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Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking

by Ying-Ying Chang

Pub Date: May 15th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60598-172-7
Publisher: Pegasus

A life of the brilliant journalist and historian Iris Chang, who committed suicide in 2004, as told by her admiring mother.

In less than ten years, Iris Chang published three groundbreaking and critically acclaimed histories: Thread of the Silkworm (1995), about the creator of China’s Cold War missile program; The Rape of Nanking (1997), which exposed the atrocities committed by Japan against China during World War II; and The Chinese in America (2003), a wide-ranging immigrant cultural history. The intensity of her research and the respect those books earned would have made them the highlights of a long career. But Chang was only 36 when she died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving behind a husband and young son. In assembling this biography, Chang’s mother is more interested in praising her daughter’s accomplishments than contemplating her death, though there’s no question the accomplishments are worthy of a full narrative. Chang’s parents were both academic scientists, but at an early age she was attracted to literature instead; by the time she attended journalism school at the University of Illinois, she’d developed a hard-charging, hardworking persona that quickly opened doors for her. The New York Times used her as a stringer but eventually told her to ease up on submitting articles, for fear it was acquiring too many central-Illinois datelines. The story is brightened by generous excerpts from Chang’s letters to her parents, which reveal what a voracious reader, tireless researcher and attentive daughter she was. But this book is ultimately hagiography. As a grieving mother, she’s forgiven such indulgences, but her instinct to reflexively praise frustrates in the closing chapters, in which she overlooks signs of her daughter’s overwork and flatly blames antidepressants as the cause of Iris’ rapid depression and suicide.

Nobody could expect objectivity from this book, but Chang’s perspective on her daughter seems willfully narrow.