Category Archives: Historians

Iris Chang’s book “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II”: Interpretations and Consideration of Victimization and Survival

The Rape of Nanking by historian Iris Chang

The Rape of Nanking by historian Iris Chang

The following work was submitted by me in the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program for Writing at the University of California, Berkeley Extension. The class was The Craft of Reading which was completed during 2015’s summer semester.

For the residents of Nanking China in 1937, the horrors and atrocities which they encountered made victims of those who were not only killed at the hands of the Japanese or had died during Japanese occupation, but also of those who had survived. While there are individual definitions for each term ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’, the rape, violence and murder blurs interpretation and definition of those who had survived. A duality exists between the terms victim and survivor, but there are succinct differences in the context of this historical event. This paper deems Nanking survivors to also be considered as victims for the physical and emotional scars which they carried throughout the remainder of their lives; moreover, all Chinese citizens of Nanking during this dark episode in history may be regarded as victims.

Determination and classic definition of the terms victim and survivor shall be considered, interpreted and contrasted to those definitions of the writer. Examples of both terms as researched and added by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II shall be included followed by supporting analysis.


The Concise Oxford American Dictionary defines victim as: “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action” (1011). When we consider the historical narrative “victims of the Holocaust” for example, we think of those who perished or were killed at the hands of Hitler’s “final solution.” As a historian, the writer defines victim along these same lines as considered in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust: a victim is first and foremost one who has lost his or her life as a result of an event. Secondly, a victim can be one who also survives an event but is negatively affected physically and/or emotionally for the rest of his or her life. The most striking example of this victim-survivor duality is highlighted by Chang, from her interview with Nanking survivor and victim Li Xouying; Chang writes:

Li would suffer both pain and embarrassment from her wounds for the rest of her life. Mucus leaked from a gaping hole on the side of her nose, and tears ran down her eyes during bad weather or bouts of illness. (Miraculously, although the Japanese had stabbed the whites of her eyes with their bayonets, Li did not go blind). Every time she looked in a mirror, she saw the scars that reminded her of that terrible day. December 19, 1938. “Now, after fifty-eight years, the wrinkles have covered the scars,” she told me during my visit to her apartment in Nanking. “But when I was young, the scars on my face were obvious and terrible (99)

It is clear from Chang’s heartbreaking narrative that although Xouying had survived her harrowing attack by the Japanese soldiers that she was also a victim of the Nanking massacre who had to live with the reminders.

Not to be forgotten is the city of Nanking. As Chang alludes to, Nanking has also become a victim. In recounting her summer of 1995 research visit to record oral testimonies for the book, she realized the loss of the old city and locations where atrocities occurred, to progress:

Sad to say, if I had visited Nanking only a decade earlier, I would have found many sites of the massacre intact, for the city was then a model of historical preservation and much of its 1930s architecture was still standing. But in the late 1980s and 1990s the city underwent a frenzy of land speculation and construction, demolishing most of its ancient landscape and replacing it with new luxury hotels, factories, skyscrapers, and apartment buildings (182).

Chang’s research and argument suggest that the city of Nanking went from survivor to victim, spurred by eventual modern-day progress along with the City of Nanking and People’s Republic of China intent on moving beyond that city’s regrettable past.


Interestingly, the Concise Oxford American Dictionary defines survivor as: “a person who survives, esp. a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died … the remainder of a group of people or things” (916). The writer adds that: a survivor can be a victim as determined by the extreme nature of the event, and by the degree in which he or she was affected.[1] Survivors can be victimized. In studying history, we must consider definitions as they may differ from those of everyday usage. In this instance, the writer’s definition adds further qualification beyond “remaining alive after an event” (916).

In Chapter 9, “The Fate of the Survivors,” Chang recounts her 1995 visit to Nanking and its post-war contrast to the modern city:

Underneath the prosperity, however, hidden from view, were the last human links to the past—the elderly survivors of the Nanking massacre. Scholars in the city guided me to a few of them scattered throughout Nanking…. What I found shocked and depressed me. Most lived dark, squalid apartments cluttered with the debris of poverty and heavy with mildew and humidity. I learned that during the massacre some had received physical injuries so severe they had been prevented from making a decent living for decades (183).

It is clear that although the remaining survivors Chang witnessed during her 1995 visit to the city were still alive, they had become victims to their own government; abandoned by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which failed to secure reparations from Japan in favor of “international legitimacy” (183). Such reparations from Japan might have given these surviving victims dignity in their few remaining years.

