Iris Chang: Obsessed with History

Historians in the News

Robert Ito, in the Village Voice (5-19-05):

Iris Chang first heard stories about the Nanking massacre as a young girl. During World War II, her parents told her, Japanese soldiers had slaughtered babies with bayonets. The Yangtze River had run red with blood; thousands of Chinese civilians had been tortured and raped. They were grotesque tales, almost fantastical in their horror. How could such things happen, she wondered, and yet not result in a single book about it in the public libraries in her hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois?...

Him Mark Lai, board member of the Chinese Historical Society of America, remembers watching Chang going after sources at a group luncheon, "making a beeline for them and picking their brains." When preparing to write The Rape of Nanking, she studied how certain books become bestsellers. "She deliberately created that phenomenon," says Ding. "She did marketing research, what's unique about this book, when is the best time to hit the market. She would ask authors, 'Which of your books was the most popular, and how long did it take, and what happened?' She was scary in her research." He remembers phone conversations when he could hear Chang furiously typing on the other end. "She would write down everything. I felt like I was talking to the FBI. You couldn't lie; she would remember—'See, three years ago you told me this.' "

Sam Chu Lin, a radio and television journalist, recalls the time Chang was going through files in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and became trapped inside the building. "She was so involved in her research that she forgot the building was closing," he says. She called her husband, who told her to dial 911. She refused, afraid that the incident would be reported in the national news. "Iris was the type of independent person who didn't want to be embarrassed," says Lin. Eventually she found a security guard, who let her out. Lin joked about it at Chang's memorial service, but it was a telling moment, that a writer so fearless could also be so concerned about revealing even the smallest of mistakes.

UCLA history professor Henry Yu, co-founder of a group of historians who are writing textbooks about the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, recently taught Chang's The Chinese in America in an undergraduate class. The text is a diatribe against 150 years of homegrown bigotry, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Wen Ho Lee. His students loved it. "The early parts of the book, where she talks about the early histories, they piss you off," he says. "That's a valuable thing, teaching-wise. I want my students to be pissed off."

It's too soon to know what Chang's legacy will be, whether she will be remembered more for her books or for her activism or for her untimely death. Her suicide was so sudden that people still lapse into the present tense when speaking of her, describing her quirks and idiosyncrasies as if she were still alive. Her official website,, makes no mention of her death and continues to list her speaking schedule and contact information. There are concerns that her suicide will overshadow all else, but it's likely, as with the suicides of other famous authors, that the shock of hers will diminish with time as well. Certainly the international movement sparked by The Rape of Nanking will continue, albeit in unforeseeable ways. "I think that's going to be an impact that we're going to feel for generations," says Zia. "We don't even know what that impact is going to be yet, because this brewing tension between China and Japan right now is big, and has the potential to become even bigger. And Iris, her work, was a huge part of that."

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