Iris Chang’s Death

Iris Chang is dead, apparently by her own hand as a result of depression. Her work on the Nanjing Massacre brought her fame and attention, of all kinds. She was reviled by some, respected and loved by others. Though her approach to sources and numbers has been criticized (I think attempts to maximize or minimize atrocities numerically is reductionistic at best, more polemical than historical), her work drew attention to Japanese wartime atrocities in a way which previous scholarship had not and which was, in my opinion, largely positive. She was clearly an energetic researcher and writer, she was willing and able to engage the public through her writing and her public appearances, and was a positive force for History, Asian Studies, scholarship in general. [Note: Second thoughts here]

Her work in The Rape of Nanking has been criticized for being polemical, one-sided, shoddy. In fact, that’s more or less a consensus among even American historians who work on Nanjing-related issues. As this article by David Askew makes clear, Chang’s position is more or less the same as the “mythical” position taken by Chinese sources. (Warning to fellow historians: Askew’s article is extremely good historiographical writing, the kind that is hard to stop reading after you start. It’s long, but it’s a great ride.) Chang, however, found some incredibly rich documents never before studied by any historian or journalist, for which alone she gets the historian’s silver star with clusters.

You can judge a person by their adversaries, some say. I was pretty neutral on Chang’s work when it came out — The title seemed overwrought, and the reporting certainly was, and the massacre itself wasn’t really news to me as an historian, though I’m always pleased…. ok, usually pleased, to have Japanese history featured, and gritty wartime studies aren’t my thing, mostly — until I got a mailing (I think the whole AAS membership did, actually) from the other side. It was translated excerpts from a Japanese historian named Tanaka Masaaki, one of the hardest of what Askew calls the “Illusion School” of “myth-making” massacre deniers. It was a study in holocaust denial techniques: highly selective use of evidence, narrow definitions of terms, distortion of contradictory evidence and ad hominem attacks. It was chilling, and when combined with the consistent use of minimizing language in Japanese textbooks, it led me to believe that…. well, that the discussion isn’t over.

[crossposted at Cliopatria]

1 Comment

  1. It’s very sad to hear about Iris Chang. I haven’t read her work but I think I will make the effort now.

    I wanted to ask if anyone using this blog knows any South Korean early modernists with an interest in Europe. I am visiting Seoul for a prolonged period next year and I would like to be involved in academia over there if I can.

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