Massacre and Memory, History and Humanity: A Discussion on Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Massacre and Memory, History and Humanity:

A Discussion on Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking

Iris Chang's book launch, 1997 (Toronto ALPHA)



Editorial Introduction


While World War II seemed inevitable in Europe, Japanese aggression was well underway in Asia. Japan assaulted the capital of China, Nanking, in December 1937 and perpetrated a six-week-long massacre, killing thousands of unarmed Chinese military troops and civilians, including women and children. Iris Chang (1968-2004)'s Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II exposes this horrific event that showcases humanity at its worst. After reading Chang’s book, it is clear why “rape” was deemed necessary for the title; her gripping account will make one’s stomach turn. War brings up questions of the human condition, responsibility, and justice. In the following discussion, students at Armstrong respond to the atrocities of war presented in this book and confront issues of massacre, memory, history, and humanity.


A Forgotten Massacre


MICHAEL CARR(Junior, History)

Despite the horrible outcomes of war, one can never justify the actions of mutilation, torture, and rape. My heart goes out to both the grieving civilians and those that went through this annihilation. What happened during the cold months of December and January in the city of Nanking will never be forgotten. I hope that more people learn of this shocking, sorrowful massacre because if we are not aware of the past, we will never learn for the future.


ELYSE SCHREIER(Junior, Rehabilitation)

Frustration. This intense feeling of disturbance overwhelmed me as I continued to read further and further into this event and I just cannot seem to shake it. I am frustrated because I just don’t understand. No, it is not that I do not understand, I do understand; I understand the simplicity and beauty of this world and I am frustrated because of those who don’t. How can something like the Nanking massacre occur? What were those who are held responsible thinking? What went through the minds of the Japanese soldiers when they made the decision to follow through such gruesome acts? Did they truly think they are doing the right thing? Did they think at all?


I wish I could say this book was the first time I have ever heard about inhuman, cold-hearted acts but that is far from the truth. My grandparents are European holocaust survivors; they met at a displaced camp in New York, each the only remaining member of their family. I have been exposed to these crimes my entire life, yet I still fail to come to terms or an understanding with it. The Nanking massacre is an extreme example of the evils in human nature, but we see it everyday in random acts of violence and personal theft. No matter the scale of the crime they all root from the same thing, selfishness. I have narrowed it down to egotism, as being the single largest threat to human life and the absolute worst quality to behold. This undeniable part of human nature is what I believe is to blame not only for the Nanking massacre, but also for all other evils in history.


Then what should we learn? Over and over again has history proven that egocentric motive, no matter personal, imperialist, or nationalist, have never had a resolution. Since the beginning of time, events driven by self-interest alone have only caused a domino effect of misery and despair. It does not work, it has been demonstrated in front of our faces repetitively yet it continues. Japan under militarism was ignorant and naïve to think that whatever power, honor, or revenge, they gained through this attack mattered at all, because it does not mean a damn thing. I can only hope that through reflection of historical events such as Nanking massacre can there be a collective understanding of what really matters in this world. What matters is showing compassion and being completely selfless, because only then will it stop. Only when there is no selfish thought, will there be no jealousy, no revenge, no anger, no power, no reason for hatred. As cliché as it is, I see world peace as such a simple idea to grasp, and I am frustrated at those who are too selfish and ignorant to accept it.


History and Memory


MATIAS ANDRES(Freshman, Biology)

This book reminds us that when we agree to ignore the crimes of others, we allow those same people to take our freedom away to act appropriately. It has given reflection on those that did not get a fair trial or death by the hands of greedy men. There are tons of other events like the one in Nanking that have been pushed under the rug and those events in history should also be told as well. Those who died because others wanted what they had can never be justified, but at the least their stories should be told in their honor. We have inherited the injustice of others and to stop this trend of injustice more action should be taken to stop this madness. When the evidence is screaming that the whole story was not told, then one must act to stop it from ever happening again. Just telling the story of one life could cause a ripple effect towards change.


N. MILLER WOLZ N.(Senior, History)

If WWII brutality is ever brought up nearly everyone is likely to think of the holocaust and not the incident at Nanking. War atrocities should be on full display so that lessons can be learned. This as readers of Chang’s book will find out is not so easy. What is sad about this event is not only were innocent lives lost but there is a great deal of interest in keeping it under wraps. How can future generations, not just Japanese learn from the mistakes of the past if the mistakes and sins of the past are hidden from view? It would be near impossible. History is here to provide us with a template for what to steer clear of and what to indulge in. sadly though it appears we are destined to repeat this horrid cycle, if information is shied away from.


LATOYA TIMMONS (Freshman, Psychology)

The book taught me that humanity is not based on race, nationality or socioeconomic status it is based on indoctrination. Hatred and inhumanity are taught. It goes against our human nature to kill another human being. But when we are pressured to do so and are inundated with inhumane information we go against our nature, our humanity slowly gets chipped away and we lose it.


