Colonial Williamsburg, the meticulous restoration of a Virginia village of several centuries ago, was built in the 1930s. For several decades, tens of millions of tourists enjoyed the spinning wheels, the working blacksmith's and cobbler's shops, the guides in period costumes. But it was not until after 1970 that a visitor could easily learn a crucial fact: Half the population of the original Williamsburg were slaves. Today you can see slave quarters and other exhibits showing what the daily life of slaves was like.
Some horrendous outbursts of cruelty, like slavery, endure for centuries; some are over in a few hours or weeks. But all of them raise two questions. First, what makes human beings capable of mass savagery? Second, what makes great acts of violence remembered or forgotten -- or, as in Williamsburg, officially forgotten for a long time and then abruptly remembered?
Both questions are raised by Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking." The 29-year-old Chang published the book in late 1997, then unexpectedly saw it give birth to a storm of praise, denunciations and controversy that still continues. A paperback edition of the book has just appeared.
In brief, the book is the story of the almost unbelievable orgy of violence unleashed over several months by the Japanese army after it occupied Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, in December 1937. There is dispute about the death toll, but most serious scholars place it in the hundreds of thousands. Chinese men were forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers and daughters. Japanese soldiers gang-raped women by the tens of thousands. They nailed women to trees. They drove stakes through their vaginas. They bound the hands of Chinese men, lined them up in long rows, and machine-gunned them into huge burial ditches. They bayoneted babies in front of their mothers. They buried people alive. Soldiers had "killing contests" and boasted to Japanese reporters of their scores. Some of the carnage was recorded on film. An American missionary (the United States was not yet at war with Japan) took movies, and a colleague smuggled the footage out of the country sewn in his coat lining. Japanese soldiers took still photos, then brought their film for developing to Chinese photo shops where horrified employees, at great risk, surreptitiously made extra prints.
Chang vividly, methodically, records what happened, piecing together the abundant eyewitness reports into an undeniable tapestry of horror. Driven mainly by an understandable outrage, she does not do such a good job of analyzing why the Japanese acted with such extraordinary sadism -- not just in Nanking, incidentally, but in so many other places they conquered as well. Although, in fairness, perhaps not even the greatest of philosophers can fully explain the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the spectacle of a Japanese soldier tying a man to a tree and using him for bayonet practice, while other soldiers watch, laugh and take pictures.
The Nanking atrocities were well publicized throughout the world at the time, and are usually mentioned in the standard Western histories of World War II. But along with wartime Japan's other vast, wanton sprees of murder, rape and looting, it has drawn far less attention in recent years than the Holocaust, Stalin's gulag and other mass murders of our day. "The Rape of Nanking" is the first book on the subject in English in more than 50 years. Many Japanese still deny that so much blood was shed. Six conservative historians held a Tokyo press conference to denounce Chang, and the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Kunihiko Saito, criticized the book as "full of errors, biased and a one-sided view." Imagine the uproar if a German ambassador had denounced "Schindler's List" as "one-sided."
The most unexpected part of Chang's story, and the reaction to it, has to do with the curious politics of memory and forgetting. In contrast to the extensive war crimes trials in Europe, begun by the Allies and later continued by the Germans themselves, trials in Japan were few and finished very quickly. Confiscated Japanese military records, a potential gold mine of information for war crimes and much else, were returned to Japan by the United States in the 1950s without even being fully copied. The U.S. saw the economic powerhouse of Japan as its key anti-Communist ally in Asia, and, throughout the Cold War, made no effort to force Japan to come to terms with its actions during World War II.
Furthermore, both Nationalist and Communist China, competing for Japanese trade and favor, have been reluctant to press the issue of Nanking and war crimes. Japan is the largest aid donor in the world. Most of that aid goes to Asia; Japan has loaned Beijing many billions of dollars on favorable terms. Although the memory of the rape of Nanking remains very much alive in the city (today known as Nanjing), it was not until 1985 that the government permitted a museum of the atrocities to be built there, and it has repeatedly prohibited demonstrations against visiting Japanese.
Not only did Chang's book become a bestseller, it has been the inspiration for several conferences, a TV documentary, a museum now on the drawing boards in Los Angeles and a planned Hollywood film. If she had written it 20 or 30 years ago, most likely none of this would have happened. What made the difference? Two things above all: the end of the Cold War, and the rising influence, and number, of Americans of Chinese descent. Many of them, like Iris Chang, grew up hearing the stories of events like Nanking, and want to see that history on paper at last.
Publicly remembering painful parts of the past is always a political act, and almost always takes place against enormous obstacles. Those obstacles do not just concern distant places like China and Japan. If Rosa Parks had not sat down in the front of the bus, if Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others had not marched and endured beatings and jail, Colonial Williamsburg would still display no slave quarters today.