Iris Chang and the Delicate Art of Remembering


The moral demand to remember does not answer the question of how to remember well.

Iris Chang shot herself in the head because she could not forget.  So goes a popular narrative about her in which those who love and admire Iris make her the latest victim of the 1937 massacre at Nanking; the delicate and sensitive soul who bore the crushing truth of history; the martyr for historical justice who lost even her identity in her crusade.

Today, there is ever so much remembering going on, sparked in great measure by Chang’s compelling and painful book, The Rape of Nanking (1997).  For instance, currently showing in select American theaters is a gritty Chinese movie version of the massacre, The City of Life and Death (in Chinese, simply Nanjing! Nanjing!).  This film follows several American movies that strain to bring moral vibrancy to this neglected subject. A 2007 film, Nanking, inspired by Chang’s book and her tragic death, was followed in 2009 with a movie about the Nazi hero of Nanking, John Rabe.  Books and essays flowed from this same moral urgency to remember the massacre.  It is no exaggeration to say that we remember Nanking as we do today because of Iris Chang.  If we said no more, this fact alone would inspire wonder about this woman who made (changed) history by telling it.

At the moment, disentangling the history of the massacre from the biography of Iris is a curiously difficult task.  The docudrama, Iris Chang:  The Rape of Nanking, is a case in point.  On the dvd cover one reads:  “The making of this feature length docudrama…at the 70th anniversary of the Massacre helps remind the world of this forgotten holocaust through the compelling and courageous life story of Iris Chang.  As a young woman of 26, she shouldered the burden and responsibility of not letting the world forget this very tragic and horrific history on behalf of 1.3 billion Chinese.” (emphasis mine)  Can a person remember on ”behalf” of others; on behalf of an entire nation?  A young American of Chinese extraction “shouldering the burden and responsibility” for China?  Is this the role Iris understood herself to play or is this the way those who admired and loved her want to think of her?  Either way, did remembering serve some greater purpose?

This documentary stresses Chang’s courage, persistence, and her moral outrage.  Incorporating her voice and images from various interviews and other public events and adding a largely silent portrayal of Iris by Olivia Cheng, the film uses the massacre as backdrop to the story of a woman who sacrificed herself for the greater good of remembering.  Whether the documentary remembers Chang’s life well is very much an open question, to say nothing of the larger questions about the purpose and effects of remembering.  As told in the film, Iris so internalized the stories she heard from survivors or read in dairies, so involved her imagination in re-living the horrors, that she began to lose herself, to become absorbed in the horror, even to lose her capacity to place the past in the past.  Because the massacre had been remembered so poorly, Iris “shouldered the burden and responsibility of not letting the world forget this very tragic and horrific history on behalf of 1.3 billion Chinese.”

How are the 1.3 billion Chinese, on whose behalf Iris sacrificed herself, changed or improved by her act of remembrance?  Even if we accept the story as given and believe that Iris “could not forget” and that she took on a burden of memory that robbed her of her identity, should we not think of this as a pathology—an incapacity to deal with historical memory properly?  Is it possible that Iris found the moral outrage she experienced addictive and that she allowed herself to go deeper into the horror because of some emotional charge she felt being the one celebrated for her moral courage?  And, if so, perhaps like most addictions, one loses control.

Whether true in the case of Iris or not, the temptation to historical/moral addictions is greater than most people realize. Some combination of rage at the perpetrators, anger at the vast majority who live in willful ignorance, and the growing sense, after writing, speaking, and then preaching about the moral necessity of remembering, that one bears some personal, even physical, imprint of the event—remembering this way produces a historical stigmata.  Because nothing any historian or activist ever does is enough, the pursuit of justice is endless and, despite the cheers of supporters, very lonely.  Clearly, Iris’s life was recast by her telling the story of the Nanking massacre. The fact that some of her admirers can celebrate that this young woman thought of herself as shouldering the burden of remembrance suggests a great deal about how others contributed to turning Iris’s remembering into a pathology.  Remembering is not enough, as individuals and as societies, we ought to learn the delicate art of remembrance.

