Impressions of the Iris Chang Papers

It’s been a whirlwind, head-bending kind of two-day sprint through a minor swath of the Hoover Institute Archives at Stanford University.

Iris Chang wasn’t my only target — thanks to some very diligent young colleagues I was also lucky to find my way into a thicket of Korean War propaganda (some of which I hope to leak out on this blog), more work by Sheldon Harris, and a few hundred pages of the master diplomat-analyst O. Edmund Clubb in the tendentious 1950s.  But more on that later.

All things considered, Iris Chang’s incredible energy, her coiled personality, and her unchallenged productivity are revealed in these papers, where ultimate inwardness (better phrased in the German innigkeit) coexists with statements to her self like “Celebrity Affords Certain Advantages.”  And not that she cares anymore (she being deceased, and her papers thus available for my perusal), but the experience leaves me quite conflicted.

Certain very important hallmarks of historical research shine through in Iris Chang’s materials regarding the preparation for her groundbreaking book, The Rape of Nanking (1997).

Drawing from the sheer mass of the photocopied materials from such other archives as the Yale Divinity Library’s huge missionary archive, Chang took pains to cite cite cite her assertions, something that can’t be said for Jung Chang’s treatment of Mao. At least two boxes of printouts show her extracting, isolating her every sentence onto separate sheets of paper and explaining to herself what source it the sentence is based upon.  This is the a kind of thorough research and writing method with which most scholars can’t necessarily don’t always bother themselves, even if some of her sources are a bit suspect.

She is an active reader, using pencil and highlighter to good effect, amassing much data.  Going through a fraction of these papers has given me more respect for Chang — of course she is going to be attacked for leaving details from important sources out!  There are a lot of sources, and each has a life of its own.  What is really needed is a huge and comprehensive volume of primary sources as a companion piece to the book.

She has transcripts of video interviews conducted with then-New York Times reporter Tillman Durdin and his charming China Hand missionary wife, letters from missionaries like Fitch and Bates and Magee, of course, and makes notes on these things in abundant pencil, mixing English with Chinese.

Iris Chang reads Chinese!  This is a good thing.

On the other hand, there is a huge amount of material in these papers that reveals that Chang in the aftermath of the book’s completion was wrapped up wholly in its marketing, and was in some ways beset by various proposals (both business and personal) in the several years after its publication.

In one notebook excerpt from April 2000, she records her impressions of a meeting with a certain Hollywood agent affiliated with Mel Gibson.  After learning that “a profascist in Japan called me a Chinese slut,” Chang gets a pitch from the agent.  It appears that he wanted her to sell him the rights to her story, or work with him to turn the story of her book into cinema.  “Your passion is the story,” he appears to tell her, “you didn’t do it for the money,” before offering either $50,000 or 250,000 to make it happen.   At the end of the conversation memorandum, written in Chang’s rapid black ball-point sprawl is the sentence “contact Jerry Bruckenheimer.”

These are things that most history professors, and full-time researchers of history, don’t deal with.  They move on to the next book, teach the next class, apply for the next grant.

They forget to call Jerry Bruckenheimer because they are too wrapped up in the secondary literature.

Chang took more of  a reporter’s approach to The Rape of Nanking.  She uses more David Bergamini than anyone else, and a few boxes of photocopies from relevant secondary works (like an advance copy of Herbert Bix’s Hirohito [chapters 13-17] and the promising book by Iritani The Wartime Psychology of the Japanese People) lie basically unannotated.  I didn’t find her copy of Bergamini.

One of my students mentioned that Iris Chang should have had a colloquy with Jung Chang.  I thought that might have been interesting indeed.

In a subsequent post I hope to reflect further on her own self-analysis in these writings.  Like a mostly-empty notebook entitled “Meetings With Japanese Peace Activists,” even in the blank spaces in these papers is gathered much, much food for thought.

Coda: More of my recent essays on recent Sino-Japanese relations, and Iris Chang, as reflected in the Chinese press and in the work of Japanese manga artists like Kobayshi Yoshinori can be accessed here.


