Chang, Iris 1968–2004

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Chang, Iris 1968–2004

PERSONAL: Born March 28, 1968, in Princeton, NJ; committed suicide November 9, 2004, in Santa Clara County, CA; daughter of Shau-Jin (a physics professor) and Ying-Ying (a microbiology professor) Chang; married Bretton Lee Douglas (an electrical engineer), August 17, 1991. Ethnicity: "Chinese American" Education: University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, B.S., 1989; Johns Hopkins University, M.S., 1991.

CAREER: Writer. Has worked as a reporter for Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press; lecturer on human rights issues and history.

MEMBER: Committee of One Hundred.

AWARDS, HONORS: John D. and Catherine T. Mac-Arthur Foundation Peace and International Cooperation Award; Woman of the Year Award, Organization of Chinese Americans, 1998; honorary doctorates, College of Wooster and California State University—Hayward.


Thread of the Silkworm, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1997.

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek. The Rape of Nanking has been translated into Chinese and numerous other languages.

ADAPTATIONS: Thread of the Silkworm was adapted as an eight-set audiotape, Blackstone Audiobooks, 1998.

SIDELIGHTS: Iris Chang, the granddaughter of immigrants who fled China in 1937, was a full-time author and former journalist who made the issue of human rights, both in China and in the United States, her main focus of research. Her interest in the treatment of the Chinese under the Japanese occupation led to her best-known book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Chang's grandparents had fled the city shortly before the invasion, narrowly escaping the bloodbath that ensued: Japanese troops, on order that came down from the Imperial family, tortured and killed more than 300,000 civilians over the course of six to eight weeks. They raped 80,000 women, bayoneted babies, beheaded individuals with swords, skinned people alive, and devised several other extremely cruel ways to murder their victims. Yet this incident remained little known except to those who were personally affected by it. Unlike the Holocaust in Europe, which has been extensively documented and studied and for which Germany has publicly acknowledged guilt, the rape of Nanking was all but forgotten. Chang's book on the subject, however, is perceived by commentators as opening Western eyes to the atrocity.

Chang did extensive research for her project, which was the first full account in English of the Nanking massacre. As a girl, Chang wanted to learn more about the story but could find nothing on the subject in her local library. As a college student with access to better research facilities, she discovered that what little information had been published about Nanking was too scholarly to be readable—these reports, she noted in an interview with Ami Chen Mills on the MetroActive Web site, were dry compilations of statistics. The frustration she encountered in her quest for information prompted the young writer to begin work on the story of Nanking herself.

In December, 1994, Chang attended the Global Alliance for Preserving the Truth of the Sino-Japanese War, where she first saw photographs of mutilated bodies in Nanking. "I was walking around in a state of shock," she told Mills. She did research at Yale Divinity School and the National Archives and was allowed to interview survivors in China. Chang had access to much previously unpublished material, including the diaries of foreign missionaries living in China at the time who witnessed the Japanese actions and tried to save Chinese civilians. A particularly interesting discovery was the diary of John Rabe, a German businessman in Nanking who set up an "International Safety Zone" to protect victims. Ironically, Rabe was a Nazi, who wore a swastika armband as he traveled through Nanking trying to help Chinese civilians and who was apparently unaware of the similar actions his native country was taking in Europe against Jews. Rabe became known as "the living Buddha of Nanking," and, because of the interest sparked by Chang's book, his diary has now been published in German, Chinese, and Japanese.

The Rape of Nanking, which was denounced in Japan for allegedly inflating the number of casualties, caused an immediate sensation and became an international best-seller. It was published in the United States at a time of renewed interest in World War II, shortly after the fiftieth anniversary of that conflict. By then the aging survivors of the war were starting to make their stories heard. Korean women came forward to reveal that Japanese soldiers had abused them as involuntary prostitutes. Two novels about Japanese atrocities in China, Paul West's The Tent of Orange Mist and R.C. Bin-stock's Tree of Heaven, were published in 1995, and a visual account, Shi Young and James Yin's Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, was also available. Yet Chang's book was the first complete narrative on the subject in English.