Ying-Ying Chang, Iris’ mother, has written a memoir of her daughter’s life.  Of course, it is entitled The Woman Who Could Not Forget.  A loving mother wants her daughter to be remembered properly and so, springing from of her own wrenching pain, and following Iris’s example, Ying-Ying writes a history to “give the world a full and accurate picture of Iris’s life and the environment in which she grew up.” In this telling, Iris is sensitive (particularly to the suffering of others), courageous, dedicated, and someone who “single-handedly” fought for historical justice by giving voice to the victims.  What this telling also does is make Iris rather boring.

Even though Iris had a brother, father, and husband, these men play almost no role in Ying-Ying’s account.  Indeed, the richness of her life with other people was flattened into a cardboard figure of sensitive, courageous soul.  The reader finds a mother who tells the story of her little girl whose sensitive nature the mother understands and supports.  In one example that demonstrates very well both the tone and the message of the book, Chang writes:  “Fortunately, I completely understood how she felt, and she could pour her misery on me.  We had endless talks, which I believed soothed her lonely sensitive feelings and gave her strength.”  With this as the oft-repeated message of the book, the reader feels the mother’s pain (even if she didn’t quite intend this) of the final year of Iris’s life where Ying-Ying’s efforts to relieve Iris’s misery could not save her.  But we also lose sight of Iris.

Writing such a book is a very personal act and it should serve the needs of the author most of all.  Ying-Ying’s work, however, is also a very public telling and she clearly has some target audiences, including those she believes have misrepresented Iris and her mental illness.  With regard to “setting the record straight,” Ying-Ying does help the reasonably informed reader understand Iris’s suicide better. She points to problems with Iris’s medication that likely caused her to have suicidal thoughts.  Her account also helps the reader get a sense of the various pressures Iris faced toward the end of her life, including death threats and other forms of hostility from some Japanese groups.  Beyond all of that, Iris had become such a symbol for historical justice and even a celebrity among various groups who wanted her to tell their story or to represent them in some fashion.  Iris must have felt crushed beneath the expectations.   The birth of her child, whose autism was soon suspected, and a book project to tell the story of the Bataan death march, surely made it nearly impossible for Iris to feel anything other than overwhelming responsibilities.

I admire Iris Chang, but the power of her book, the celebrity she became, the adoration heaped on her, have so entangled this woman with the story she wrote that we risk losing both Iris and a useful memory of Nanking.  So, how should we remember Iris?

Reading her book is a place to start—look less at her and more at that to which she pointed.  The Rape of Nanking, while it has its flaws, points a finger to a holocaust and demands that we account for it and for our longstanding unwillingness to remember.  The introduction raises a great number of questions about remembering and forgetting and while Chang does not enter into any serious philosophical reflection about the role of remembering for a healthy society, her book nonetheless raises them by virtue of the horror we have so willfully neglected remembering.  Ms. Chang raised some of the most important moral questions of the late modern era and we do well to attend to those questions.  Celebrating Iris’s courage can keep us from taking her work seriously, turning the story-teller into the story.

The specific justification for her book, Iris claims, emerges from the truth found in Santayana’s words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In this case, I believe, Chang misappropriated (in a way that is all too common) Santayana’s abused sentence.* But, as she used the sentence, which is consistent with most misappropriations of this aphorism, it means that remembering the past is a necessary condition for avoiding the mistakes and the evil of the past.  If we don’t remember the holocaust or slavery or some other great evil, we make ourselves more vulnerable to allowing something similar to happen again.  So, the purpose of writing history is for the needs of the present and the future.

However Iris really had another purpose for writing the book.  The victims deserve to have their story told and the criminals warrant a full exposure of their sins.  In this case, remembering (history) is a form of piety and the focus is not quite so instrumental.  Iris begins by telling the reader of her first memories attached to the massacre.  When she was young, her parents told her, in “voices quivering with outrage,” stories of Japanese atrocities.  They did not want her to forget the Rape of Nanking. (Why they didn’t want her to forget is a very important but neglected question.) Iris’s visceral reaction, however, to an exhibit of photographs about the massacre was the proximate cause of her book.  In her gut, Iris felt the need to write this story.  One senses that the first motivation was justice—tell the truth so that the world will remember the victims (because that is all we can do for them now, except for the few living victims) and condemn the perpetrators.

