Remembering Iris Chang

cover image via SCMP

cover image via SCMP


Iris Chang ‘the woman who could not forget’ was an award-winning journalist, author, and human rights activist who passed away on November 9, 2004. She dedicated her entire life to speaking on behalf of those who could not, and brought attention to the tragedy of Nanking, when the Japanese occupied China during World War II. She was known for her ambition and passion for writing. 


Chang made a name for herself at the age of 29 with her book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. The book brought the atrocities that the Japanese committed to hundreds of thousands in Nanking to the surface.


It is estimated that 260,000 Chinese citizens died at the hands of the Japanese in Nanking during World War II. Chang’s book remembers and shares the stories of the thousands of  victims affected. “In Nanking the Japanese turned murder into a sport,” writes Chang in her book. The residents of Nanking were victims of mass executions, used as live target practice, raped, and sentenced to a variety of different gruesome deaths. 


Yet the events of this massacre are not widely known. Chang traveled to Nanking and met with survivors who wanted their stories to be revealed to the world. She shared their stories with the world and made them feel seen. Chang was called “a hero for those muffled by injustice.”


After this book, she became an avid advocate for the Japanese government to take accountability and compensate victims. Chang even confronted the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. on TV and demanded an apology for the events of Nanking. She expressed her frustration with the Japanese’s slight acknowledgment of its war crimes and told him, “I didn’t hear an apology.”


Chang became a public figure after the success of The Rape of Nanking and went on a book tour across the country. She visited 65 cities and was constantly giving speeches while continuing to write. 


Chang was checked into a psychiatric hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown and extreme depression in 2004 while on her book tour. She was later released to her parents and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Two weeks later Chang tragically passed from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 36. 


Chang left behind three suicide notes that revealed the battle that raged in her mind. Her heavy subject matter and overworking are speculated to have been the reason for her suicide, but her suicide notes revealed that she dealt with mental challenges and extreme paranoia. Here are excerpts from her suicide notes: 


“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.”


“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 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.” 


Chang’s suicide was a huge blow to many communities who looked up to her and her work. She uplifted so many and left a legacy that will never be forgotten. “I hope people will know who Iris was and why we memorialize her and what she did,” said Chang’s mother at the opening of Chang’s memorial in her ancestral home in Jiangsu, China. 


Iris Chang was a remarkable woman whose dedication uplifted and inspired thousands. Since her passing the Japanese government has still failed to apologize or compensate the victims of Nanking leaving her mission unfinished. Chang’s dedication to sharing stories and informing the public has continued to remind people almost 20 years later how powerful one person’s dedication can be.