  1. You are either 1) embarrassingly ignorant, or 2) the worst graduate student that has ever wandered the halls of a university history department.

    “…this is the kind of through research that most scholars can’t necessarily bother themselves with…”

    You do nothing so well here as demonstrate your ignorance of professional historiography. Such a blanket statement would be insulting if it were not so obviously false. In the end, your writing says much more about you than it does about your intended subject. If you are not in school, I suggest you find a good one and matriculate. If you are in school, I suggest you pay more attention. You are so glib, so laughably confident in your assertions. Why not learn something before you speak? It’s a good rule of thumb.

    “Chang took pains to cite cite cite her assertions.”

    Chang’s book may have sold millions of copies, but it is hardly a scholarly treatment of her subject. The low regard you demonstrate for professors of history – particularly when considered alongside your high regard for Iris Chang – is a joke.

    “Iris Chang reads Chinese!”

    Big deal. And contrary to your implied assertion, so do most professors of Chinese history. In fact, most read (if not speak) Chinese (both modern and pre-modern) quite well.

    “Most history professors…read secondary literature.”

    It’s true. After all, secondary literature is what professional historians produce for a living. That they read and respond to each other’s work should surprise no one. Reading secondary literature, however, does not prevent most professional historians from spending long hours in archives with primary documents. I, for one, began writing seminar papers based on primary documents during my second semester of graduate school. So did my classmates. In the end, my ignorant friend, it seems that you are very poorly read. While you’re in Palo Alto, I suggest that you visit the Stanford University Department of History and speak with Matthew Sommer and Mark Edward Lewis about their use of primary sources. You might also ask for a reading list (for a start, read everything you can find by Philip A. Kuhn and Frederic Wakeman – avoid at all costs the ubiquitous Jonathan Spence). And while you’re in the Bay Area, hop on over to UC Berkeley and speak to professors Yeh Wen-hsin and Michael Nylan about your views on the state of professional historiography in America.

    “[Iris Chang’s] groundbreaking book ‘The Rape of Nanking'”

    Sorry. Wrong again. Sure, Chang’s book sold a lot of copies. But from the professional historian’s perspective, it was neither groundbreaking nor innovative. What it DID accomplish was to introduce the subject of the massacre to millions of people who had never heard of it.

    In the end, you might have written a mildly interesting post about what you discovered in the Hoover archive. Instead, you chose to wax ignorantly about something you obviously know little about.

    1. Distinguished Sir or Madam,

      In my short and admittedly disgraceful life as a reader and so-called “author,” I have had but few moments of true enlightenment. And, though I persist in stooping around in a state of slack-jawed, almost simian ignorance, far too few teachers have seen me worthy to administer a proper corrective lashing.

      And then, like some boddhisatva of higher education, you arrived! And here, on my blog, no less… In response to my short posting of some new data from the Iris Chang papers, perhaps alerted by the nuclear silo hair trigger team of Sinological information that is, you, the renowned Stinky Tofu, have taken the time to compose some very thoughtful reflections on my work.

      Although my ears are usually full of wax, I recall once having been told that the first sentence of any piece of writing is significant. It sets the tone and grabs the reader, inviting him or her further into the prose that follows, in effect, into the mind of the writer. Let’s compare!

      My own opening salvo is muddled, pedestrian at best:

      “It’s been a whirlwind, head-bending kind of two-day sprint through a minor swath of the Hoover Institute Archives at Stanford University.”

      What crap it is. I start with a contraction, indicating that what follows is somehow “informal,” trying vainly to strike up a conversational tone when my readers are plainly begging for a more academic, erudite scholarly tone. I really should have name-dropped a bunch of people at Stanford. Mistake Number 1!

      Then I proceed to make up new phrases (try Googling “head-bending kind of two-day sprint” sometime), mixing “whirlwind” and “sprint” metaphors in a futile attempt to convey speed. You know, something that is done with great rapidity and freshness? Mistake Number 2!

