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Rape Of Nanking Essay, Research Paper

The Rape of Nanking

A hole in our historical memory has been filled by Iris Chang s new book, which gives us a detailed, documented account of the events, which took place from December 1937 to January 1938 known as the Rape of Nanking. Following the fall of the city of Nanjing, the capital of Nationalist China, to the Japanese on December 13, 1937, the Imperial Army went on a killing spree, slaughtering over 300,000 of the city s residents. The word “slaughter” is used advisedly: the Japanese soldiers subjected their victims to mass incineration, death by freezing, being torn apart by dogs, disembowelment, and beheading.

One of the most unpalatable episodes of the Japanese postwar inability to come to terms with their nation s war guilt is the attempt by prominent politicians either to deny that the Nanjing massacre took place, or to downplay the extent of the killings. Iris Chang takes great care to cross-check her sources for this book, citing archival and statistical work by scholars who have compared the population of Nanjing before and after the massacre to produce trustworthy assessments of how many people really died.

However, the Rape of Nanking was not simply a question of numbers killed. How the victims died is equally important, for the brutality of the Imperial Army s actions shows how they intended to terrorize and humiliate the population of the city. (Countries at war seem to believe that mass destruction will inevitably destroy the enemy s morale, while similar action by the enemy on them will only stiffen it.) It is here that the voices discovered by Chang really come into their own. Naturally, she has interviewed survivors of the massacre, and their testimony stands central to her narrative. They include Tang Shunsan, who was one of dozens of Chinese forced to line up by the side of a deep pit. He remembers, “As soon as I saw the newly dug pit, I thought they might either bury us alive, or kill us on the spot. I was too frightened to move, so I stood there motionless. It suddenly occurred to me to jump into the pit but then I saw two Japanese military wolf dogs eating the corpses.” Then there began a killing contest (similar events were reported openly in Japanese newspapers of the time), as eight soldiers competed to cut the prisoners heads off as quickly as possible. Tang survived by deliberately toppling into the pit as fresh corpses fell in, and hiding until the contest was over.

But Chang does not rely on this oral testimony alone, although it is supplemented by the memories of repentant Japanese soldiers, now in their eighties, who took part in the Rape. Those who wish to dismiss the massacre can claim that oral history is easily fabricated, and even those who assess the evidence more neutrally will point out that six decades can cause anyone s memory to fade (although one suspects that the memory of such events is not easily erased). The clinching evidence comes from the new, contemporary material Chang has found, in particular the diaries of Westerners living in Nanjing in 1937-8. These include Robert Wilson, an American surgeon, Minnie Vautrin, dean of studies at Ginling Women s College, and, most ironically, John Rabe, a German businessman who had lived in China for over thirty years and was head of the city s expatriate Nazi party branch.

The diaries leave no doubt as to the nature and scale of the atrocities in Nanjing. “They would continue,” Rabe wrote of the Japanese, “by raping the women and girls and killing anything and anyone that offered any resistance… We found corpses of women on beer glasses and others who had been lanced on bamboo shoots.” Such reports are repeated constantly. These Western observers did not simply stand by in the face of such horror. They formed a self-declared “Safety Zone,” which they declared to be out of the jurisdiction of the Japanese military: and despite the refusal of the Japanese to recognize the Zone, their foreign status gave the Japanese some pause for thought, and enabled them to save thousands of Chinese. Sometimes these diaries betray the prejudices of the time (Minnie Vautrin s decision to let the Japanese search the women she had sheltered for “prostitutes” so that “decent girls” might be spared rape leaves us uneasy today: why should prostitutes be more worthy of being raped than anyone else?), but nothing can erase the truth that these were intensely brave people faced with unbearable choices. Robert Wilson s health broke down irretrievably as a consequence of his unceasing attempts to save lives in Nanjing. Minnie Vautrin was so psychologically scarred by what she had seen that she committed suicide in 1941.

Chang s work goes on to discuss the failure of the world to respond to the newsreels and newspaper reports of the time, which reported the Rape in full detail. She also tackles the Cold War dynamic which meant that the Allied Powers gave priority to the establishment of Japan as an anti-Communist bulwark, rather than forcing it to face up to the full extent of its war crimes, and deals with the continuing right-wing attempts in Japan to downplay or deny the massacre. One could also note the way in which the Rape has been used by the government of the People s Republic of China as a political football to shape international and domestic policy. In the 1970s and 1980s, Beijing s need to cosy up to Japan meant that survivors of the Rape were officially prevented from presenting petitions to the Japanese embassy demanding compensation. In the 1990s, as the Communist Party deals with the discrediting of its Marxist heritage by reclaiming the Second World War as a patriotic theme around which all Chinese can unite, Japanese atrocities have been given prominence in war memorials (for instance in Shenyang, Beijing, and of course, in Nanjing itself) in the form of photographs, diorama reconstruction (in some cases with animated models) and paintings. But whatever the political maneuverings of those who have attempted to co-opt the historical legacy of the events in Nanjing, the fact of the Rape remains. Iris Chang s book is a moving and important documentation of a great darkness.

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