RYAN PAYNE(Sophomore, IT)

This book should make the reader aware of patterns in history and that anything that happens once, could’ve happened before and can happen again. People should be made aware of possible bias and now it is even easier to pass off. With the many ranges of media coming from the TV, radio, internet, and the newspaper, many opinions have their chances to be put to paper and passed onto you. I still believe there is more work to be done making this matter more public though. It makes me upset that I still hear of efforts today being made to deny the massacre but I think this topic should be included in more textbooks, just not quite as graphic. It is not fair to the Chinese people who suffered and not fair to Japanese history and overall reputation even though it happened back in 1937, in historical perspective it is still very close.

Humanity: Dark or Bright


SHAOFENG YANG(Freshman, Undeclared)

I do not think the real cause of WWII was Japan, with the Nanking Massacre; nor was it the Nazi who murdered six million Jews. It was the evil side of human nature. It is the sensation of greed, pride, hatred, and selfishness that caused the war and its mass genocides. The best way to prevent such tragedy is to learn to love each other, to learn how to pursue higher knowledge, and to use our education to benefit the humanity.



I began my study of politics as a way to understand humanity. Man created society and society is a reflection of the human condition. For me, there is better way to understand man than to look at the institutions he creates and the way he interacts. Yet The Rape of Nanking allowed me another look into the savagery we are capable of. As a result, I feel like I have gained insight at the heavy cost of self. When I consider how far we have come over the course of human history, I marvel at our technological advancements. When I lament how far we have left to go, I wonder if we have truly escaped the Bellum omnium contra omnes, the barbaric war of all against all. What is my impression of The Rape of Nanking? It’s simple. I feel less human having read it.


WILLIAM WORRELL (Senior, Psychology)

What does The Rape of Nanking say about humanity? Perhaps it says that humans, regardless of race or country, are capable of terrifyingly inhuman actions. Indeed, the book was not just symptomatic of the Japanese, but indicates that decent people can do insane things when pressed by their superiors and when they are put in an out of control environment such as war. The Rape of Nanking cannot be forgotten, for we must always remember the lives that were cut short for no reason. However, as human beings we must move past it and hope for a better future, using the mistakes of the past as a guide to prevent such horrors from every happening again.


RAVEN GILES (Sophomore, Early Childhood Education)

In a way, the book presents two parallels; one being the evil, barbarian side of human beings, and the other being the loving, caring, and unselfish abilities of man. Not every individual could do what they were able to do. I do not even think I would be capable of such tasks as they accomplished. Just reading about the woman who was helping to protect and shelter those who were trying to avoid being caught and raped, and how Japanese soldiers would come in and steal them made my heart break. I would feel so utterly helpless. However, their efforts did make a difference. The courage they had to form and stay behind to help with the Safety Zone is amazing. It is comforting to know that even in the midst of such horror and disaster, that there are always individuals present who put their own needs aside to help others in need.


History and Historiography


THANH TRAN(Sophomore, Biology)

Everything that occurred during this six week period was unbearable to imagine, but could this massacre have been avoided, probably so, if General Tang Shengzhi just allowed the civilians to evacuate. He was the general in charge of defending Nanking and his motive was not to let the city fall to the Japan. He wanted to strengthen the city by not having anyone evacuate, so that the Japanese could not easily take over the capital. He created blockades, destroyed boats, and burnt villages to prevent the Chinese people, civilians and soldiers, from leaving. Could the actions of the general also by accounted for the massacre? If his actions were different, many lives could have been saved. Maybe the Japanese could be right when they say that the Nanking Massacre was highly exaggerated by Chinese. Maybe, some of the mass murders and deaths of the peoples were caused by the Chinese government themselves. The Nanking Massacre is a big mystery and maybe a conspiracy, but there are two sides to this story.


LETICIA NASCIMENTO(Sophomore, Pre-Medicine)

The purpose of Chang’s book was to make the Nanking Massacre known to the rest of the world and to raise awareness about what happened in Nanking. I believe she was very successful in doing so, because it was through this book that I and many others learned about Nanking. Whether the book is completely accurate or not, the fact that the massacre happened does not change. Because she wrote a book about it, it became part of our written history. Critics complain that the book appeals to the emotional of the reader, and that is biased. In my opinion it is impossible to write a book like The Rape of Nanking without having a passion and opinion on the topic and without affecting the reader’s emotions and even the emotions of the author. It is a shame that this sad episode of World War II is not exposed like the Holocaust.



Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 978-0140277449


Recommended citation

Michael Carr, et al., “Massacre and Memory, History and Humanity: A Classroom Discussion on Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 1 (Jan. 2013).

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