The Rape of Nanking recalls the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945). The key focus of Iris Chang’s dedicated historical and political work is on the city of Nanking, now known as Nanjing, which was the capital of China at the time of the massacre.

The core aim of the book, at the time of first publication, was to publish and extend the notions and facts of what was perpetrated in this ancestral city for cultures alien to that of China and East Asia, including the USA, specifically. As it stands now, after 13 years in circulation among readers across the world and translations into several languages, The Rape of Nanking embodies the struggle for remembrance of the Chinese civilians and soldiers who suffered at the hands of a dehumanised and ferocious invading Japanese war machine.

Chang was initially told stories by her family at a young age, but years later she stumbled upon the issue of the massacre again, compelled deeper into the pages of accounts from foreigners in the city circa the war and Japanese soldiers and officers who admitted to what had occurred there. She questioned the exact nature of the event and was intrigued as to why it had not attained prominence as an incident of great historical infamy like the European holocaust of the Jews and other ethnic minorities by the Nazis.

The book is split into three parts, each identifying and explaining separate aspects of the massacre’s history. Adopting a three-phase narrative of the massacre, part 1 retells how the massacre was shaped through the different perspectives of those who witnessed it: the Chinese, the Japanese and the Westerners who remained in the city after the event was set in motion. This virtue of variance allowed Chang to cross over from viewpoints that either corroborated or contradicted each other – the personal reminiscences of survivors of the massacre sometimes clash with what Japanese officials would perceive as statements of truth (conflicts of interest are buried at the heart of the controversy surrounding this issue and Chang’s book itself).

The second and third parts of the book deal with the publicity and knowledge of the event in its duration and afterwards, and the aftermath of evidence and portrayals of the massacre that persist to this day, respectively, as well as the ramifications it has had on political dispositions, reputations and diplomatic activities.

For Chang, as for anyone of which this book interests, it is an uphill battle with reason to conclude on how such an event could have ever happened. The most shocking subject detailed in The Rape is the overwhelming lack of empathy, compassion and respect attributed to the Japanese army units, whom the six-week incident was orchestrated by. The actual details describing what they did to the native Chinese of Nanking are foul, debauched beyond recognition. POWs (not held under immunity of the Hague Convention, or even listed as POWs) were eradicated in mass-executions and buried in graves that came closer to chasms of corpses; civilians were shot in the back as they fled, or tied to trees and used as bayonet practice; other forms of torture and mutilation that befell those who tried to escape the turmoil included hanging from the tongue, eye-gouging, castration, decapitation – it all sounds so unbelievable, but it’s true (some Japanese ultranationalists and negationists would like you to deny it).

Yet more anguish and pain was brought to the Chinese in the form of mass rape. Women of all ages – discrimination played no part in the defilement of human rights – were raped, tortured and killed by the marauding soldiers; gang rape by upwards of 10 men were not uncommon. The most sordid expressions of malevolence were shown by the raping of pregnant women, whose unborn children would then be removed from the womb and impaled by bayonet.

The horrors of inhumane proportions recalled stretch far beyond anything that’s permitted to be shown as horror fiction at cinemas, let alone that which the conscience can conceive as even remotely possible. It is this unacceptable vision of hell on earth, coupled with the vastness of the killing committed in the space of six weeks – although figures vary from records to admissions by governments, figures in excess of 300,000 have been announced – that makes Iris Chang’s book so unsettling, and yet so necessary a read.

But it is not without its own invitations of hope; the narratives she invokes of the men and women of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, those who ran the Nanking Safety Zone (a demilitarised zone roughly the same size as Central Park in New York) give notice to the wilful clearness of morals in light of the thick wave of animosity towards a vulnerable people.

And Chang’s enthusiasm for the project was, in itself, and still is today a sign of the benevolence and courage of good people who represent the ideal in people that humanity harbours an inner forgiveness for itself. Iris Chang, nevertheless, took her own life in 2004, apparently overcome with stress and sadness for what she had revealed to the West, as well as how the controversy of her project had masked the true nature of its purpose, which was to do justice to the memory of the Nanking massacre and its survivors, as well as teach us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Such honourable efforts, regardless of how expert the analysis or accurate the evidence provided, deserves our best respect.