discovery in particular made for a surprising twist to the story. Iris was able to contact the son of John Rabe, who was a Nazi living in Nanking at the time of the massacre. Rabe helped run a safety zone in the city (along with others, many of them Americans) that was a haven for many Chinese. Rabe, who even had contacts with Hitler, did much to help and was outraged by what he saw in Nanking. Iris likened him to a kind of “Oskar Schindler” of Nanking.

Iris located Rabe's granddaughter, Ursula Reihardt, who told Iris there was a diary. Later the diary was translated by publishers in English and Chinese. The diary turned out to have a plethora of corroborating evidence of atrocities and is considered a significant historical find. Iris relayed later that when she showed this diary to her father, he broke down in tears.

Iris also wrote in her book about Minnie Vautrin, an American running the Education Department and Dean of Studies at a college in Nanking. Vautrin protected thousands of Chinese women from Japanese soldiers and also kept a diary. Chang said that the entries of this diary could perhaps make it as important as the diary of Anne Frank. In it Vautrin described how refugees poured in and her struggle to protect them.

In a strangely familiar story, after Vautrin returned to the United States, she too took her own life.


Iris described in her book something she called the “Second Rape” or the “Rape of History.” Some Japanese groups, namely Japanese “Nationalist” groups had denied that the Rape of Nanking ever happened. Today, historians consider the events undisputed, and although her book caused something of an uproar among these groups, it seems that the facts have been accepted by scholars outside Japan (and many inside), and Iris’ book received rave reviews across the world.

Iris was thrown into a firestorm of controversy amongst deniers, and she became a headstrong advocate in the Chinese demand for an apology from the Japanese government. She pointed out that Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations for its war crimes while Japan has paid close to nothing. While Germany has put up monuments commemorating the victims of the Jewish holocaust, Japan still to this day (although a bit lower profile lately) regularly worships Class A war criminals in the Yasukuni Shrine as deities.

According to Iris, it is against the law not to teach the history of the holocaust in German public schools, yet in Japan most of the details of WWII is are conveniently left out of the curriculum. She said:

“There is so little information taught about the Sino-Japanese war or even all of World War II in Japanese public schools that some people who have spent time teaching in Japan have reported that students are often baffled when the find out that the U.S. and Japan were ever at war, and sometimes their first question is: Which side won?”

Iris’ story of Nanking ripped open fresh wounds. Anti-Iris Chang literature sprang up on Japanese college campuses, conferences there condemned her, and a Japanese publisher attempting to publish her book received death threats.

Through it all she was unyielding in her view that Japan after 60 years of denial must make a clear and unequivocal apology. Once on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour when the Japanese ambassador spoke about Nanking, she dryly turned to the moderator and said, “I didn’t hear an apology.”

Helen Zia, author of “Asian-American Dreams: Emergence of an American People” said, "To see her on TV, defending the 'Rape of Nanking' so fiercely and so fearlessly -- I just sat down, stopped, in awe."


Iris spent her childhood in Champaign-Urbana eventually attending the University of Illinois earning a B.A. in journalism. She also received a master’s degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University. She launched a successful career as a journalist early in her twenties, working for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. She wrote articles about diverse subjects such as AIDs victims, the history of the transistor, toxic mold, and working mothers … but all the while she aspired to write books.

In the course of the next decade, she set out writing and discovering three very different stories – each related in some way to her Chinese heritage, but universally pertinent. In a broad sense they each tell true stories about people that were victims of governmental power … and she spent her life advocating justice and civil liberties for those that suffered cruelty at the hands of others. Iris had a profound gift for writing, but also a profound gift for finding true stories of particular relevance – untold stories that desperately needed a storyteller.

The Thread of the Silkworm, her first book, was published when she was only 25. This is remarkable when you consider the technical subject matter (literally rocket science) that made up the background of the story, and the difficult and careful research she used to depict times, events and places accurately. Silkworm was a rather griping depiction of the life of Tsien hu-shen, the brilliant Cal Tec scientist who came to America from China in the 1940s to study rockets– and eventually hoped to become an American. After a series of distinguished accomplishments in academia and becoming a founder of the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Dr. Tsien was falsly accused of being a Communist and a spy and was imprisoned and then confined to house arrest in a long, drawn out bureaucratic nightmare. Tsien, a patriotic admirer of America, was eventually deported back to China where years later he became a Chinese hero and the Father of the Silkworm Missile Program. The Silkworm missile would eventually be used against America in the first Gulf War. This stinging tale rather brilliantly shows us through a little known piece of history, the irony arising from Cold War McCarthyism and a grim reminder of how politics didn’t simply victimize and innocent man, but came back to bite in a big way. At 25, Iris became the youngest author to publish for Basic Books.

The Rape of Nanking is the book for which Iris Chang will always be remembered. This was a breakthrough book, not only for Iris, but for history. Its scope and importance is hard to overstate. This depiction of an unbelievable WWII atrocity committed by the Japanese Imperial Army on the defenseless then-capital city of China is perhaps a candidate for THE most egregious act of barbarism in all human history. At the same time it was close to completely unknown in the west before publication of this book in 1997. It is nothing short of stunning that the events that took place in Nanking China are still barely known in the western world.