      I suppose that to gain credibility I should have portrayed my archival experience as one lasting months during which I grow long in the tooth, as if copying Chiang Kai-shek’s green diaries by hand like the host of researchers from Taiwan who haunt the Hoover Archive, their pencils dropping on the desks, making sounds like matchsticks dropping on a 2/28 Taipei street. Mistake Number 2 compounded!

      Failing to establish my own scholarly credibility in the first sentence is a major error, assuming as I did that readers would somehow find my presence in a major archive somehow interesting, or that readers would know how to navigate a blog sidebar to locate (and perhaps even read) my biography to find out I was a professor at a reputable North American institution of higher learning and not a graduate student. They might even find that I had published a handful of articles about related topics in peer-reviewed journals. Mistake Number 3!

      (Note to self: to preclude such nonsense, stiffen the spine and upbraid new readers, start every posting for the next two months, regardless of topic, with “In my forthcoming article in China Quarterly regarding war crimes memory in the Sino-Japanese relationship…” Refer frequently to CV updates and write like a motivational speaker of academia.)

      Now, having taken apart my shoddy opening salvo, we can see by contrast that your own entr’acte is quite the opposite. You appear incisive, deeply informed, and are consistent with your metaphors. You even provide a binary choice for the reader!

      “You are either 1) embarrassingly ignorant, or 2) the worst graduate student that has ever wandered the halls of a university history department.”

      How refreshing that you just start right in, Stinky, not bothering with a salutation. You just get to jumping right into the fray. That makes you gutsy. I like it!

      And even as the reader chews his gums and tries mightily to render a verdict on your very complex binary proposition, you just keep on moving, showing that lightning-quick mind in action, throwing in a wonderful image of me slouching around a history department in a sweatshirt, lazily looking for guidance. Note that I have already incorporated this image, with even a few augmentations, into the beginning of my response! That means 1) you are a genius or 2) I am capable of learning something from you in spite of my limited educational apparatus, which now includes a sweatshirt with dried slobber on it.

      After I rather briefly describe how Iris Chang has isolated her every sentence on a separate sheet of paper, I was dumb enough to write the following, and you call me on it.

      “…this is the kind of through research that most scholars can’t necessarily bother themselves with…”

      Actually I’m glad to have the opportunity to elaborate on this. Scholars (at least the ones I watch through binoculars as I drool onto my ragged Stanford sweatshirt, wishing I could someday have a job) do thorough research and use FOOTNOTES to back up their various citations. You imply this, and you’re right. What I’m suggesting here is that Chang’s specific method is different and in some ways better. She isolates each sentence on a separate sheet of paper with its source. This is foremost a favor she does for herself as an author — imparting visual clarity to an individual assertion while allowing her to play with sequencing of facts and sources in a way that smashing everything together in a Word document does not really allow quite so well. So it’s a study of process that I’m after with that particular sentence.

      But having said that, I agree that I “do nothing so well here as demonstrate [my] ignorance of professional historiography.” While most ignorant blowhards like me take the word “historiography” to mean the changing interpretations of a given event over time, you turn the word on its head to make it mean “the practice of history” or “history as a field.” Nice!

      And having thus innovated us all forward by a few dozen years, you conclude with an excellent blanket statement, er, assessment: “Such a blanket statement would be insulting if it were not so obviously false.” I actually can’t agree more, which is why my dumb ass has responded to your comment.

      Your ignorant, poorly read, and un-ground breaking student,

      Adam Cathcart, B.M., M.M., M.A., Ph.D.

