Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

No one can ever be the same after they read this book.  Iris Chang wrote this best-selling account of the Nanking massacre in 1997, after doing exhaustive research in Nanjing and the U.S, missionary archives.  The systematic rape of several hundred thousand civilian women by the Japanese occupiers in December 1937 in addition to the torture and other countless atrocities of men and women defies one's belief system.  Sadly, the author ended her own life with a pistol to her head in a car in Los Gatos, CA, in 2004, some saying she could no longer cope with such intimate knowledge of what was perpetrated in China's capital.  This book is of special interest to me as I have a great-uncle, John Henry Reisner (1887-1965), who was a Presbyterian missionary in Nanking and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Forestry of Nanking Univ. from 1914-1931.  He left China 6 years before the Japanese invasion.  His family legacy was ever present in my childhood home, filled with Chinese lamps and rugs as he couldn't bring cash out of China.

John H. Reisner with daughter

reverse inscription, April, 1919

The daughter of two university professors. Iris Chang grew up in Champagne-Urbana, IL, graduating from Univ. Illinois at C-U in 1989.  She became a New York Times stringer and wrote her first book, Thread of the Silkworm (1995), about NASA JPL-founder Tsien Hsue-shen, who was accused of being a spy, left for China, and developed missile systems in China. 

Iris took on a much more incendiary topic when she approached The Rape of Nanking.  Unlike Germany, who made reparations of over $60 billion to individuals, restitution for lost property, and agreements with Israel and other nations (p. 222), Japan never made even a formal apology.  Oddly enough, even present day Chinese leaders are reticent about the topic in fear of upsetting their Japanese trading partner.  Her book was influenced (p. 14) by the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950) (p. 19) about a rape and murder case in 10th century Kyoto.  A bandit waylays a traveling samurai and his wife: rapes the wife and kills the samurai.  Simple enough, yet the story becomes complex when the other characters relate the story, including the wife, the bandit, and a witness.  Of course, the Rape of Nanking is analogous, when told by the Chinese, Japanese, and the West.

A major question remains as to why the Japanese promulgated such aggressive westward expansion.  Chang notes that by the 1920s Japan had 60 million mouths to feed (p. 26) in a limited area of 142,270 square miles.  Moreover, the U.S. had adopted manifest destiny as the excuse for westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese would do the same in the socially fragmented and loosely governed China (p. 27).  Some experts blame the non-Christian nature of Japanese religion, claiming that while Christianity puts forth the idea that all humans are brothers (all things created in God's image), Shintoism purports that only the emperor and his descendants were created in God's image (p. 54).

During the Occupation, a Safety Zone was established run by Westerners.  Many Chinese hid here for long periods.  Heroes included the improbable John Rabe (p. 109), leader of the Nanking Nazi Party, Minnie Vautrin (p. 129), dean of studies at Ginling Women's Arts & Science College, and American surgeon Robert Wilson (p. 122).

Chang details the atrocities as well she should.  Use Google Image to see babies skewered on bayonets like shish kebab, raped women dead on the ground with lances plunged into their vaginas, etc.  The Japanese even had a Nazi-like experimental medical lab à la Josef Mengele, Unit Ei 1644 (p. 164), where guinea pigs they termed zaimoku were subjected to vivisection and were injected with poisons, germs, lethal gases and snake venom, including cobra, habu, and amagasa.

Despite overwhelming evidence, claims are still made that the atrocities never occurred.  Fortunately, the crimes of Nanking were filmed by John Magee (p. 156) of victims at the Univ. of Nanking Hospital.  George Fitch smuggled the 16 mm negative out of China at great risk, on a Japanese military train to Shanghai, sewn into linings of his camel's hair coat. 

The Nanjing Municipal Government built the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in 1985.  This is not unique for Asia, compare with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) are documented.

