Iris Chang

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Iris Chang
Iris Chang.jpg
Born (1968-03-28)March 28, 1968
Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.
Died November 9, 2004(2004-11-09) (aged 36)
Santa Clara County, California, U.S.
Cause of death Suicide
Occupation Author, journalist, human rights activist
Citizenship United States
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (B.A.)
Johns Hopkins University (M.A.)
Period 1995–2004
Subject Chinese Americans, Nanking Massacre, Tsien Hsue-shen
Spouse Bretton Douglas
Children Christopher (born 2002)
Iris Chang
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Iris Shun-Ru Chang (March 28, 1968 – November 9, 2004) was an American-born Chinese journalist, author of historical books and political activist. She is best known for her best-selling 1997 account of the Nanking Massacre, The Rape of Nanking. Chang is the subject of the 2007 biography, Finding Iris Chang,[1] and the 2007 documentary film Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking.[2]

Early life and background

Iris Chang is the daughter of two university professors, Ying-Ying Chang and Dr. Shau-Jin Chang, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States. Chang was born in Princeton, New Jersey and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Chang grew up hearing stories about the Nanking massacre, from which her maternal grandparents managed to escape. When she tried finding books about the subject in Champaign Public Library, she found there were none.[3] She attended University Laboratory High School of Urbana, Illinois and graduated in 1985. She was initially a computer science major, but would later switch to journalism, earning a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1989.[4] During her time in college she also worked as a New York Times stringer from Urbana-Champaign, and wrote six front-page articles over the course of one year. After brief stints at the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune she pursued a master's degree in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.[5] She then embarked on her career as an author and lectured and wrote magazine articles. She married Bretton Lee Douglas, a design engineer for Cisco Systems and whom she had met in college, and had one son, Christopher, who was 2 years old at the time of her suicide. She lived in San Jose, California in the final years of her life.


Chang wrote three books documenting the experiences of Chinese and Chinese Americans in history. Her first, Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995)[6] tells the life story of the Chinese professor, Hsue-Shen Tsien (or Qian Xuesen) during the Red Scare in the 1950s. Although Tsien was one of the founders of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and for many years helped the military of the United States debrief scientists from Nazi Germany, he was suddenly accused of being a spy and a member of the Communist Party USA, and was placed under house arrest from 1950 to 1955. Tsien left for the People's Republic of China in September 1955. Upon his return to China, Tsien developed the Dongfeng missile program, and later the Silkworm missile, which was used by the Iraqi military during its war on Iran and against the United States-led coalitions during Gulf Wars One and Two.

The Rape of Nanking, Chang's most well-known work.
External video
Booknotes interview with Chang on The Rape of Nanking, January 11, 1998, C-SPAN
Presentation by Chang on The Rape of Nanking, November 22, 1998, C-SPAN
Presentation by Chang on The Chinese in America, April 30, 2003, C-SPAN

Her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997),[7] was published on the 60th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre and was motivated in part by her own grandparents' stories about their escape from the massacre. It documents atrocities committed against Chinese by forces of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and includes interviews with victims. Her second book remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for 10 weeks.[8] Based on the book, an American documentary film, Nanking, was released in 2007.

The book attracted both praises for exposing the details of the atrocity and criticisms because of alleged inaccuracies.[citation needed] After publication of the book, Chang campaigned to persuade the Japanese government to apologize for its troops' wartime conduct and to pay compensation.

Her third book, The Chinese in America (2003),[9] is a history of Chinese Americans that argued that the people were treated as perpetual outsiders. Consistent with the style of her earlier works, the book relied heavily on personal accounts, drawing its strong emotional content from their stories. She wrote, "The America of today would not be the same America without the achievements of its ethnic Chinese," and that "scratch 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."[10]

Public notability

Success as an author made Iris Chang into a public figure. The Rape of Nanking placed her in great demand as a speaker and as an interview subject, and, more broadly, as a spokesperson for the viewpoint that the Japanese government had not done enough to compensate victims of their invasion of China. In one often-mentioned incident (as reported by The Times of London):

...she confronted the Japanese Ambassador to the United States on television, demanded an apology and expressed her dissatisfaction with his mere acknowledgement "that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military". "It is because of these types of wording and the vagueness of such expressions that Chinese people, I think, are infuriated," was her reaction.[11]

Chang's visibility as a public figure increased with her final work, The Chinese in America, where she argued that Chinese Americans were treated as perpetual outsiders. After her death, she became the subject of tributes from fellow writers. Mo Hayder dedicated a novel to her. Reporter Richard Rongstad eulogized her as "Iris Chang lit a flame and passed it to others and we should not allow that flame to be extinguished."

In 2007, the documentary Nanking was dedicated to Chang, as well as the Chinese victims of Nanking.

