Impressions of the Iris Chang Papers

It’s been a whirlwind, head-bending kind of two-day sprint through a minor swath of the Hoover Institute Archives at Stanford University.

Iris Chang wasn’t my only target — thanks to some very diligent young colleagues I was also lucky to find my way into a thicket of Korean War propaganda (some of which I hope to leak out on this blog), more work by Sheldon Harris, and a few hundred pages of the master diplomat-analyst O. Edmund Clubb in the tendentious 1950s.  But more on that later.

All things considered, Iris Chang’s incredible energy, her coiled personality, and her unchallenged productivity are revealed in these papers, where ultimate inwardness (better phrased in the German innigkeit) coexists with statements to her self like “Celebrity Affords Certain Advantages.”  And not that she cares anymore (she being deceased, and her papers thus available for my perusal), but the experience leaves me quite conflicted.

Certain very important hallmarks of historical research shine through in Iris Chang’s materials regarding the preparation for her groundbreaking book, The Rape of Nanking (1997).

Drawing from the sheer mass of the photocopied materials from such other archives as the Yale Divinity Library’s huge missionary archive, Chang took pains to cite cite cite her assertions, something that can’t be said for Jung Chang’s treatment of Mao. At least two boxes of printouts show her extracting, isolating her every sentence onto separate sheets of paper and explaining to herself what source it the sentence is based upon.  This is the a kind of thorough research and writing method with which most scholars can’t necessarily don’t always bother themselves, even if some of her sources are a bit suspect.

She is an active reader, using pencil and highlighter to good effect, amassing much data.  Going through a fraction of these papers has given me more respect for Chang — of course she is going to be attacked for leaving details from important sources out!  There are a lot of sources, and each has a life of its own.  What is really needed is a huge and comprehensive volume of primary sources as a companion piece to the book.

She has transcripts of video interviews conducted with then-New York Times reporter Tillman Durdin and his charming China Hand missionary wife, letters from missionaries like Fitch and Bates and Magee, of course, and makes notes on these things in abundant pencil, mixing English with Chinese.

Iris Chang reads Chinese!  This is a good thing.

On the other hand, there is a huge amount of material in these papers that reveals that Chang in the aftermath of the book’s completion was wrapped up wholly in its marketing, and was in some ways beset by various proposals (both business and personal) in the several years after its publication.

In one notebook excerpt from April 2000, she records her impressions of a meeting with a certain Hollywood agent affiliated with Mel Gibson.  After learning that “a profascist in Japan called me a Chinese slut,” Chang gets a pitch from the agent.  It appears that he wanted her to sell him the rights to her story, or work with him to turn the story of her book into cinema.  “Your passion is the story,” he appears to tell her, “you didn’t do it for the money,” before offering either $50,000 or 250,000 to make it happen.   At the end of the conversation memorandum, written in Chang’s rapid black ball-point sprawl is the sentence “contact Jerry Bruckenheimer.”

These are things that most history professors, and full-time researchers of history, don’t deal with.  They move on to the next book, teach the next class, apply for the next grant.

They forget to call Jerry Bruckenheimer because they are too wrapped up in the secondary literature.

Chang took more of  a reporter’s approach to The Rape of Nanking.  She uses more David Bergamini than anyone else, and a few boxes of photocopies from relevant secondary works (like an advance copy of Herbert Bix’s Hirohito [chapters 13-17] and the promising book by Iritani The Wartime Psychology of the Japanese People) lie basically unannotated.  I didn’t find her copy of Bergamini.

One of my students mentioned that Iris Chang should have had a colloquy with Jung Chang.  I thought that might have been interesting indeed.

In a subsequent post I hope to reflect further on her own self-analysis in these writings.  Like a mostly-empty notebook entitled “Meetings With Japanese Peace Activists,” even in the blank spaces in these papers is gathered much, much food for thought.

Coda: More of my recent essays on recent Sino-Japanese relations, and Iris Chang, as reflected in the Chinese press and in the work of Japanese manga artists like Kobayshi Yoshinori can be accessed here.