Iris Chang and the Politics of Emotional Authenticity

Not particularly as a matter of choice, of late I have been thinking about the aftermath.   War, genocide, and mass violence are giant forces which have thrown up immense detritus in Northeast Asia: memorialization is the norm, but so, too, is the suppression of memory and its manipulation by politician-revolutionaries of all stripes.

Japanese politicians enter Yasukuni Shrine while Chinese leaders put their husky lungs into anti-Japanese anthems; Japanese peace activists see their monuments attacked while Chinese lawyers roam the land hunting for evidence 70 years old.  And young Chinese-Americans discover their voices  in “revelation” of evidence that has been lying there for decades, in plain view or in an archive, for anyone to see.

Having just emerged from a short encounter with perhaps ten boxes of materials from the Iris Chang Papers at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford relating to The Rape of Nanking, it’s something I am mulling over presently.  How are people like myself supposed to survey the ashes (that is, the documents) and pronounce some kind of a verdict therefrom?  How does a scholar/witness locate his viscera, and, presuming he finds it, what then is he supposed to do with it?  In other words, what is the proper relationship between emotion, even fiery moralism, and scholarship?  And is scholarship itself a form of witnessing?  What, in other words, is proper relation of emotion to historical work?

And, although I had a few quibbles with a recent commenter about Iris Chang, it’s something the one known as “Stinky Tofu” (臭豆腐) got me thinking about further.  How does personal experience (and linguistic limitation!) impact our choice of research topic and the interpretation applied?

In a box of index cards scrawled on by Iris Chang (Box 195 of her papers), Chang has created the category “My lifestyle/philosophy” under which to capture data to share on her book tour.   On a card in that category entitled “Personal Feelings When Writing Book,” she notes that she cried frequently while writing the book, apparently out of empathy for the victims.

Chang’s idea that somehow she alone was privy to “the forgotten holocaust of World War II” while researching and writing the book likely heightened her emotion.

I wonder if this is really touching and beautiful, or if, to put it bluntly, Chang is seeking to bypass the brain by connecting to the viscera.

Somehow I can imagine the concerned looks this fact would inspire on the faces of lifelong scholars at York University like Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, who, in his indispensable edited volume The Naking Atrocity 1937-38 (Berghahn Press), states: “Historians must try, at least, to rise above the personal, political, and ethnic biases that virtually all human beings harbor. “

A couple of weeks ago I heard a similar message when I had lunch with, and then attended a talk by, Carl Wilkins.  Carl was one of the few Americans in Rwanda when the genocide began in 1994, and he was the only American to remain in Kilgali, saving lives and making compromises, for the terrible duration of the violence.   I heard Carl speak last year also at Pacific Lutheran University, but his talk this time, to a smaller audience, stirred me up even further.

But he is an advocate for genocide prevention, and I, at least explicitly, am not in that business.  By the same token, historical scholarship is inevitably entangled with politics .  All we need to read as reminder to this fact is Sima Qian’s work, and be glad we have all our body parts.  And Iris Chang’s papers, tear-stained and all.