Remembering and mourning Iris Chang

Chang's death is a loss for all who care about bringing silenced histories to the surface.

This last week, I mourned. Iris Chang, the famous Chinese-American author, historian and activist, committed suicide. Chang’s tragic death is more than a lost voice for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. It is a loss for all of us who care about bringing silenced histories to the surface.

In 10th grade, I discovered Chang’s book, “The Rape of Nanking” on the shelves of my school’s library. Having devoured the book in a few days, I was profoundly disturbed.

I was born in Nanking, China, and grew up reading children’s stories about the “evil Japanese soldiers” who pillaged Chinese villages. It was after moving to North America that I realized the history of the brutal Japanese occupation is a silenced one.

Throughout middle and high school, the history curriculum on World War II spent a week on Pearl Harbor and a few lines on the Asian-Pacific War, with hardly a mention of the Japanese occupation of China. Chang’s book gave me a chance to share with my classmates a history completely foreign to them. “China was involved in World War II?”

A few years later, I visited the Rape of Nanking Museum in my hometown, Nanking. I was appalled that they were still digging up bones of victims. There was one photograph that stuck with me: A Japanese soldier standing in a heap of heads and holding his kill by his hands. Smiling. The caption read: “Seven Chinese people’s heads are not even worth the corpse of a horse.”

Sophomore year, I finally met Chang when she came to Minneapolis on her book tour. Her physique was one of a tall northern Chinese woman. She was beautiful in a strong kind of way. Although she was promoting her third book, “The Chinese in America,” the audience couldn’t help but dwell on “The Rape of Nanking.” In it, Chang demanded an official apology from the Japanese government over the atrocities in Nanking.

Although the book was a New York Times best seller for 10 weeks straight, it was not all pomp and glory for Chang. The book stirred up such controversy that Chang was harshly attacked by many, including journalists such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Charles Burress, for historical inaccuracies, exaggerations, fake evidence and inadequate research. Some male critics also accused her of being too “emotional” and not “analytical” enough.

Chang was a courageous woman. A good author often does not make everyone happy. As the cliche goes, the truth hurts. And Chang told what she had seen as the truth. I admired her deeply for that. Today, there is a very interesting phenomenon in China. Among the Chinese I’ve spoken to, many are still very angry with the Japanese, especially because the rape of Nanking is still not included in Japanese schools. Ethnic tension is strong whenever history is recalled.

At the same time, Japanese electronic products flood the stores in Beijing’s most prominent consumer electronics district. A number of Japanese students study in China and still many more Chinese students study the Japanese language.

Some say, “History is history. What has passed is the past.” But if we don’t understand the past or ignore certain marginalized pasts, then we have not done justice to ourselves. Chang, no matter what mistakes she might or might not have made in her books, is indisputably a fighter. She fought for a history that had been silenced. That’s what matters.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China. She welcomes comments at [email protected]