The Rape of Nanking By Iris Chang Penguin pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
In a century that's been remarkable for the scale and cruelty of its atrocities, The Rape of Nanking still manages to stand out. Nanking fell to Japanese troops on 13 December 1937; there followed six weeks of systematic slaughter, torture, mutilation and rape, in the course of which somewhere between 260,000 and 350,000 Chinese were massacred - to put that in some perspective, the combined death toll for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was 210,000, and 120,000 died in the Tokyo bombing raids.

Little has been written about it since, at least in the West, although at the time it attracted considerable attention (perhaps the only heartening aspect of the episode is that Western civilians in Nanking risked their own lives to provide a zone of safety for the Chinese, and to publicise the horror as widely as possible). In the final part of this book, Chang tries to offer some explanation of why Nanking was forgotten. Of course, Western nations had their own horror stories to deal with, and a parochial tendency to assume that the Second World War didn't really take off until they themselves got involved. But there has also been an unwillingness to offend Japan by raising the ghosts. Chang provides a chilling account of how the truth has been suppressed in Japan, sometimes officially (the ministry of education has ordered the toning down of references in school textbooks), sometimes not - soldiers and historians who have tried to give a true account have faced demonstrations and death threats. Among other things, when Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor was released in Japan, the brief depiction of the massacre was excised - the distributors claiming, falsely, that Bertolucci had himself proposed the cut.

This section of the book is worrying; but the most important part is the simple enumeration of events, the attempt to show what happened and to name the guilty men. It makes disturbing reading - heads stuck on poles, heaped up in piles, a river running red with blood for weeks; women raped, disembowelled, nailed alive to walls, their breasts sliced off. Some of this is recorded in photographs.

The Rape of Nanking is a flawed work - Chang's attempt to get inside the Japanese military mind lacks conviction, and her tone is partisan. But that doesn't keep it from being required reading.