A proper remembering requires more than telling the facts or chronicling the plunder, rape, murder in Nanking; it requires that one explain the event.  Why did the Japanese do it?  Why has the world remembered this event so poorly?  What are the consequences of not remembering?  Iris Chang was ambitious in this book, and properly so.  Remembering is necessary for a civilized order and we live in a time of forgetting.

The historical, cultural, and moral tangle at the center of this inquiry concerns the Japanese culture, the actions of individual Japanese men, and the relationship between the two.  While far from exhaustive, Chang highlights several ways in which the Japanese culture prepared young men to regard non-Japanese as inferior, to slavishly obey their leaders, and to understand violence as a normal and acceptable part of life.  Chang writes:  “The Japanese soldier was not simply hardened for battle in China; he was hardened for the task of murdering Chinese combatants and noncombatants alike.  Indeed, various games and exercises were set up by the Japanese military to numb its men to the human instinct against killing people who are not attacking.”

The cultural factors that contributed to the massacre (and the many violations of humans rights during the war) are probably numerous and one can slice them up in a number of ways, just as people have been doing with the Germans for decades.  But there is one that perhaps deserves more attention than Chang or most other writers devote to it.  We might call it the Japanese relationship with historical truth, or how the Japanese remember the past.


Oddly, Chang gives scant attention to the Japanese way of remembering even though she is bedeviled by it for the last half decade of her life.  Angry that the Japanese have largely refused to tell the truth about Nanking, have denied most of the atrocities, have threatened those who try to tell the truth (including Iris), Chang ‘s focus was on forcing the Japanese to face their history honestly.  To her this is important for at least two reasons:  1.  It is a matter of justice, and 2. The Japanese themselves are harmed by their selective memories.

The injustice of the world’s amnesia comes in many parts, including the fact that many Japanese officers guilty of grotesque abuses paid little for their crimes and often retired with pensions while being honored by their nation for service.  By contrast, the victims who survived (some still living when she wrote her book) lived in grinding poverty, bearing the physical and emotional scars for a lifetime.  Because the Chinese government largely ignored the massacre for decades, the functional amnesia of the victimized nation further harmed their most traumatized members.* Iris clearly wanted the world to recognize these victims before the last of them died.

With regard to the harm that bad history was doing to Japan, Chang offered a simple but compelling question.  Is Germany better for having confronted the Holocaust?  Of course we can ask the same question (as she did) of other nations who have a dark episode in their past, but the contrast with Germany is powerful because of the parallels and the differences.  If we believe that Germany is better today because they learned to remember well then we have to assume that Japan has been harmed by its refusal to confront its own past.  Exactly how Germany was made better and Japan was made worse by their different ways of remembering is, I believe, a subject warranting much more attention than we have yet afforded it.  Behind the particular cases of Germany and Japan is the question of how remembering and forgetting changes societies, including those like ours that live in a time of easy forgetting.

But are there significant cultural differences between Germany and Japan that shape distinctive ways that different people write, transmit and incorporate history into their national self-understanding?  In the case of Japan, how do its centuries of insularity, its rigid hierarchy, understanding of power relationships, cosmology, system of honor and shame, and even its aesthetic, create demands on the telling of history?  The ability to “not see” what is uncomfortable or what might upset power relationships, is more developed in Japanese culture than most others.  Telling shameful stories is surely a threat to order.  Stories of national shame are never easy for a people to read and incorporate into their collective identity, but for the Japanese, I suspect, the stakes are much higher than for most other folk.  Would Japan have been better off if it had confronted its shame more directly?  How and why?

Iris Chang wrote her book so that by remembering we would not repeat.  She stressed, as did her mother in her memoir, that civilization is “tissue-thin” and that we are always ever so close to our capacity to do barbarous evil.  We must confront the worst of ourselves through history (since, Iris would claim, there is a universal human nature at work) and we must account for the conditions, culture, circumstances, that produced moral catastrophes in the past.  We must remember so that we can save our own souls, so that we can give a measure of justice to victims, so that we might gain the wisdom of the ages.

