Speaking the unspeakable: Putin, Nanking and the rape of Ukraine

(Thrive Magazine)

It is very hard to talk about some things. Pain, complexity, tragedy, and mystery often leave us lost for words – or should do. Words walk heavily on new graves and traumatized souls. I still remember with gratitude and respect the words of a senior Cambridge colleague on hearing my grandmother had died, ‘If there were words of comfort to say at such times, I want you to know I would use them.’ Pious platitudes and mindless condolences are poor ministers of comfort and reassurance. And, as Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) astutely observed: ‘A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, We bid be quiet when we hear it cry; But were we burdened with light weight of pain, As much or more we should ourselves complain’ (The Comedy of Errors, Act 2, sc. 1, l. 34-7). Food for thought?

(Daily Excelsior)

I have found – and still find – speaking of the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, since the long-anticipated Russian invasion on February 24th, very hard indeed. The scale, folly, brutality, complexity, and blood-chilling long-term implications of the crisis, make over-hasty, ill-informed, headline-grabbing commentary as tactless, tasteless, and inappropriate as some of our words when a friend suffers a tragedy, or all hope seems lost. But speak, at times, we must of the seemingly unspeakable, ‘lest’, as one of the great minds of the Christian Church, St Augustine (354-43), said of the mystery of God as Trinity, ‘we keep silent’. For silence is not always a virtue … just as speech is not always wise.  

In one of the three last notes the gifted Chinese American historian and political activist Iris [Shun-Ru] Chang (1968-2004) penned, before tragically shooting herself on a country road south of Los Gatos in Santa Clara County, CA, we find this: ‘When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day – but by the minute.’ Chang had been suffering from depression and drug-induced disorientation for some time. She was diagnosed with ‘reactive psychosis’ when admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Louisville, KY, during a research trip. At the time of her death, she was taking the stabilizing drugs Depakote and Risperdal. When she wrote those final words, she was voicing not only her own sense that her life had run its course, but the fear-filled, foreshortened hope of Ukraine’s embattled population and of innumerable victims of indiscriminate violence over the centuries. She was speaking of the unspeakable, of life not measured in days or years, but in minutes and seconds. As she added, ‘There are aspects of my experience in Louisville that I will never understand. Deep down I suspect that you may have more answers about this than I do.’ Alas, we may not. Who can really explain suicide or Ukraine, the lingering violation of rape or the anguish of reputational desecration?

Iris Chang (1968-2004)

Iris Chang was the daughter of academic parents from mainland China, who had emigrated to the US via Taiwan. When Chang died in 2004, she left a husband and a two-year old son. She also left a significant political, social and literary legacy. Though born in the US, the heart of Chang’s historical work was the experience of Chinese at home and abroad. Her first book Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995) is a biography of the distinguished Chinese American aeronautical engineer and cyberneticist Qian Xuesen (or Hsue-Shen Tsien: 1911-2001). In 1936, Qian left MIT to join the Hungarian physicist Theodore von Kármán’s (1881-1963) research group at Caltech, and subsequently became a founder member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and central to the Manhattan Project. As Kármán later wrote of his gifted associate, ‘At the age of 36, he [Qian] was an undisputed genius whose work was providing an enormous impetus to advances in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.’ In 1950, during the later phase of the MacCarthyite ‘Second Red Scare’, Qian fell foul of the US authorities, was accused of communist sympathies, stripped of his security clearance and placed under house arrest. In September 1955, he was exchanged for US military personnel shot down during the Korean War and chose to return to China. For the remainder of his life, Qian served his Chinese masters, taking a leading role in the development of Dongfeng and Silkworm missiles, that were used against US and coalition forces in the Gulf War (2 Aug 1990-28 Feb 1991) and invasion of Iraq (20 March 2003-1 May 2003). Chang’s first work charts the injustices perpetrated on Qian while he lived in the US and the greater threat he posed thereafter in China as the ‘grandfather of its rocket programme’. Chang speaks the unspeakable: it is not surprising, perhaps, as Heidi Benson reported in the San Francisco Chronicle,Chang’s work was ‘well-reviewed’ but ‘never sold in great numbers’. Ideology perverts perception and blinds reality: in the midst and face of such, guiltless innocence is at best a rare commodity, at worst an impossibility.