City of Life and Death (2009) is an extraordinary Chinese film about the Massacre, directed by Lu Chuan and filmed in Tianjin.  Black and white, the cinematography is highly nuanced and sensitive, I cannot recall a more sophisticated Chinese film.  The Chinese Film Bureau delayed release by 1 year.  Some details are well beyond the recounting in Chang's book, especially the sympathetic portrayal of Japanese soldier Kadokawa, who falls for Japanese prostitute Yuriko, and ultimately commits suicide, unable to digest the tragedy (art imitating life).  Rabe's male secretary Tang Tianxiang is also a focal point, who fails to protect his family in the Safety Zone, despite ratting out the location of Chinese soldiers to the Japanese, in exchange for immunity, not granted.

AOL Vice-Chairmon Ted Leonsis produced the documentary Nanking (2007) as a result of reading Chang's book.  It is filled with archival footage.  Although Mariel Hemingway (Minnie Vautrin) and Woody Harrelson (Robert Wilson) are among several actors recruited as on-camera readers, the most memorable scenes are interviews with elderly Japanese soldiers recounting the killings and rapes. 

Bertolucci's famous Academy Award-winning film The Last Emperor (1987) has a brief scene referencing 1937 in Nanking.  In 1988 the Shochiku Fuji Distribution Co. in Japan removed a 30-second flashback scene making Bertolucci furious.  Outcry forced the distributors to restore the excised scene.

 The Flowers of War (2011) is directed by Zhang Yimou, China's best-known director (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) and based on the novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Geling Yan.  It is the most expensive movie made in China and paves the way for large international audiences.  It stars Christian Bale and Nanjing native Ni Ni (Yimou's latest "Mou" girl).  A beautiful soundtrack backs an impressive film about schoolgirls and prostitutes seeking safe haven in a Nanjing cathedral at the onset of the Nanking Massacre in 1937, under the protection of a mortician turned priest.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

"Uzo" Iweala  (U-zod-din-ma EE-wall-a) hails from a well-heeled Nigerian family, part of the vast diaspora situated in the U.S.  His father is a surgeon, and mother was Nigeria's Minister of Finance.  He wrote this story as a Harvard undergrad.  His grasp of native language is phenomenal.  The concept was born when attending a speaking engagement at Harvard by China Keitetsi, a young woman forced to fight in the Ugandan Civil War.  Most readers will imagine these lives as typical of the boy-soldiers of Sierra Leone.

As I began this magical little book, the lexicon of the 9-year old Agu struck me as a very powerful medium for telling the story of a boy forced to become a soldier, a killing machine.  His voice is "unliterary, yet poetic" (Baker, NYT 12/4/05).  The story is unimaginable without this voice.

It has precedence in Martin Amis' short story "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" in the collection Heavy Water.  Amis' story takes place in "Horzeleej Band" (Horseleech Pond, South of Wellfleet) and is narrated in an argot simulating his actual son, Louis, mourning the death of his step-brother.  The book is replete with onomatopoeia words like "TAKA TAKA TAKA," (p. 79) the sound of machine gun fire.  I am reminded of the Swahili term for motorcycle "piki piki piki," echoing the gentle sounds of a Honda 125 cc bike in the Tanzania bush.

The atrocities these boys are forced to commit are brutal.  "You are not my mother, I am saying to the girl's mother and when I am raising my knife high above my head.  I am liking the sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head and how the blood is just splashing on my hand and my face and my feets.  I am chopping and chopping and chopping until I am looking up and it is dark" (p. 51).  His commander is a pederast "Commandant is touching me and bringing my head to where he is standing at attention" (p. 84).  There's more: "he was telling me to kneel and then he was entering inside of me the way the man goat is sometimes mistaking other man goat for woman goat and going inside of them" (p. 85).  The man-boys are starving: "Everyone here is doing zero zero one.  I am not knowing what this is meaning before I am soldier, but now I am knowing that it means no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner" (p. 90).  Agu laments childhood lost: "I am knowing I am no more child so if this war is ending I cannot be going back to doing child thing" (p. 93).