Laudable.  Iris Chang ought to inspire us to the need for a proper historical memory and her book ought to convict us that forgetting can be a crime against humanity.  But the case of Iris and Nanking lead us back to a number of questions about how we remember.  I don’t believe that Iris appreciated fully the historical nature of the human condition, the great complexity that attends the act of remembering, nor did she comprehend the moral and mortal dangers of championing a moral crusade.  Yet, her moral instincts were spot-on.

Remembering is always selective.  The stories we tell ourselves require structure, “forgetting” of countless details, and the stories we tell ourselves ultimately place us in an even larger story in which we discover our role, or part, or place.  We must be careful about the stories we tell because they help constitute our very being—being-in-context.  If we are to be healthy individuals or nations we must incorporate failure, trauma, and shame into our stories of ourselves.  Until we remember well we cannot overcome, and until we overcome we will never be free from our un-told past.  This, I believe, is what Iris Chang felt in her bones.  Her book was a service, therefore, not just to the Chinese people, but to the Japanese as well.

Remembering is a delicate matter, and not all remembering is healthy.  Indeed, one of the goals of remembering well is to be able to effectively forget (or get beyond).  When Iris became a celebrity, especially for the Chinese-American community, and when people associated her tragic death with the story she so told so well, the task of remembering well got much harder—for Iris and those most involved in this story.  Iris could not bear (no person is capable of bearing) the responsibility of remembering for the Chinese people.  Her great service came in the form of telling the truth about Nanking, but historical memory must be incorporated into the people, not borne by a martyr for the people.

In recent years we have focused too much on Iris and not enough on her cause.  Iris, I suspect, got caught up in the moral urgency of her cause and the influence that her celebrity carried in certain settings.  Calling Iris the most recent victim of Nanking is, I think, unnecessarily dramatic.  Nonetheless, the raw power of her book to confront a new generation with the responsibility to remember is a rare accomplishment.  We pay our respects to Iris when we remember Nanking and, like her, demand justice.  And from the intertwined stories of Nanking and Iris we are reminded to discriminate between remembering and remembering well.








*Santayana’s point was that those peoples who do not have the living presence of the past are required, with each generation, to learn for themselves what the previous generation had learned out of their experiences.  The full passage from which this famous sentence has been abstracted is illuminating: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.”

* Chang explores the failure to remember by China and the western powers as well, which she believed was a result of the political pressures attending the Cold War.  Her explanation is simple and unpersuasive, especially regarding the Chinese government.  I do not know to what degree this failure of the Chinese to remember well this event is tied to geo-politics, to the nature of the Communist regime (and its own way of controlling historical accounts), or to the nature of Chinese cultural relationship with history.  One anecdote from one of my graduate students sparks my curiosity.  After asking her if she wanted to do some research for me on this subject, her rejection included two causes.  First, the events were so horrific that she didn’t wish to put herself through the pain of studying them.  Second, she wondered what value there is in remembering an episode where China had been so shamed, had lost so terribly.


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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.


  1. While the West might not remember the tragedy, the tense relationship between China and Japan is still wrestling with it. Perhaps Mao’s own predations upon his own people and in particular, an entire generation of intelligentsia wiped out by murderous internal ideology may have something to do with the treatment of the subject by a China now aggressively expanding .

    Humans massacre by other humans seems to be a universal effort and the previous century represents a rich harvest of massacre. Both the East and the West seem actively engaged in it.

  2. The reality is that when it comes to human nature and human beings you will know you cannot force a logical choice onto others. The very fact they can choose to be barbaric simply means they will choose to be so again when and where they will. That Iris wanted contrition from an entire nation of Japan and perhaps realized this is not and isn.t on the present agenda meant for her her journey became an non ending saga reflected in her choice of holding on to the same theme in selecting the Bataan March subject. Perhaps it was the realization that you truly cannot change the world although you can effect change must have stunned her into understanding that the sacrifices she had willingly made for her labours were in the end, not worth the time and effort.

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