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, is a supremely interesting epic book published in 2003 depicting the history of America as Iris said “through the eyes of one immigrant group and their experiences.” She wanted to write a current book about the history of the Chinese here, and again she would expand on the themes of human rights and civil liberties. She documented different waves of immigrants that arrived – the most commonly known being the gold rush era immigrants, but also those that came later. She noted that in different times in history Chinese people were hailed and admired while at other times they faced discrimination or even genocide.

These works in the span of ten years made up an important and significant body of work for someone so young. Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers and D-Day, was arguably the preeminent historian of World War II. In a warm compliment to Chang he called her "maybe the best historian we've got. She understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way. She uses those vital storytelling rhythms."


Along with the fame, the cause of bringing to light injustice, the controversy, Iris suffered the severe dark side of its painful past. At times researching Nanking had been torturous. The stories of victims – often relayed to her in excruciating detail first hand – seemed to became a rapturous burden. While writing The Rape, stress caused her to lose a lot of her hair. One friend said that she cried on the phone with him for an hour one night after writing, unable to comprehend the cruelty. Another friend said her working space at home was shrouded with pictures like a shrine to the victims. Later, last year, her husband still expressed frustration at her relentless work on horror stories, this time for her fourth book – which she never completed, about the Bataan Death March.

Some of the struggle seems to have stemmed from the stress of countless public appearances and talks around the country. She pushed herself literally to the point of exhaustion. Some of her worst experiences of last year seemed to stem from overwork and sleep deprivation as she pushed herself to the ultimate limits. In the spring of 2004, her public appearances were at the rate of about a city a day – sometimes she had several engagements each day from morning till night.

From this backdrop, something snapped in the summer of 2004 when Iris went to Louisville Kentucky to research Bataan. She suffered a breakdown shortly after arriving and was hospitalized. Although she recovered, things never came quite back to normal. She began seeing a psychiatrist but wasn’t happy with her treatment and the family conveys that she was not entirely cooperative. Her illness was enough of a problem that Brett and Iris sent their son to be with Brett’s parents in Illinois. Things started to get better last fall, and Iris was not thought to be a suicide risk.

Excerpts from her suicide note, of which she wrote three drafts, show that Iris had reached a breaking point of desperation, fear and guilt. She believed that someone was actively trying to discredit her and she was afraid for her safety. “I sensed suddenly threats to my own life,” she wrote, “an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box.”

In a transgression of overwhelm and pain her note says, “Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take -- the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me. Forgive me because I cannot forgive myself.

It’s probably too simplistic to say that her depression and death was caused solely by her work, but clearly they played a major role. She had tendency to profoundly empathize with victims, and her work seemed to define and engulf her.

Aside from attention her death drew back to her work, her illness also shed light on the profoundly serious disease of depression. It brought into view the stigma of shame associated with mental illness, and the reluctance of victims to get the help they need. This problem, it has been suggested, may be particularly prevalent in the Asian culture.


At Chang’s memorial in Los Gatos, James Bradley author of the now famous book “Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima” recited an open letter to Iris’ small son. He explained how his first book had been rejected by 28 publishers, yet Iris had encouraged him to not give up. Years later he looks back at two best-sellering books about WWII. The movie rights to Flags of Our Fathers was eventually purchased by Steven Spielberg. Clint Eastwood directed the film which wrapped shooting last week in Chicago. Although Iris had dreamed of The Rape of Nanking becoming a film and had apparently been in talks with some about this at one time, this dream remains unrealized.


In the spring of this year I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Nancy Lo, President of the Association for Preserving Historical Accuracy of Foreign Invasions in China (APHAFIC). Nancy hosted a meeting at a San Diego library with Iris Chang last year, and has met with her other times over the years. Nancy is a charming person, a distinguished scientist, and an engaging friend.

Nancy introduced me to Colonel Frank Mason, a WWII veteran and eyewitness to the Rape of Nanking. Mason is an affable and friendly man who was interviewed by Iris many times on the phone and in person about his wartime experiences. It turns out he lives only a few miles from my home. We spoke one day a few months ago and he reminisced about his meetings with Iris. “I would tell her how beautiful she was,” he said. “She would just laugh.”

When he talks about Nanking he gets sullen. He described being powerless to help in a scene of overwhelming mayhem taking place in the city. “After the women were raped,” he said tersely, “[the Japanese] would slice them open.”

When he read about Iris’ death in the newspaper he was incredulous. His voice lowers when he recalls that day. “I just couldn’t believe it.” In pondering his voice cracks and its hard for him to say, “Her heart just gave out…”


Today, millions of people have heard of The Rape of Nanking, millions more than would have known without Iris Chang’s work. Still, only a small minority of Americans have any notion of what happened on that side of the world during the war. Pearl Harbor we remember, but collectively as a nation we don’t know much else, just a few battles that followed in the Pacific: Midway, Iwo Jima, Saipan perhaps.