Many critics deemed the book well researched and important. In a piece in the New York Times Book Review, Orville Schell praised the book highly and provided extensive context for the historical neglect of its subject. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book a "compelling, agonizing chronicle," and a critic for Booklist found it "a literary model of how to speak about the unspeakable." The Rape of Nanking was featured by the UPI Network and by Ashi Shimbun, a Japanese magazine with a large readership. It was also featured on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. The book became a New York Times notable book and was cited by the Bookman Review syndicate as one of the best books of 1997. Reader's Digest featured Chang in a cover story in 1998.

Working on The Rape of Nanking was emotionally difficult, admitted Chang, whose family fled China for Taiwan and then immigrated to the United States. "It's really frightening how fast you get used to the atrocities," she commented to Mills about her background reading on the subject. "It's very, very easy to just accept these atrocities and almost see them as banal. It really gave me insight into the true nature of evil and how easily we all can become desensitized." Speaking with David Gergen on PBS, Chang said that she was particularly upset to discover that the Nanking atrocities were committed by ordinary people. "Many of them were model citizens from Japan and when they returned became respectable members of the community," she noted. Extreme concentration of power, she concluded from her research, regardless of race or political affiliation, can create conditions under which seemingly normal human beings could commit crimes against humanity. "So it seems as if almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances," she concluded.

Chang made it clear in her interview with Mills that, though her book has prompted comparisons with the Nazi Holocaust, it is "not an attempt to show that one ethnic group's suffering was worse than another's." Chang also noted that, after the United States dropped atom bombs on Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shocked international community viewed Japan as a victim of war rather than an aggressor, which contributed to reluctance to hold Japan accountable for war crimes.

In the interview Chang also considered the issue of China's own reluctance to force Japan to offer significant apologies and reparations, because China so desperately needed Japan as an ally after the war. There is also a "tradition of Chinese political apathy in [the United States]," she commented. "Chinese learned from their ancestors and their parents that politics can be deadly." But she emphasized that, in recent years, activism among Chinese Americans is increasing, in part because the younger generation is beginning to enter fields such as filmmaking or literature, which provide wide-based options for communication. A three-day conference on the Nanking massacre, which Chang helped emcee, was held at Stanford University in 1996—evidence of growing political involvement among second-generation Chinese in Silicon Valley. A trend is also beginning that will require American schoolchildren to learn about the rape of Nanking as part of their history curriculum.

In her writings, Chang has also shown a continuing concern for the treatment of Chinese immigrants here in the United States. Her first book, though it attracted less notice than her work on Nanking, was the well-received Thread of the Silkworm. It tells the story of Chinese-American space scientist Hsue Shen Tsien, who was unjustly deported from the United States on trumped-up political charges during the McCarthy era. Chang shows in this book how irrational fears for immigrants and their descendants can be very counterproductive to our country. After being interrogated by the FBI, as Chang explained in an online interview with Robert Birnbaum for Identity Theory, Tsien was deported to China "against his will … because he was swapped for some American POWs. Here is an example of someone who was just a pawn in this whole chess game of international politics. But the story is so compelling because the intent of the government was to heighten and preserve national security, but the irony is that by deporting him they risked national security. Tsien went back and founded the ballistic missile program in China." A Choice reviewer called Thread the Silkworm "the most complete account of one of the saddest episodes of the Cold War," and the Washington Post's Daniel Southerland said that Chang "writes compellingly."

Chang's theory about how Chinese immigrants are treated in the United States is that it has a lot to do with economic and political conditions at the time. If times are good, Americans will generally treat people of Chinese descent well. But in other cases, such as during recessions when Americans often saw Chinese immigrants as threats to their jobs, they have met with extreme racism. In her own experience growing up in a liberal university town, Chang did not come up against a great deal of prejudice, and had felt that such racism was something largely in the past. As she told Birnbaum, "I thought racism was soon going to be a relic of the past … [until] I saw [anti-Chinese] images explode onto the covers of national magazines in the late '90s."

