In a statue three-stories tall, a mother in rags silently cries out to the heavens while holding her lifeless child in her arms.
I am writing from Nanjing, China. And this is the entrance to the Nanjing War Memorial Museum.
Before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, the Japanese had long been expanding their conquest of China. At the end of 1937, Japan had taken Shanghai and moved inland to take China’s capitol, Nanjing. Chiang Kai-shek evacuated his officers and abandoned the population to a three-pronged Japanese attack that left no escape.
This slaughter of men, women and children is known as the “Rape of Nanjing” and stands in comparison with the Holocaust in Europe. While the war against China cost over 17 million Chinese lives, it was this six weeks of horror in Nanjing that defined atrocity. Over 300,000 civilians were killed. Babies speared on bayonets. Elderly shot in the back as they fled. Over 20,000 women raped and killed.
Whether it was to harden the Japanese troops, or the fury of war without constraints, the result was a month-and-a-half of terror when the rivers ran red. The poet W.H. Auden, who visited wartime China, wrote: “And maps can really point to places where life is evil now: Nanjing and Dachau.”
I manage to keep the tears behind my eyes. The displays are historical photos and artifacts from real events. Signs in Chinese, English and Japanese indicate where silence is required. The museum is built on one of the many execution grounds — this is the burial ground of thousands.
But there is a major tribute to the heroic Westerners in Nanjing who organized an International Safety Zone that protected tens of thousands. Since Japan was not yet at war with the West, Western diplomats and missionaries and medical workers joined in sheltering refugees, especially Chinese women, at great personal risk. Few Westerners know that one of the greatest heroes of Nanjing was a German Nazi named John Rabe who headed the Safety Zone Committee, used his Swastika flags to ward off Japanese bombers and troops, and put his life on the line uncountable times to save civilians.
While my job in China is mainly to lecture at universities and edit, today is different. I have known for some time that I must come here. Near the end of this long museum, on an outdoor path, is a life-size statue of Iris Chang.
I knew Iris Chang only briefly. In 2003, when China sent up its first astronaut, I hoped National Public Radio would interview her. She had written the autobiography of Qian Xuesen, China’s “Werner Von Braun,” who designed their space craft and was still alive to see the first astronaut lift off. NPR ignored the story. But this began my few short communications with her.
Iris Chang was an America-born Chinese, a journalism student at the University of Illinois at Urbana, with an intense drive to understand her heritage as well as achieve. And succeed she did: from a MacArthur Foundation Peace and International Cooperation Award, to Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese Americans, to two honorary doctorates. She was young, beautiful, and featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, and the LA Times. She also lectured on human rights, World War II history, Asian-American experiences, and appeared on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, Charlie Rose, and Good Morning America. She even made the front cover of Readers Digest.
These accolades however did not come from her biography of China’s rocket expert, nor from her second book “The Chinese in America.” It was her third book that brought on the ire of the Japanese government. She used the Freedom of Information Act to secure U.S. documents from 1937. She traveled to Nanjing to interview elderly survivors. And she discovered the diary of Nazi John Rabe, whom she called the “Schindler of China.” Her riveting book, The Rape of Nanjing, re-awoke international attention on an episode many preferred forgotten.
Iris had started a fourth book—on the Bataan Death March. She interviewed elderly soldiers who, in many cases for the first time, spoke of being ordered to bury their army buddies alive, or be buried alive themselves. According to her friend, the typist hired to transcribe those interviews “cried all the way through the work.” But Iris Chang — similar to many artists — was subject to emotional highs and lows.
On November 9, 2004, alongside a road in California, Iris Chang ... used a handgun ... to kill herself.
She is truly a hero in this museum today. But the casualties of the Nanjing Massacre are now 300,000 ... and one.
John Schrock is a professor, currently lecturing in China.