Victims of the Nanking massacre were not only Chinese. Heroes of the Nanking Safety Zone lost their health or their lives early due to the strain of enduring hardship: Robert Wilson the sole surgeon in Nanking could not work past the age of 40 (186); Wilhelmina Vautrin, of Ginling Women’s Arts and Science College took her own life in 1940 (187); and John Rabe, “The Nazi who Saved Nanking” died of a stroke, in 1950, following a difficult and destitute life back in Germany under Hitler and post-war Germany (194). Again, we see the blurred lines, or duality of victim and survivor. Although the three aforementioned heroes briefly survived their time in Nanking, they ultimately became victims.


The historical evidence brought forth by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking strongly suggests consideration for redefining of victim and survivor in this historical context. While victims of the Nanking massacre may either be dead or alive, survivors are victims who live.

In summarizing the rape of Nanking in context today (at the time of its writing), Chang writes: “But what makes the blemish particularly repugnant is that history has never written a proper end to the story. Even in 1997, the Japanese as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking—not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion” (219-220). However we might interpret the blurred lines between the terms victim and survivor as they relate to the rape of Nanking, by denying responsibility for their own genocide in China, Japan is dismissive of those who victims who survived their brutal occupation of Nanking.

Works Cited

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Print.

Concise Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.


[1] There may be no more extreme event than that of war.


The Need for Wider Perspective from International Historians


Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War

American historians who have had their work published are occasionally suspected of partiality in transmission of their histories of the Second World War. Read enough of what others have to say about this history to-date and you’d likely hear assertions similar to “the Americans think they alone won the war,” or “they take the credit for victory.” Have we as U.S. readers unknowingly become programmed to accept our national collective literature and POV (point of view), and none other? Could it be that less international work is translated and published here domestically?

We know that Japan and Germany are reluctant to openly recognize their aggressive roles in the 1930s and 40s. Thus we see few books domestically from Japanese or German historians of their historical perspective. The former Soviet Union had been an altogether different case due to censorship and Stalin’s documented “rewriting of Soviet history.” But can you recall just one book published about the War on the Eastern Front, written by a Russian historian or Soviet-era writer, that we have been offered here in the United States?

This dilemma begs many questions. Are more Second World War histories written by American historians than others around the world, which in turn might lead to this perception of nationalism? Asked another way, are American writers turning out more history books on World War II to satisfy a huge American market, more than historians from other countries, save for the British possibly?

In all fairness, it was the Allies who won the war. Great Britain strongly embraces its history in both World Wars. They both provide a sense of national pride. The Telegraph’s website has a wonderful in-depth microsite dedicated to World War II. British historians are second only to their American counterparts in published histories of the war. Some of the finest works have been authored by British historians including: Antony Beevor, Richard Evans, Niall Ferguson, Max Hastings, Ian Kershaw, Richard Overy, and Anna Reid to list just a few.

As research historians we are implored to consider all facts—whether determining a thesis or writing new histories. The same should hold true for us as readers of history. We need perspectives of writers from many countries. For additional viewpoints, there are superb contributions to the history of the Second World War written by historians from other countries and different ethnicities. After all, it was a world war, wasn’t it?

Here are but a few recent contributions from historians outside the U.S.

Karl-Heinz Frieser – Germany

Karl-Heinz Frieser’s The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West from 2005 is an exceptional contribution to the history of Germany’s early trample through Western Europe. Frieser was a colonel in the German army at the time of this book’s publication date. It is interesting perspective from Frieser; himself an officer in today’s German military who seeks to dispel the blitzkrieg myth. His arguments are persuasive and convincing. The reader becomes acutely aware of the inevitable downfall of this European bully once Germany’s focus turned eastward in June 1941.

Eri Hotta – Japan

The very latest contribution on Japan’s initiation and involvement in Asian and Pacific aggressions comes from historian and Professor Eri Hotta. Her 2013 book Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy is a fresh look back at the events which led to Japan’s Asian and Pacific hostilities. Born and educated in Japan as well as the United States and United Kingdom, Dr. Hotta taught at Oxford and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Halik Kochanski – Great Britain

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War is an outstanding new contribution to the history of Poland during World War II. Published in 2013 by Harvard University Press, Halik Kochanski covers a subject that should have greater awareness among the literature of the war. She has taught at King’s College London and University College London. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Historians, WWII in Europe

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