Debating History and Memory: Examining the Controversy Surrounding Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking

Among English-language audiences, Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (1997) is one of the better-known books about the Nanking Massacre.1 The Nanking Massacre took place between December 1937 and January 1938 when advancing Japanese troops captured and occupied the Chinese capital. In the roughly six weeks that followed, over a hundred thousand Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were killed, and widespread instances of rape, looting, arson, and violence occurred.2

For nonspecialist readers in the United States who had little knowledge of the Massacre, Chang’s work immediately became the definitive source on the atrocities. Although a few works on Nanking had been published in English before The Rape of Nanking in 1997, none had managed to capture such a wide audience or provide such a stimulus to the public imagination.3 Historians worldwide roundly criticized it for its large number of factual inaccuracies and the author’s lack of familiarity with Japanese historical debates about the war and the Massacre itself. Masahiro Yamamoto noted, for instance, that nonacademics like Chang who write on the Nanking Massacre often express “extreme and sometimes egregiously mistaken opinions.”4 Similarly, Minoru Kitamura has gone so far as to brand Chang’s work an overt “political tool.”5 The Rape of Nanking has also been implicated by some in stoking anti-Japanese sentiment amongst the Chinese diaspora in the United States and elsewhere.6

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