In this book about 20th century China, original sin shows our desperate need for God-birthed civility.
Shock value, or the weight of the truth? Either way, Iris Chang’s thoroughly researched book on what she calls “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II” floors the reader with the brutal impact of the Japanese occupation of Nanking (now called Nanjing) in the 1930s. It’s important to know that Nanjing was the capital of the Chinese Nationalists, the faction that struggled against the Communists but eventually lost in 1949. The Japanese, who had planned to invade China for a long time, saw political unrest in young Chinese republic (founded in 1912) as the opportune moment to attack. The Nationalist army abandoned the city, and most civilians were either too weak, ignorant or poor to flee before the well trained Japanese army descended on the capital. I would say that what happened subsequently is beyond description, but Chang has described it all too well.
Chang chose the book’s title carefully, as if to alarm the reader that something unspeakable awaits within the pages. But no warning is adequate for the tragedy and horror Chang documents with gruesome imagery and relentless statistical evidence: By some estimates, over 300,000 were killed in a span of a few months. Chang’s description of the methodical and sadistic approach taken by the Japanese—with live burials, killing contests, beheadings—is almost too much to take in. But the sheer scale of the atrocities keeps driving the plot. As a reader, you’re drawn to continue, as though you’re not doing justice to the dead unless you trudge through the pages, remembering their story and vowing to ensure that these events never happen again.
Two of the most interesting parts to me were the beginning and end of the conflict. In a chapter called “The Road to Nanking,” Chang talks about how Japanese children were trained to demonize the Chinese from a young age. At the end, she discusses the trials of the Japanese leaders that either directly sanctioned their army’s behavior or failed to stop it. Justice was never served, and many of them have never served a day behind bars. Innocent young minds corrupted, while those who did the corrupting get off without proper punishment. Reading this book confirmed my belief in original sin. The stories within those pages shatter the argument that human nature is inherently good. Outside forces influence us, no doubt. But nurture alone can’t account for the unchecked evil that fell on Nanjing.
On the other hand, there are Chang’s heroes, those unlikely foreigners who show that despite humanity’s propensity toward evil, we don’t have to resort to a Lord of the Flies worldview. We can be civilized. We can regain dignity even in the most disgraceful of times. We can be like Jesus, serving our fellow men even at great risk to and in spite of ourselves.
John Rabe, ironically, was a German and a member of the Nazi party. He was chosen as one of the leaders of the Nanking Safety Zone, a few blocks of cityscape designated as a safe area for Chinese refugees. Rabe housed refugees at his own estate, and he was known for driving around the war-torn city, using his Nazi badge to stop rapes and killings in progress. Germany was Japan’s ally, and this strange authority gave him clout with the Japanese henchmen, allowing Rabe to save untold numbers of people. Interestingly, Rabe reportedly wrote letters to Hitler describing the atrocities and asking the fuhrer to end them.
Other foreigners helped as well. An American doctor performed surgeries for days on end. Another American woman protected her students at a women’s college. All in all, Chang estimates that more than 200,000 people were saved as a result of the efforts in the safety zone. Although the soldiers rarely honored its boundaries, a team of less than 20 foreigners was able to somehow feed and protect refuges from all over the city and the countryside.
In the end, Chang has told compelling story, but not one with a neat resolution. In a crystal clear picture of sin running rampant, there is no silver lining. Sin is messy, and when it takes control, there is only the melancholy legacies of lives senselessly ruined and the faint hope that somehow nations and people will learn from the transgressions of the past. If the 1930s and 40s taught us anything, they taught us that the days are evil. We need something—Someone—outside of us to keep the world spinning. May we continually pray for grace, because Chang’s book proves that if He gives us over to our own desires, there is no limit to the pain we can inflict on one another.