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Iris Chang, 36; Author of 'The Rape of Nanking'

November 11, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Iris Chang, the best-selling author of "The Rape of Nanking" and one of the nation's leading young historians and a human rights activist who became a role model for young American students of Chinese descent, has died. She was 36.

Chang was found dead in her car Tuesday morning on a highway just south of Los Gatos, Calif., Santa Clara County authorities said Wednesday. They said it appeared that Chang, who lived in San Jose with her husband and young son, had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Susan Rabiner, Chang's literary agent, said Chang had suffered a breakdown about five months ago during a research trip for her fourth book. The book focused on the experiences of men who fought in the U.S. tank battalions in the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines and their subsequent imprisonment by the Japanese for the duration of World War II.

After her release from the hospital, Rabiner said, Chang continued to battle depression. In a note to her family, Chang asked to be remembered as the woman she had been before her illness, engaged with life, committed to her causes, her writing and her family.

Rabiner was unaware of Chang having any previous problems with depression. "This was a tragedy way beyond words," she said.

Rabiner, who was Chang's editor for "The Rape of Nanking," views the critically acclaimed 1997 international bestseller as the best of Chang's three published books.

"The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II," which Chang spent at least two years researching in the U.S. and China, chronicles the slaughter, rape and torture of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers in the former capital of China in 1937.

She was spurred to write the book after her parents told her the story of her grandparents, who had fled Nanking as the violence was beginning.

When Chang learned of the crimes in late 1994, she later recalled, "I was walking around in a state of shock."

While researching her book in China, Chang discovered that among a small group of Europeans and Americans who stayed behind in Nanking to protect the remaining one-third of the city's Chinese population who had not fled the Japanese army's advance was John Rabe, a German national.

"On a hunch," Rabiner said, "she tracked down his granddaughter and asked, 'Is it possible your grandfather kept a diary?' She found it. That was the first time the diary had been brought to light. Here was an outsider, a European, who recorded his own contemporaneous memories of the atrocities that occurred at that time."

The diary, Rabiner said, was one of the most important independent validations of the Chinese allegations of Japanese atrocities.

"This is a book I really had to write," Chang once said in an interview. "I wrote it out of a sense of rage. I didn't really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937."

The book touched a raw nerve in Japan, and some questioned some of its assertions.

Of her book, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks, columnist George Will wrote: "Something beautiful, an act of justice, is occurring in America today concerning something ugly that happened long ago and far away. Because of Chang's book, the second rape of Nanking is ending."

The late historian Stephen Ambrose said Chang was "maybe the best young historian we've got, because she understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way."

Although most book tours are only a couple of weeks long, Chang spent a year on the road speaking at colleges and other forums about "The Rape of Nanking."

"College students couldn't get enough of her," Rabiner said. She recalled that Chang also appeared with the Japanese ambassador to the United States on public television's "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

Rabiner said one of the show's reporters asked Chang about the Nanking massacre, and Chang said, "We have yet to receive an apology from anyone in a high level of the Japanese government."

"And they turned to the Japanese ambassador and asked him to speak," Rabiner said. "As he described it, 'There were perhaps some unfortunate incidents.' They looked back at Iris and she said, 'Unfortunate incidents? Did you hear an apology? I didn't.' "

"The whole place was riveted," said Rabiner. "She was very courageous and never harsh, never strident, in standing her ground."

In an interview with the campus newspaper at Stanford University last May, Chang said, "I bring up these crimes to remind us of the potential for evil that lives in us all. The Pacific War was not some tragic flaw but an indication of a universal condition of human nature."

The daughter of a physics professor and a microbiologist, Chang was born in Princeton, N.J., on March 28, 1968, and grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1989 and worked briefly as a reporter for Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune before earning a graduate degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University and launching her full-time career as an author.

She was 25 when she wrote her first book, "Thread of the Silkworm." Her third book, "The Chinese in America," described the determination of Chinese immigrants to take their place in the U.S.

Chang is survived by her husband, Brett Douglas; her son, Christopher; her parents, Shau-Jin and Ying-Ying Chang; and her brother, Michael Chang.

Funeral and memorial services are pending.

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