      1. Dear Adam,

        I found your comments on Iris Chang’s notes quite interesting. Did you know that the book she was working on at the time of her suicide was going to be dealing with Special Unit 731. I thought you mentioned Sheldon Harris. I recruited Iris to write a book about a group of US Army prisoners of the Japanese in 2003. The clincher that got her to take me up on the offer was an interview I helped her do with one of the survivors, a former recon section sergeant, a tanker (M3 Stuarts), Albert Allen. I knew that several books on SU 731 mentioned the Japanese infecting POWs and others using a feather that they would rub under the victims nose. This was supposedly a means of infecting someone with anthrax. Well Al had the feather treatment done to him in the Japanese POW camp at Mukden, Manchuria. Al wasn’t the only POW who had the feather treatment. I spent 6 weeks this year at teh national Archives doing research on Al’s unit and got to look at some papers on Su 731. Iris saw the means to make the war crimes performed by Su 731 pertinent to US WWII history. A meaqns of making main stream Americans take an interest in the atrocities committed by SU in China. I believe her knowing about US complicity in the coverup of SU 731 crimes in exchange for SU 731 scientists helping build up the US Army’s bio warfare program lead to fear that she would be exposing some terrible things..both about the US and the post war carriers of the former Su 731 scientists. I could see how this could eat at someone. After weeks of my reading of Japanese attrocities to American POWs and to civilians in the Philippines I got really sick of reading of what monstrous things Japanese soldiers were capable of doing to humans. What bothers me about “scholars” like the one who was criticizing you…most of them would not risk championing any moral cause like Iris tried to do. They live in their ivory towers are are so full of themselves for their nit picking ways and never write anything that the average citizen would take any interest in. Such prissy academics are a dime a dozen. I’m sure if your critic found himself in the role of a maratu…left in a room with thousands of plague infected fleas..his outlook would change. But now it’s all about the exacting methods of doing the research in a stilted scholarly manner that no one outside a university would want to read. I like best selling authors who write books that really grip- the nation dealing with some aspect of history that ought to be told. I now have two friends who are such writers. I knew Iris but I only spent a total of seven days with her, all doing oral histories with WWII vets, prisoners of the Japanese. I found that we both shared as a favorite author John Steinbeck. Although The Grapes of Wrath was fiction, it was in part based on his having seen and talked with Okies in work camps in California and this resulted in his sympathy for their plight and his sense of indignation in seeing that Americans would allow such injustices to continue. My WWII vet acquaintances I introduced to Iris opened her eyes as to the plight of all former POWs of the Japanese. Well in any case I just wanted to ask if when you were in the archives if you saw any of the thousands documents she had gathered on these WWII vets. Best wishes

        1. Dear Tony,

          Thanks a million for sharing your experience. I wasn’t aware that Unit 731 was part of her final research project and I’ll certainly take a look into it the next time I am at the Hoover. Between her papers, Sheldon Harris’ papers, my research in China (both on-site in Manchuria and in the various archives), and testimonies like the ones you mentioned, I think a clearer picture can be achieved of the atrocities and what they mean for us in the “postwar” era.

          In your six weeks at the National Archives, I’m sure you found a huge amount of data. Perhaps you met John Taylor, the archivist, there? He has helped quite a few researchers on Unit 731, and is one of our country’s greatest resources.

          Thanks again for the comment, and I’ll look forward, I hope, to staying in touch about this important topic.

          Adam Cathcart

  2. 1) You’re correct. I misused the word “historiography.” It’s a mistake I’ve been making since my first year of graduate school. In my defense, however, English is my third language. Like Iris Chang, after years of living in the U.S., I’m still more comfortable using Chinese. How about you?

    2) “[I am] a professor at a reputable North American institution of higher learning and not a graduate student…[and have] published a handful of articles about related topics in peer-reviewed journals.”

    I searched for your dissertation on UMI’s website. Sure enough, there it was. So, you received your training at Ohio University. I must admit, I’ve never heard of it before. Perhaps your advisor (Donald Jordan) at OU read Chinese poorly and chose not to make use of primary sources. Might that not explain your earlier confusion? As for Pacific Lutheran U. being a “reputable” institution, who am I to judge? I suppose it could be.

    3) Your fascination with Iris Chang’s methods is a mystery to me. I read her book, and from a scholarly point of view it was mediocre – certainly not the “groundbreaking” work that you suggest it is. You are putting the cart well in front of the horse, Professor Cathcart. What good is it to speak of methods when the end result is so patently average? I’d be genuinely flabbergasted to find Chang’s book on a graduate seminar reading list at a single major North American research university. The shocking nature of the subject matter aside, it’s simply not that good. You do professional historians a great diservice when you disparage them and elevate Iris Chang.