Qian Xuesen (or Hsue-Shen Tsien: 1911-2001)

Chang’s third work, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (Viking, 2003), expands the evidence on the struggles of Chinese Americans. It makes for painful reading. Her central point, etched in moving testimonials to rejection and suspicion, is clear: ‘[S]cratch the surface of every American celebrity of Chinese heritage and you will find that, no matter how stellar their achievements, no matter how great their contribution to US society, virtually all of them have had their identities questioned at one point or another’. And yet (as leading Chinese scholars have said to me of the contribution of missionaries to China), ‘The America of today would not be the same America without the achievements of its ethnic Chinese.’ The same could, of course, be said of many immigrant communities, and may yet be said of Ukrainian refugees from the bitter conflict in their homeland. Chang is a good reminder of this possibility. For she became more than a voice for Chinese Americans: she became an activist for integration and acceptance, of honest history and the power of apology. Many grieved and grieve her passing. In 2017, the Chang Memorial Hall was built in Huai’an, China. In 2019, Iris Chang Park was opened in her native San Jose, California. An Iris Chang Memorial Fund Essay competition still encourages work to promote awareness of the importance of the remembrance of history. Good lives live on.

It’s Iris Chang’s second work that I want to focus on. Inspired by the experiences of her own grandparents, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic Books 1997) relates in graphic detail the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) after capturing the capital of the Chinese Republic, Nanking, in December 1937.[1] In the Introduction to her book, Chang records how the story of the massacre in Nanking, which her grandparents and parents had told her, ‘remained buried in the back of [her] mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil’. At school and college, she found few references in libraries. In her 20s she heard of two Chinese (Shao Tzuping and Nancy Tong) who were working on a documentary on the horrors that occured over a six week period (from 13 December 1937) in Nanking. After attending a conference on the massacre in December 1994, and meeting Chinese activists committed to raising public awareness of this ‘hidden holocaust’, Chang began work on her book. It took her two years. As she says in the Introduction: ‘I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the world to remember it.’ An estimated 200,000 Chinese died in the Nanking massacre. As Chang records, death was the better path for many.

Nanking should be remembered not only for the number of people slaughtered but for the cruel manner in which many met their deaths. Chinese men were used for bayonet practice and in decapitation contests. An estimated 20,000 – 80,000 Chinese women were raped. Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, and nail them alive to walls. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs, and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by German shepherds. So sickening was the spectacle that even Nazis in the city were horrified, one proclaiming the massacre to be the work of bestial machinery. (Penguin 1998, 6).

The Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall, Jiangdongmen, Nanjing
(Zhan Changheng – Ma Minghua)

This ‘unspeakable evil’ had to be spoken about, and, in the three sections of Chang’s book Japanese, Chinese and international witnesses to the events tell their harrowing story, the post-war reactions of European and American governments are charted, and subsequent public ‘denial’ of the events evaluated. The Rape of Nanking, which sold more than half a million copies in the US when it first appeared, changed Chang’s life and many peoples’ perception of Japan and the events in Nanking. Both cost Chang dear. As her mother said the book ‘made Iris sad’. Chang’s suicide in 2004 is collateral damage from the events in Nanking.

Though Chang’s book turned her overnight into an academic and media celebrity – with honorary degrees, lecture tours, chat show appearances, media plaudits and invitations to the White House – it also attracted criticism. Reviewers were not unanimous: to one, her book reflected ‘a new and expanded telling of this World War II atrocity’ and ‘thorough research’; to others, she was guilty of distorting evidence, misrepresenting Japanese culture and plagiarizing. Japanese ultra-nationalists objected to her biased account – one called her work ‘pure baloney’ – and her repeated calls for an official apology for the atrocity provoked anger. Chang’s response to her [Japanese] critics was characteristically robust:

(Live Journal)

If the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the rest of the Japanese government truly care about historical truth, then they should open all their wartime archives to the rest of the world … They shouldn’t mind inviting an international task force of historians – historians from the U.S., China, Japan, Korea, and other countries – to review all the high-level Japanese records from that era and publish them for general and scholarly consumptions. Trust me, if the newly released archival records disprove any of the facts in my book, I would be the first person to acknowledge this in the next edition of The Rape of Nanking. Moreover, I would help the Japanese government publicize the new facts to the world media and find prestigious publishers in the U.S. to translate the documents into English.

