Stories About Nanking and Beyond
Never believe what you read in the news.
Or if you do, always remember to ask yourself whose story is missing on the page. Because without question, there's always an other story missing, buried in the back pages of paper, crammed into the corner of a page, or shoved into the margins-that is, if it appears in the paper at all.
I had only been working in the newsroom of the Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest circulating newspaper, for two months when I discovered that what was printed daily was rarely worthy of public trust. And that few words become more undeserving of that trust than my own.
Of course, that wasn't something I realized when I first began writing the article on the Nanking Massacre in November.
The education editor of the paper was interested in the story, she told me after I fumbled through an eager pitch- and I was indescribably relieved.
After starting my research on Nanking, after all, I wanted nothing more than to share its discovery, to revive the history of the atrocity and give a voice to the memory of its horror in a way its survivors (and indeed, its victims) were never permitted.
That it was also an opportunity to draw focus onto issues confronting New Jersey's Asian Americans only made me more determined to complete my reporting. Here, I knew, was a chance to bring coverage to a community that remained virtually invisible in the pages of paper, and to do so without mentioning either lion dances, red lanterns, or chop sticks. I only wondered how many of the paper's editors- all of whom were self identified "Americans," and only three of whom were of color (African American) were conscious of the same thing.
Still, there were a few critical factors that lay in my favor. By some stroke of fortune, after all. Chu Yeh Chang had been willing and able to provide me with the testimony of a survivor.
He told me in his clear and steady Mandarin, how he had witnessed his grandmother and 10 year old sister gang raped by soliders; how he had been beaten when he protested their abuse; how he had watched his grandparents' bodies dumped into a Yangtze River that had swollen red from blood; how he remembered the air hung heavy with death's smell.
What gave him the courage to retell his story, or why he would choose to trust me with it, is still a mystery to me. I only know that having been given it, I knew it was my obligation to make sure my ears would not be the last pair upon which it would fall.
That Mr. Chang happened to be a New Jersey resident, and that state educators were also considering incorporating a teaching of Nanking into high school curricula at the time were, for me, the minor, peripheral details. (Though certainly helpful, I knew, to make the story palatable to newsroom editors.)
I turned in my first draft of the story anxious to get her feedback.
Her verdict the next day left me at a loss for words. "It needs to be refocused," she said, and continued. "Readers might be offended by the graphic content of the story." Wasn't there a way to tone down the language, the imagery, she asked?
I attempted to make what I knew would be a futile defense for the story as I had originally turned it in, explaining how both The New York Times and Washington Post (what better standards for objective reporting?) had published comparable details in articles on Nanking before, and that no paper in the U.S. had ever been able to quote a survivor of the massacre. But these detailed seemed to matter little. As would the fact that the paper would later publish the apparently "non-graphic" details of a sixth grader's recollection of being molested by her math teacher. (Editorial judgments-much unlike the news, of course-proves to be variably inconsistent.
I admit that I should have seen it coming. Everything to some degree or another is predetermined-and nowhere was this more (sadly and ironically) true than in the newsroom.
I knew, for instance, that most of its editors, despite the endless technological resources and data at their fingertips, had never heard of Nanking before. That for most of these modern day news spinners, it was virtually unknown that World War II existed in Asia-that is, before America's atomic bombs evaporated into a mushroom cloud over Japan. And that unless they could Chinese take-out menu, Asian histories were phenomena which were still regarded as curious novelties that invariably involved dragons, red lanterns and yes, chopsticks.
I reminded myself sternly that the article was a way to expand understanding of Asian Americans in and outside the newsroom. After much teeth grinding and private grumbling, I threw two more paragraphs on the Jersey school curricula angle into the article and turned in the final copy to my ever-gracious editor.
It reappeared a week later, buried in the back pages of the Sunday paper-a strange photo of a lone Mr. Chang staring blankly at the camera from his living room at its side. Several of his quotes had been shaved down, details from his testimonial pared down to less than a sentence long. It was explained to me, later, that readers didn't need to know that he had witnessed the gang rape of his family member and murder of his grandparents-simply relating the numbers of the deceased, 300,000, would illustrate the degree of the brutality.
I did not mention how such a condition would never have applied to other incidents of genocide-the Nazi holocaust, slavery-or ask what made Asian American histories seem so dispensable to newsroom "experts." I kept my frustration and disappointment veiled, refraining from making any compliments. And when several people complimented my work in the article the next day at work, I returned an ingenuine "Thank you," asking myself all the while if they missed what had not been said.
I still remember, however, the number 300,000-the number of people who died in Nanking, the number of people whose stories have been lost. I only wonder who we are to blame for that this time.
* * *
The original story that should've been printed in the Star-Ledger on Sunday 20, 1998:
Lincroft resident Chu-Yeh Chang was only a wiry 14 year old when WWII Japanese forces invaded the former Chinese capital Nanking 61 years ago today [Sunday, Dec. 13]. The year was 1937, and within mere weeks, Chang's birth city would descend into a nightmarish slaughter grounds-its buildings gutted, its structures decimated, and half its population of 650,000 savagely butchered.