    1. Stinky, thanks for the response, and glad to see you back at the blog.

      On the language front: Iris Chang was certainly more comfortable using English, but occasionally wrote to herself in a script that freely mixed in Chinese. I’m by no means an expert on her biography, but don’t believe she took any Chinese language classes or had the ability to compose, for example, essays in Chinese. As other scholars like Joshua Fogel have noted, her sources for the book are almost entirely in English, leaving out the vast Chinese literature and documentary collections on this topic. As Takeshi Yoshida (Western Michigan U.) describes in his book The Making of “the Rape of Nanking”, by 1997, to call the Rape of Nanking somehow “forgotten” in either Taiwan or the PRC would be serious misnomer. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “forgotten in the West.” Which is all to say that the author was facile in English but seems to have lacked the interest in Chinese sources that would at least have made her book more scholarly.

      Donald Jordan, who you correctly identify as my dissertation adviser, was trained in Taiwan in the 1950s and uses Chinese sources as the basis for all three of his books on Republican China. If reading Wade-Giles doesn’t drive you nuts, I would recommend his 2003 book, China’s Trial by Fire: The Shanghai War of 1932, as the authoritative treatment of the action in Shanghai. As it’s germane to the current discussion, the Shanghai War preceded the atrocities at Nanking by more than five years but hardly gets a mention in Chang’s text. Of course, she’s hardly alone in not having gotten the memo about things like, for instance, the Japanese bombing in 1932 of China’s biggest publishing house, the Shanghai Commercial Press, by the Japanese. She also failed to note how the street-to-street fighting and guerrilla attacks on the Japanese army in Shanghai in 1932 which informed their urban warfare thereafter. More destructive to her thesis of absolute Chinese innocence in the events leading up to the Japanese invasion of China proper in summer 1937, Jordan argues in his second book, Chinese Boycotts versus Japanese Bombs, that Chinese protectionism played a role in radicalizing the Japanese military and public to military action versus negotiation with the Chinese. Parks Coble at Nebraska has a lot of good data on this kind of thing in two or three of his books as well.

      I don’t have the time here to recap the academic reputation of the contemporary history program at Ohio University, but it was built by John Gaddis who Yale seems to like just fine. It was a very good place for me, as I also got to work with Shao Dan (a young scholar of Manchu collaboration and citizenship who is now at University of Illinois) and Kuiyi Shen (now at UC-San Diego who with his wife Julia Andrews at Ohio State is one of the foremost voices on contemporary Chinese art history and Sino-Japanese exchanges in that field). If you ever get around to reading my recent piece in the Chinese Historical Review (中国历史评论) on the Khabarovsk Trials’ impact on anti-Japanese sentiment on the earliest months of the PRC, you would see how working with Norman Goda (Holocaust historian, member of the IWG that was responsible for declassifying huge amounts of Japanese and German war crimes material in Washington) was helpful for my work on Japanese war crimes.

      In contemporary China, OU has not graduated massive numbers of PhDs, but the quality has been reasonably high. Shu Guang Zhang (U. of Maryland, College Park, now in Shanghai) and Qiang Zhai (Auburn U.) both did their doctorates at Ohio before I did, and Victor Kaufman and other grads have good records of publishing their books. In spite of being in the shadow of Ohio State where Korean War scholar Allan R. Millett was for so long, Ohio has got the library and scholarly resources to get a good bit of research done. It was also, along with Michigan State University, one of the most important sites of Southeast Asian studies in the 1950s and 60s thanks to the work of the Asianist John Cady.

      They are currently looking for a permanent successor to the now-retired Donald Jordan, so I would encourage you or colleagues to apply if you’re on the job market in Chinese history.

      And! since I am writing, publishing, and getting the occasional rejection letter in the area of Chinese-North Korean relations, I should note that Bradley Martin, author of the gigantic and well-received book “In the Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” was a visiting professor at the Scripps School of Journalism at OU when I was there, and was an influential person for me. But having said all that, you’re right in implying that Ohio isn’t Harvard, which is why people like me have simply have to publish more to be taken seriously.