The burden of ‘personality’ and socio-political pressure bred a paralyzing paranoia. Chang’s last note states, ‘Days before I left for Louisville, I had a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box. I believe my detention at Norton Hospital was the government’s attempt to discredit me.’ Spoken and unspoken praise and blame did their worst. Chang paid the ultimate price. But from the embers of Nanking and Chang’s literary life two lives were plucked that warrant mention. In addition to photographic evidence from all sides in the Nanking massacre (including that of American Epicopalian priest John Magee [1884-1963]), Chang unearthed contemporary diaries by the German Nazi John Rabe (1882-1950) and American missionary Winnie Vautrin (1886-1941), who both kept detailed accounts of what they witnessed, and saved the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese in the so-called ‘Nanking Safety Zone’. In time, Vautrin, like Chang, found the memory of Nanking too hard to bear and she too committed suicide. But the good lives of Nanking’s own Schindler and Frank should also be honoured. Why? for speaking of the unspeakable and memorialising forgotten victims.

John Rabe (1882-1950)

There are many applications of Iris Chang’s life and work to President Putin’s (b. 1952; Pres. 2000-2008, 2012-present) crazed contemporary ‘rape of Ukraine’. Let me suggest three briefly in conclusion.

First, ultra-nationalist ideologues deny history and demonize enemies. Japanese critics of Chang’s work continue to challenge her evidence and reject her findings. Because of threats and intimidation her book was not translated into Japanese until 2007. Japanese historian Fujiwara Akira (1922-2003), who studied the history and deep division of opinion in Japan about the events in Nanking and the original conclusions of the ‘Tokyo Trial’ (aka ‘Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal’ (April 1946-November 1948) was clear:

A campaign to deny the Nanking massacre itself by presenting the weaknesses of Iris Chang’s book is being developed. The massacre denial groups have been … presenting the contradictions in testimony quoted or by the use of inappropriate photos. Yet it is impossible to deny the occurrence of the incident itself because of these few mistakes. It is an illogical jump in reasoning to deny that the Nanking massacre ever happened by attacking her book.

Ideology deliberately finds and omits history, and doesn’t take intellectual captives. Some would say Chang herself is guilty of selectivity and imbalance because of personal interest in the story she tells. This does her scholarship, and readiness to correct minor mistakes, a disservice. Better, surely, what the Chicago Tribune called Chang’s ‘new work of history and moral inquiry’. We should not be surprised by Putin’s denial of the ‘rape of Ukraine’. His ultra-nationalist ideology is blind to the atrocities he is committing. But of unspeakable things moral history speaks, and his day will come – as will China’s if it turns a blind eye to events in Ukraine that parallel those in Nanking.

Second, rape victims – like sufferers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – can find speaking of the unspeakable evil they have experienced almost impossible. In one version of the last ‘Statement of Iris Chang’, dated 8 November 2004, we find this: ‘Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take – the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me.’ With characteristic courage and honesty, she was trying to give voice to unspeakable pain and name the hurt she was aware her death would cause others. In Chang’s case, naming the pain did not, as sometimes, help to relieve it; but her example surely encourages sensitivity to the silent anguish of Ukraine’s tortured population and to the unspeakable sense of defilement of Ukraine and every war torn country’s rape victims. With 1 in 5 women, 1 in 6 children, 1 in 20 men, and a total of 63,136 people raped in the year ending 30 September 2021 in supposedly safe and peaceful England and Wales, the job of the police and legal system is hard, that of friends, family and the social services even harder. To-date, 400 rape cases have been reported from the war in Ukraine. There will be more: rape has been weaponized in all of Putin’s and his miscreant allies’ military actions. As if Chang’s legacy were not weighty enough, by making the shameful, rape-filled, massacre in Nanking better known, she indicts the callous public denial of a dark, rape-filled present.


Last, speaking the unspeakable is morally and theologically potent. That is, as we have seen, it invites and requires moral judgements. It is also alive with theological connotations. It is no accident historic Judaism taught that the four letter name for God (Yahweh) YHWH, the so-called ‘Tetragrammaton’, should only be used by the High Priest: the name signified and expressed God’s sanctity and identity. The 1st Old Testament commandment reinforces this principle, God’s name is not to be ‘taken in vain’ (Exodus 20.7). Those who, on any side of the conflict in Ukraine, speak the unspeakable name of God and presume to co-opt him to their cause are on very thin ice; perhaps especially those Orthodox clerics who offend their own theological tradition, which is so intimately associated with silent veneration of icons and the theological inadequacy of speech. But such we might expect when the supposedly devout Russian President turns truth on its head and speaks the unspeakable language of nuclear conflict. Thank God, though, for people like Iris Chang, who challenged false silence and shed a healing light on hidden hurts and human monstrosity. As fellow journalist and student of Japan, Richard Rongstad wrote: ‘Iris Chang lit a flame and passed it to others and we should not allow that flame to be extinguished.’


Christopher Hancock, Director

[1] Nanking is the earlier romanized name for the city of Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province, PRC.