Almost everyone today is familiar with the dark chapter of history from 1939 to 1945, when Hitler’s army rolled across Europe, claiming the lives of millions of people, including six million Jews. However, very few people are aware of what happened to millions of people in China from 1937 to 1945. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking is a landmark work because it finally reveals the least remembered and perhaps the most gruesome horrors of the Second World War: the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army on innocent Chinese civilians. Chang’s book is also important in searching for the reasons behind the Japanese barbarity.
The Rape of Nanking contains a chilling description of what happened to the Chinese civilians and soldiers who were unable to escape the walled city of Nanking, capital of the Kuomingtang (KMT) government, after its fall to the Japanese in December 1937. Based on a German eyewitness’ diary, interviews with survivors, and Japanese soldiers’ journals, the evidence is beyond doubt: over the subsequent six weeks, the Japanese army, under direct orders from Prince Asaka of the Imperial family, senselessly massacred over 350,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers, all of whom were disarmed and helpless. To put things in perspective, in those six weeks, the Japanese slaughtered over three times as many people as the United States lost in 12 years in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Chang adds more perspective to the death toll:
[I]t is shocking to contemplate that the deaths at Nanking far [End Page 220] exceeded the deaths from the American raids on Tokyo (an estimated 80,000–120,000 deaths) and even the combined death toll of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the end of 1945 (estimated at 140,000 and 70,000, respectively).
The cruelty by which the Chinese were killed further unveils the barbarity of the Japanese army. Mass samurai-style beheadings, gasoline dousing and burning of roped captives, bayonet training for Japanese infantry, and grenade launchings all directed at escaping Chinese swimming the Yangtze River were just a few of the Japanese methods. Chang writes
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”.
Worse still, the massive rapes committed on 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women, many of whom were killed afterwards, showed the absolute disregard for human dignity exhibited by the Japanese soldiers. Other shocking means of torture and death employed by the Japanese are also described by Chang, but too horrendous to recall here.
What is even more horrific about the Rape of Nanking is that it was the rule, not the exception, during Japan’s occupation of China. The reason why the Nanking massacre has been documented at all was the presence of foreigners in the capital city, many of whom heroically saved the lives of thousands of Chinese. According to Chang, because the Japanese had an ingrained sense of racial superiority which was affronted when the Chinese refused to capitulate - indeed, they resisted furiously when the imperial army marched into China - someone had to pay.
The Rape of Nanking occurred in part because the Chinese fought valiantly for 13 weeks in Shanghai, dashing any hopes the Japanese had of ending the conquest of China in the predicted three months. Chang describes vividly that when Shanghai fell, “the mood of the imperial troops had turned ugly, and many, it [End Page 221] was said, lusted for revenge as they marched toward Nanking.” After American pilots involved in the Doolittle raid on Tokyo were rescued by Chinese soldiers and villagers, for example, the Japanese launched a punitive expedition killing over 250,000...