      I feel confident enough in my own Chinese-language research, but I will admit that composing prose in Chinese (or German, for that matter) usually results, in the words of the musicological genius Richard Taruskin, in “masterworks of incoherence.” Thus it is rendered it all the more impressive that you are writing in your third language — I had assumed you were a native Anglophone by your prose, so hats off to you.

      In some other post I will probably address more directly how Pacific Lutheran University, my present 单位, can be considered “reputable” in the areas of Chinese Studies and war crimes research, but I would just encourage you to look up Christopher Browning and Sidney Rittenberg. The former built the Holocaust Studies program at this university and published a few influential tomes, while the latter man is my current colleague here and was, among other things, Zhou Enlai’s interpreter at the Nanking talks with George Marshall in 1946, in charge of Beijing’s English-language propaganda in the 1960s and the translator of Mao’s works in that period. Besides that, being in the Puget Sound is one of the better places to be “stuck” as a scholar of China in North America.

      Sorry if I got a little chippy in my first response, but I suppose that is part of the nature of the blog format. The advantage, however, is the immediacy of it all — if we were anonymously reviewing one another’s articles for publication, this whole thing probably would have taken a few months. And speaking of articles, I have some stuff I need to do on that front at the moment. But I’m appreciative of your taking the time to comment on the blog and your points on Iris Chang are particularly well-taken. Thank you!

  3. Thanks Adam and Tony for your insights. I too did not realize Iris was working on Unit 731. All that I have gathered was that she was focusing in on the men of one (tank?) unit from the midwest caught in the battle of Battaan. (I think that work has been turned over to another author).
    I spent a day at the Hoover in 2008. There are several boxes of materials plus? that are off limits until something like 2015. I presume this is all her most recent work. I saw no evidence of it otherwise in any of the other boxes.
    My interest at the time of my visit was more about the author then her subjects. In this regards I think the collection is very helpful. Iris was a multidimensional person like everyone else with a mixture of idealism and personal ambition. You can tell these elements started developing quite early in her life. One of her grade school papers was on Clara Barton who was called “The Angel of The Battlefield”. It immediately drew comparisons for me of Minnie Vautrin. I did not know she liked Steinbeck that is very interesting.
    I think we need both the academicians and people like Iris who can make this material more accessible to people such as myself. And I have to respond to Stinky’s comments: Iris Chang at the end of the day has done a lot more in her brief time to inspire and motivate thousands of people than you (or I) will in our (hopefully) much longer lives. Does eternally being pissed off constitute a requirement of being a scholar these days? Humility is something we can all use a little more of. Thanks again for information.

    1. Tim, that’s right; something like 80 boxes in total (numbers 37-105 if I’m not mistaken) are off limits until 2015. I’m not sure why that is, but it is at the request of her family. It may be the recent research, which I would imagine includes quite a few interviews with WWII veterans. In the meantime, there is plenty of good material to consult. There are also smaller collections of her papers at UC Santa Barbara and University of Illinois. As to your interest in the personal makeup of the author, yes, this is one aspect in which the papers are very rich. Having now spent a little time with the papers, I fully agree when you say that “Iris was a multidimensional person like everyone else with a mixture of idealism and personal ambition.”

  4. Stinky,

    Your reactions to this post are very strong, vitriolic and aggressive. Like your reactions to some stuff on and articles that I have written elsewhere.

    But as long as you choose to use a pseudonym when attacking people like Adam and me who use our real names when we publish online, I will not take anything you write at all seriously.

    “Stinky” or “Stinky Tofu” is a fun Net name for the 4chan crowd, but if you want to play with the adults, identify yourself.

  5. Geez, this thread looks like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Zarah Leander being trapped in one and the same escalator!

  6. there is only an ineffable sadness when one thinks of how she ended her life at 36 and of how those bataan veterans’ stories will remain untold now. ‘stinky’ is puerile.

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