Nanking Fragments

As Iris Chang understood particularly well, images of shocking events carry a certain moral clarity.  Chang’s faith in the persuasive power of graphic imagery, and the importance of images in the process of turning an empathetic consciousness toward the past, could be seen in her experience of a 1994 exhibition of photographs in Cupertino, California, organized by the Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War.  In an interview with the Washington Post, she described the meaning of the exhibition:

Nothing prepared me for those photographs.  They had been blown up poster-size.  It wasn’t just the hacked-up bodies, the breasts cut off, even the ones disemboweled.  It was the expressions of terror and fear and degradation on the faces of the victims, especially the women, at their moment of death.  I knew then I had to write a book about it.[1]

Chang’s subsequent labor produced The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, a text whose images and interpretation cohered closely with the Cupertino exhibition.  For some, Chang’s images were a call to action: an elderly Chinese-American woman in San Francisco described to Chang how she had labored over a Xerox machine, sending reproductions of the most gruesome photos in The Rape of Nanking to nearly every member of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as local television stations guilty of sidestepping “the whole truth – the Asian Holocoust [sic] caused by the savage Japs [sic].”[2]   Yet at the same time, one cannot help but wonder again, as the Washington Post critic put it, “Are we in any way improved by looking at piles of dead babies?”


More Nanking films are on the way.  Zhang Yimou’s, starring Christian Bale, appears to be very much in the same mode.  But the whole war needs films: Changde, Wuhan, etc.


In the monograph On Extreme Violence, Mondher Kilani passes through a kaleidoscope of forms of violence, analysing the sacrificial aspects of each.  Near the conclusion of the text, the French anthropologist raises (and quite naturally opposes) the spectre of a war involving all of humanity.  He then, however, inverts completely the proposition: conflict sublimated among groups can become “the process by which a new form of humanity is generated (anthropopoesis).”[3]  In terms of the number of participants and the extensive geographical range over which the controversy now spans, the debate over the Rape of Nanking in some ways has become more “total.”  The technique of common attack of allegedly bilateral problems would appear to be the direction in which we are moving.

[1] Quoted in Ken Ringle, “The Forgotten Holocaust,” The Washington Post, January 8, 1998.  Ringle’s article was included in the press kit prepared by Basic Books for publicizing Iris Chang’s book tour.  See Iris Chang Papers, Box 150, Folder 1.

[2] Letter to Iris Chang from Beverly Feng in San Francisco, 14 September 1998, Iris Chang Papers, Box No. 179 (General Correspondence), Hoover Institution Archives.

[3] Wiel Eggen, « Mondher Kilani, Guerre et sacrifice.  La violence extréme. »  L’Homme, 187-188., 2008, published 16 December 2008 <>.

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