Iris’ publisher and agent, Susan Rabiner said at Iris’ memorial: “Now, some child will go to the library and -- though there wasn't such a book for Iris when she was growing up -- there will be a book in a language they will understand. And they will see the photographs and see a beautiful young woman, completely devoted to her cause.“

In the end I run out of words to put down about Iris Chang, author, scholar, “change agent”, advocate, historian, teacher, mother. I often think that each time someone dies, the world becomes a different place. I’ve never felt that more than with Iris Chang. It feels unfair that I only learned about her and her cause a few hours after she was gone.

But Iris Chang leaves a big legacy, an indelible message … and she left a warning. In a 2004 Interview she said:

“Personally I believe we are living in more dangerous times then ever. Don’t forget we now have the technological capacity to exterminate the human race with nuclear weapons, so the stakes are much larger. I don’t think that human behavior has evolved much really beyond what it had been since caveman times. We have civilization but the veneer of that civilization is exceedingly thin. If anything I think that while there’s much more attempts to try to bring about peace, that the reality is that the numbers of people who’ve died during wars or being murdered by their own governments has increased because the technological means to perpetrate mass murder has increased, but basic human nature has stayed the same.”

“Every 80 years or so the world is going to be populated with entirely different people. During that 80 years there is going to be a ruthless struggle as the world’s power and capital is transferred from one set of hands to another. Every generation is going to have to confront these basic challenges to their civil liberties and civil rights, not just in the United States but around the globe. As an author, I hope that in my brief lifetime, because we are all just here for a flicker of time, that I will help serve as a bridge between the past and the present. That I will help preserve some of the stories of our age and the struggles so that future generations can benefit from them.”

Iris had something important to say, and it is immensely sad that she herself suffered so much while she tried to bring awareness and justice to the suffering of others. People like this are rare, and oh what misfortune that we are all powerless to change her demise.

Now that a year is passed, I can see that over time her memory will eventually fade much like the victims she herself hoped would never be forgotten. Others will pick up her causes, but there likely won’t be another like her. Please don’t forget this woman, the last victim of The Rape of Nanking.

One year later ... Iris, farewell.



There are many resources about Iris on the net. Here are a few. Above all else, I recommend Glenn Zucman’s audio interview:

Best Audio Interview: Glenn Zucman's Interview With Chang - April 2004 This is an mp3 recording (Ipod compatible) of an Interview with Chang at the LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA for Glenn Zucman’s radio show called “Strange Angels.” This half hour Interview is perhaps one of the best concise audio interviews of Chang available. Iris discusses a wide range of topics including all three of her books. Zucman is also an artist – see Zucman’s portrait of Chang.

Other Audio Interviews:

Audio Interview: Neal Conan Interviews Iris Chang on NPR about The Chinese in America May 7, 2003

Audio Interview: NPR Interview of Chang on “All Things Considered” December 3, 1997

Audio Interview: Penny Nelson Interview Iris Chang on “Forum” June 23, 2003

Audio Interview: Interview of Chang on the Paula Gordon Show April 22, 2004

Recommended Video: This video of a lecture Iris gave at USCB as part of their “Voices” series on October 16, 2003. Sharon Yoshida, introduces Chang. The presentation is almost one hour long: UCSB Webcast.

Other Video: A good video of Chang at The Committee of 100 - 2003 and The Video.

The definitive article: about Chang and her death – published April 17, 2005 in the San Francisco Chronicle by Heidi Benson (many pictures included): Historian Iris Chang won many battles: The war she lost raged within

Other Aritcles:

Another article by Benson written November 11, 2004: Author described as 'exhausted' before she was found dead

Excellent article written by friend Paula Kamen on You’ll need to register on to read the whole article:

Wikipedia entry for Iris Chang

Iris’ website (hasn’t changed since her death – still shows her rigorous speaking schedule):

Mourning Iris Chang by Dr. William Y. Jiang (pdf file)

Nancy Beardsley column

Alex Danin Adler’s Farewell

Memorial site – lots of pictures

San Francisco Chronicle article by Laurie Barkin: Unbearable sadness of others' pain

1998 Article about response to The Rape of Nanking: When Iris Chang wrote ``The Rape of Nanking,'' to memorialize one of the bloodiest massacres of civilians in modern times, she wasn't prepared for the firestorm she started

Metro Active Article by Ami Chen Mills: Breaking the Silence December 12, 1996

Article on

Article: Forgotton Holocaust.

Nightmare in Nanking by Sue De Pasquale


The Iris Chang Scholarship Fund
University of Illinois Foundation
Attn: Jeff Roley
1305 West Green Street
Urbana, IL 61801-2962


Blogger mikejackson6030 said...

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5:37 PM  
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5:24 PM  
Blogger Bing said...

thank you for such a wonderful writing about Iris Chang which was written 12 years ago! i've just learnt about her today from watching a film called Flowers of the War. Truly admire this beautiful writer and not mention that the coincidence that she happens to have the same chinese name as my sister!

2:47 AM  

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