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'Rape of Nanking' Author Iris Chang Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page B06

Prominent Chinese American author Iris Chang, whose international bestseller "The Rape of Nanking" resurrected the long-ignored atrocities by the Japanese military on Chinese civilians during World War II, died Nov. 9 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in her car along a rural road south of Los Gatos, Calif.

Ms. Chang, 36, had been battling clinical depression, said her literary agent, Susan Rabiner, and had been hospitalized, treated and released five months ago. She was working on another book and maintained an active speaking and reading schedule.

Iris Chang brought new attention to Japanese atrocities in World War II. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

She was considered one of the country's best young historians. Ms. Chang had heard about the Nanking massacres from her parents and grandparents, who had fled the city as Japanese troops arrived. Other young Chinese Americans, whom she had met while protesting the Chinese government's actions in Tiananmen Square in 1989, also had heard the stories, but she found few published references. That prompted her to begin the research for her book, published in 1997.

During an eight-week period in 1937, marauding Japanese soldiers butchered some 300,000 Chinese in a multitude of horrible ways, raped thousands of women and burned much of the city.

"The rape of Nanking, a city of 1 million, by the Japanese army was perhaps the most appalling single episode of barbarism in a century replete with horrors. Yet it had been largely forgotten until Iris Chang made it her subject," wrote syndicated columnist George Will when the book was published.

For years, some Japanese called the atrocities a myth. But Ms. Chang discovered records at the Yale Divinity School of American missionaries who were there, and in the National Archives, where an intercepted cable from Foreign Minister Hirota Koki in Tokyo in 1938 said, "Verbal accounts of reliable eyewitnesses and letters from individuals whose credibility is beyond question afford convincing proof that Japanese Army behaved and is continuing to behave in fashion reminiscent of Attila and his Huns."

She also unearthed a previously unknown diary of a German man, a Nazi, who lived in Nanking at the time and helped save hundreds of the residents.

Her painstaking research and vivid, almost lyrical, writing propelled the book to the top of bestseller lists, where it stayed for months. It sold thousands of copies overseas, but it has not been published in Japanese, Rabiner said, because the first Japanese publisher wanted to change the text, and then Ms. Chang was concerned that the publication would lead to violence.

Ms. Chang also published "Thread of the Silkworm" (1995), a story of a brilliant Chinese-born physicist forced to leave the American space program by McCarthyism, and "The Chinese in America" (2003), a 150-year history of immigration. She was at work on a fourth book, a "triumphant" story, Rabiner said, about the men who fought in the U.S. tank battalions in the Bataan Peninsula during World War II who were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The writer was also an advocate of social justice and civil rights. She wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times last year warning that excessive fear of the SARS virus could easily lead to discrimination, and in other articles she denounced government bias against Muslims and other immigrants after Sept. 11, 2001.

"There are real parallels between how the Chinese were treated during the exclusion era and what Muslims and people from the Middle East are going through now," she told the Chicago Tribune in June.

The late Stephen Ambrose, an American historian whose books have sold millions, called her "maybe the best young historian we've got because she understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way."

She seemed to agree. "I think my role is that of a storyteller and somebody who is trying to combat injustice," she told a Baltimore Sun reporter in April. "In the role of the storyteller, one can bring to light acts of injustice. One important step in preventing these atrocities is informing the people."

She confronted the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Kunihiko Saito, in 1998 on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Mr. Saito said the Japanese government had apologized many times for "acts of cruelty and violence [that] were committed by members of the Japanese military."

"As to the incident in Nanking, we do recognize that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military," he said, according to a transcript of the show.

"Did you hear an apology?" interviewer Elizabeth Farnsworth asked.

"I don't know. Did you hear an apology?" Ms. Chang said. "And I think that if he had said genuinely, I personally am sorry for what the Japanese military had done during World War II, I would have considered that an apology. But it's -- I think that would have been a great step in the right direction. But, again, there are words that are used such as -- words like 'regret,' 'remorse,' 'unfortunate things happen.' It is because of these types of wording and the vagueness of these expressions that Chinese people, I think, are infuriated."

Ms. Chang was born in Princeton, N.J., and grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where her parents were college professors, and she received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1989. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune before receiving a graduate degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University and launching her career as a full-time author and lecturer.

Survivors include her husband of 13 years, Brett Douglas; a son, Christopher Douglas; her parents, Shau-Jin and Ying-Ying Chang; and a brother, all of Los Gatos.

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