Curious about the history of the Chinese experience in America, Chang recently researched Chinese immigration over approximately the last 150 years. The result of this research is her third book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. She explores in these pages the several waves of immigration that have occurred since the mid-nineteenth century, including those who came to America during the Gold Rush years, those who fled Communism in the 1950s, and the recent immigrants of the late-twentieth century who have come to study and find jobs as political tensions between the United States and China eased. Seattle Times writer Kimberly B. Marlowe, described the book as "thorough, important and devastating." A Publishers Weekly critic admired the way Chang portrayed the "rocky road between identity and assimilation" that Chinese immigrants must endure, concluding that The Chinese in America "surpasses even the high level of her best-selling Rape of Nanking." And Brad Hooper, writing in Booklist, praised Chang for interspersing personal accounts through her books, "making it a much more human account…. This is history at its most dramatic and relevant." The Chinese in America was selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the best books of 2003, and was nominated for the Bay Area Bookreviewers Association Award.

As in the past, the future of how Chinese Americans are treated in the United States will depend on political and economic developments, according to Chang. For example, as China becomes more technologically advanced, more Chinese engineers may take jobs from Americans, causing tensions to rise. On the other hand, many Americans are adopting more Chinese children into their families, which may foster better understanding between cultures. But whether Chang will write about such issues in the future remains to be seen. "I may attempt a novel," she told Birnbaum. "I think that no matter what you write it requires being honest with oneself and you have to pull yourself out of the whirlwind of daily life to meditate upon what you have experienced. That's a very difficult thing."



Air & Space-Smithsonian, April, 1996, p. 97.

Atlantic Monthly, April, 1998, review of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, pp. 110-116.

Book, May-June, 2003, Eric Wargo, review of The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, p. 79.

Booklist, December 1, 1997, p. 606; April 1, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of The Chinese in America, p. 1354.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, March-April, 1998, Gretchen Kreuter, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 65.

Choice, May 1996, p. 1498.

Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 2003, Terry Hong, "Fu Manchu Doesn't Live Here; The Struggle and Triumph of Chinese-Americans Are an Integral Part of U.S. History," p. 18.

Economist, June 21, 2003, "A Ragged Tale of Riches: Chinese Immigration," p. 76.

Foreign Affairs, May, 1996, p. 139; March-April, 1998, Donald Zagoria, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 163.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1997, p. 1618; March 15, 2003, review of The Chinese in America, p. 437.

Library Journal, January, 1998, Steven Lin, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 115; May 15, 1999, Kent Rasmussen, review of Thread of the Silkworm (sound recording), p. 144; July, 1999, Kent Rasmussen, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 158; May 1, 2003, Peggy Spitzer Christoff, review of The Chinese in America, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2003, Anthony Day, "The Chinese Immigrant Story, All Part of the American Epic," p. E-26.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 1996, p. 10.

National Review, November 10. 1997, p. 57.

Nature, March 14, 1996, p. 117.

New York Times Book Review, December 14, 1997.

Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1997, p. 58; May 5, 2003, review of The Chinese in America, p. 216.

Reason, June, 1998, Carl F. Horowitz, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 69; May-June, 2003, review of The Chinese in America, p. 216.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2003, review of The Chinese in America, p. M2.

School Library Journal, April, 1998, Judy McAloon, review of The Rape of Nanking, p. 160.

Science, April 12, 1996, p. 217.

Science Books & Films, June, 1996, p. 136.

SciTech Book News, March, 1996, p. 55.

Seattle Times, May 18, 2003, Kimberly B. Marlowe, review of The Chinese in America, p. K10.

Society, January, 2000, Peter Li, "The Nanking Holocaust Tragedy, Trauma, and Reconciliation," p. 56.

Wall Street Journal, December 29, 1997, p. A9.

Washington Post Book World, January 21, 1996, pp. 1-2.


Identity Theory, (June 2, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Iris Chang.

Iris Chang Web Site, (February 15, 2004).

MetroActive, (December 12-18, 1996).

Online NewsHour, (February 20, 1998).



Chicago Tribune, November 11, 2004, section 3, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2004, p. B11.

New York Times, November 12, 2004, p. C9.

Times (London, England), November 15, 2004, p. 54.

Washington Post, November 12, 2004, p. B6.


New York Times Online, (November 11, 2004).