Depression and death

A bronze statue of Iris Chang at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing

Chang suffered a nervous breakdown in August 2004, which her family, friends, and doctors attributed in part to constant sleep deprivation, dozens of herbal supplements,[12] and heavy doses of psychologically damaging prescription medication. At the time, she was several months into research for her fourth book, about the Bataan Death March. She was also promoting The Chinese in America. While en route to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where she planned to gain access to a "time capsule" of audio recordings from servicemen, she suffered an extreme bout of depression that left her unable to leave her hotel room in Louisville. A local veteran who was assisting her research helped her check into Norton Psychiatric Hospital in Louisville, where she was diagnosed with reactive psychosis, placed on heavy medication for three days and then released to her parents. After the release from the hospital, she continued to suffer from depression and experienced the side effects of several medications she was taking.[13] Chang was also reportedly deeply disturbed by much of the subject matter of her research.[14]

On November 9, 2004 at about 9 a.m., Chang was found dead in her car by a Santa Clara Valley Water District employee on a rural road south of Los Gatos, California and west of State Route 17, in Santa Clara County. Investigators concluded that Chang had shot herself through the mouth with a revolver. At the time of her death, she had been taking the medications Depakote and Risperdal to stabilize her mood.[13]

It was later discovered that she had left behind three suicide notes each dated November 8, 2004. "Statement of Iris Chang" stated:

I promise to get up and get out of the house every morning. I will stop by to visit my parents then go for a long walk. I will follow the doctor's orders for medications. I promise not to hurt myself. I promise not to visit Web sites that talk about suicide.[13]

The next note was a draft of the third:

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. It is far better that you remember me as I was—in my heyday as a best-selling author—than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville. ... 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.[15]

The third note included:

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. I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.

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.

Reports said that news of her suicide hit the massacre survivor community in Nanjing hard.[14] In tribute to Chang, the survivors held a service at the same time as her funeral, held at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Cupertino, California on November 12, 2004, at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. In 2005, the Memorial Hall which collects documents, photos, and human remains from the massacre, added both a wing and a bronze statue dedicated to Chang. In 2017, the Iris Chang Memorial Hall was built in Huai'an, China.

Related publications

  • Iris Chang and the Forgotten Holocaust (2006)[citation needed]
  • Iris Chang Memorial Fund (2008). The Denial and Its Cost: Reflections on the Nanking Massacre 70 Years Ago and Beyond : Best Essays from Iris Chang Memorial Essay Contest 2007. New York: Cozy House Publisher. ISBN 9781593430801.
  • Kamen, Paula (2007). Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind. Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306817250.
  • Chang, Ying-Ying 張盈盈 (2011). The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking. introduction by Richard Rhodes. Pegasus Books. ISBN 9781605981727.

See also



  1. ^ "What Happened to Iris Chang?". Chicago Reader. 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2007-11-11.
  2. ^ "Synopsis". Reel Iris Productions. Retrieved 2007-11-17.
  3. ^ "Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997". Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  4. ^ "What Happened to Iris Chang?". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  5. ^ Paula Kamen, "How 'Iris Chang' became a verb: A eulogy"[permanent dead link], November 30, 2004.
  6. ^ "Thread of the Silkworm", Books (catalog), Google.
  7. ^ Chang, Iris (1997), The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-06835-9.
  8. ^ "Iris Chang, Who Chronicled Rape of Nanking, Dies at 36". The New York Times. 2004-11-12. Retrieved 2007-11-26.
  9. ^ Chang, Iris (2003), The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Penguin, ISBN 0-670-03123-2.
  10. ^ Chang, Iris (2004). The Chinese in America. Penguin Books. pp. 390–91. ISBN 0-14-200417-0.
  11. ^ "I'm Sorry?" - Online NewsHour, December 1, 1998.
  12. ^ Chang, Iris (2011). The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-46506836-4.
  13. ^ a b c Heidi Benson, "Historian Iris Chang won many battles", San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 2005.
  14. ^ a b Kathleen E. McLaughlin, "Iris Chang's suicide stunned those she tried so hard to help", San Francisco Chronicle, November 20, 2004.
  15. ^ "Historian Iris Chang won many battles/The war she lost raged within". San Francisco Chronicle. 2005-04-17. Retrieved 2007-09-22.

Further reading

  • Nightmare in Nanking (1997)

External links

  • — the official home page of Iris Chang
  • Guide to the Iris Chang Papers at the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara
  • Inventory of the Iris Chang papers at the Hoover Institution Archives of Stanford University. The PDF link leads to the detailed listing called: "Inventory of the Iris Chang papers, 1877-2007" (Collection No. 2004C22: 403 manuscript boxes, 4 cubic foot boxes, 5 oversize boxes, 1 oversize folder, occupying 177.6 linear feet, acquired by the collection posthumously in 2004, with a substantial increment in 2005, and an additional increment in 2011)
  • Inventory of the Iris Chang Papers -Alumni Records at the University of Illinois. Clicking the PDF link will lead to the document: "Iris Chang Papers 1937-1938, 1981-1990, 1996-2003" (Collection No. 26/20/122: 17 boxes, 3.4 cubic feet, acquired May 24, 2002). As well there is an additional listing for a second Academic collection for the periods 1937-1938, 1981-1990, 1998 & 2002 (Collection No. 26/20/122, 2.3 cubic feet, 3 boxes)
  • Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia — a federation of NGOs whose mission was to educate the world about the unrecognized wartime horrors committed by Japan in the Pacific theater
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
  • "Nightmare in Nanking", an essay by Sue De Pasquale about Chang's book The Rape of Nanking, Humanities and the Arts, Johns Hopkins Magazine
  • Iris Chang Memorial Fund - The fund is committed to carrying out Iris Chang's unfinished dreams and preserving her legacy
  • Iris Chang at Find a Grave
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