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Beijing Made Easy recommended Chinese history books

Beijing Made Easy reviews Beijing and China related books: books set in China or Beijing, books about China, books about Chinese culture and history, books about the Chinese language and Beijing and China travel guides.

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The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
The Chinese Century by Jonathan D Spence

The Rape of Nanking

by Iris Chang

Reviewed by Matt Bowden

With the publication of this book, we have been given a chance to learn about one of the most gruesome episodes of the twentieth century. In the space of seven weeks from December 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army raped, killed, and tortured hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war and innocent civilians in Nanking (present-day Nanjing). Iris Chang details and analyses this event with passion, intelligence, style, and a sense of duty to the forgotten victims of Japanese barbarism.

The book is organised into three main sections; the first looks at source material of the Rape as it happened from Japanese, Chinese and Western perspectives. The second section is an analysis of such things as how the Rape was reported on at the time, how the Japanese who perpetrated these crimes were, or in some cases were not, punished, and what became of the survivors of the Rape. The third and final section looks at historiography; the ways in which ‘history’ is made. Chang also attempts to ascertain why a shocking level of selective amnesia seems to surround the Rape, in both Japan and the West. This reduction of the Rape to a mere footnote in most history books dealing with World War Two is what Chang calls ‘a second Rape’.

‘The Rape of Nanking’ is not a light book, and it contains descriptions and pictures of acts so brutal and sordid that it is impossible not to be shocked. But rather than merely describe the events which took place, Chang also sets out clear and convincing arguments about why they took place and in this way she also offers insights into human nature. When faced, for example, with the apparently irreconcilable politeness of Japanese people with the brutality of their soldiers in Nanking, the author argues that politeness may actually be linked to brutality in a Japanese cultural context; Samurai were entitled to chop off a peasant’s head if, when asked a question, the peasant did not answer in a way which the Samurai deemed polite enough. It is these immensely perceptive discussions which help make ‘The Rape of Nanking’ such an important and intellectually powerful book.

In a book crowded with the details of horror, Chang also details the heroic stories of people who, through amazing strength and determination, managed to survive the horrendous mental and physical pain of the Rape. Also interesting are the stories of people such as John Rabe, a Nazi Party Member resident in Nanking at the time of the Rape, who was the head of the committee which ran the Nanking Safety Zone. Dubbed by Chang to be the Schindler of China, Rabe is credited with helping to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

Ultimately, ‘The Rape of Nanking’ is about how, in Chang’s own words “the veneer of civilisation seems to be exceedingly thin – one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war”. The book ought to be read, because it will go some way to redress the lack of knowledge in the West about the Rape, but also because the event still impacts upon Sino-Japanese relations to this day. The Rape of Nanking is an event which we should learn about and never forget, and with this book, Chang has given us the opportunity to do so.

The Chinese Century

by Jonathan D Spence

‘The Chinese Century’ is a collection of almost 300 well chosen black & white photographs of China during the last century. They are alternately intriguing, inspiring, mysterious and nostalgic, but also sometimes tragic and shocking. They offer a window onto a China almost lost to us – much stranger and more foreign than anything that exists in the world today.

The Twentieth Century was a time of enormous upheaval and trauma for the Chinese, a time of ideology out of control, of devastation and disaster, but also a time of enormous development and change. In the book Spence puts it much better ‘immense hope, great experimentation and almost unimaginable suffering’. The photographs capture the pain, but they also capture the hope.

The commentary accompanying the photographs narrates the history of China from the fall of the Qing dynasty to the present day, expanding on the photos and putting them in context.

‘The Chinese Century’ makes a great coffee table book, something to leaf through on rainy weekends or impress visitors with. You won’t be able to take it to work in your briefcase because the page size is bigger than A4, but that just makes the photos all the more impressive.

The Beijing Made Easy bookshelf has almost collapsed under the weight of great books on China, but this remains one of our favourites.

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