Miraculously, Chang escaped alive. But what his young eyes saw that winter was forever seared into his memory. His mother, grandmother and 11 year-old sister were among the countless women gang raped by Japanese soldiers, his grandparents among the corpses dumped into a swelling Yangtze River. Two generations later, is=t is this viscous tale Chang recounts to his children and grandchildren. "They must not hate, but they must never forget," the soft-spoken former journalist says. "It happened, it was history."
For Americans and much of the rest of the world, the massacre in Nanking existed only in oral history passed down by its survivors. But over the last decade, historians, survivors, and a best-selling book have began unearthing the stories of the estimated 300,000 murdered, giving historical voice to their almost unimaginable tragedy, and rescuing them from near oblivion.
In New Jersey, the state Council for History education has recommended incorporating the Nanking Massacre into high school curricula on genocide which currently covers the assault on Native Americans, slavery, and then Nazi Holocaust.
Indeed, not until the December 1997 release of Chang's The Rape of Nanking did the atrocity widely penetrate the consciousness of educators in the West. Drawing attention to the history which was absent in nearly every textbook account of WWII, Ms. Chang's work triggered a wave of scholarly inspection into Nanking that now includes two novels, a documentary film, a book of photographs, and a dozen academic conferences. It is sadly a bottomless collection of horror stories they reveal, however, time and time again.
Last Friday, it was a discussion of Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, the first English-language study on the massacre whose release last year roused concern in the West, that opened the Council's Sixth Annual Conference at Princeton University.
"A lot of schools are very interested in this, and there are teachers who are already covering the atrocities of Nanking in their classes on WWII," says John Pyne, program chair of the Council's conference. "It was genocide. Innocent people sometimes get killed in war, but this was an overt decision to wipe out the civilian population."'
An excavation of Nanking's buried voices was precisely why Franklin Lakes resident Dr. Kevin Chiang began gathering oral histories of survivors, returning eight times to China with other members of the Alliance in Memory of the Nanking Massacre.
Since the Alliance's 1991 founding, the group has also organized lectures and aided research for projects on the atrocity that include two documentary films and The Rape of Nanking.
"We always felt an urgency to complete the interviews with survivors, because they could disappear at any time," Chiang, who estimates that only 1,500 survivors are still alive, says. "But we never dreamed when we started there would be the kind of sensational response there is today."
"Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, nail them alive to walls," Ms. Chang's introduction recounts. "Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only live burials, castration, the carving of organs, and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as the hanging of people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by german shepherds. So sickening was the spectacle that even the Nazis in the city were horrified, one proclaiming the massacre to be the work of bestial machinery."
An aging Mr. Chang, whose own hearing was damaged from beating to the head, is still haunted by the bloody scene, "Once I saw a group of Japanese soldiers raping a woman in broad daylight. When the child she was holding cried out for his mother, one of the soldiers turned around and ran him through with a bayonet. He did it so casually…"
By January, civilian death tolls climbed to 300,000, a number greater than the combined number of losses in France, Great Britain, and Belgium during all of WWII. The numbers, however, seem to give only a clinical measurement of the viscous scene. For Mr. Chang, a frozen landscape of decapitated bodies, mutilated rape victims and blood-stained walls where "the smell of death filled the air" is the Nanking he recalls.
Photographs taken during the city's occupation are so graphic that state educators approach them with a measurable caution when considering their use in the classrooms. "We'll present some primary source documentation, but no visuals," Alan Lucibello, president of Council for History Education says of designing a curricula on the massacre, "With Nanking, it's um, it's pretty upsetting. It's pretty gruesome."
Nearly as alarming as the profound savagery of the slaughtering is the historical amnesia which would succeed them. It was a silence that would be maintained for generations and across continents in the name of international diplomacy.
Chang writes that "after the 1949 Communist revolution in China, neither the People's Republic of China nor the Republic of China (now Taiwan) demanded wartime reparations from Japan because the two governments were competing for Japanese trade and political recognition." Even the U.S., eager to win forge alliances with Japan against the Cold War threat of Mao's Communism, neglected to make public the holocaust perpetrated in China during WWII, where it's estimated some 19 to 35 million died.
To this day, Japan's government has failed to acknowledge the extent of the WWII brutality, with some right-wing political officials and respected historians insisting Nanking was an incident entirely concocted by the Chinese. Shrines still honor the service of many war criminals, recent academic conferences renounce Ms. Chang's work as "the most outrageous, world class lie," and late last month Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi refused to issue a written apology Chinese president Jiang Zemin had requested.
It is a bitter pill that still strains relations between ethnic Chinese and Japanese, even beyond Asia's borders. "I wish the Japanese government would face the past so we could move forward, but I realize this is nearly impossible," Chiang says, continuing with an audible note of suspicion. "Their pride and ego make it so."
Still, it is for the hope of reconciliation that extends beyond the two nations' borders that Chiang says he continues to revive Nanking's lost voices. "We are the generation that has an obligation to this because we are in the U.S. and enjoy the most freedom. If we let revisionists in Japan rewrite history, who can say this couldn't happen somewhere else?" he poses.
Pyne, too, hopes it's a valuable lesson in contemporary history than Nanking will reveal for students in the eleven high school social studies classes he supervises.
"This is not something that's over. These acts of inhumanity are continuing today in Rwanda, Indonesia, Bosnia. And certainly in the U.S., we share this sort of history with slavery and Native Americans," Pyne says. "We have a responsibility to deal with this kind of history to make sure it never happens again."