The book documents one of the most brutal but widely unheard of genocides of the 20th century, the 1937 attack and occupation of the city of Nanking, China by the Japanese.
The book is organized into three 'parts' or perspectives.
The first part is from the Japanese perspective. This covers the historical background, overview of their military, and structure of the invasion. The author also describes the Japanese motivation to invade China, including the mindset of the soldiers and government, and how the economic and political climate made this type of massacre possible.
The second part is from the Chinese perspective, which includes the personal accounts of the victims. Ms. Chang had countless first hand accounts of the crimes against the people of Nanking. It was clear the Chinese army's poor training and leadership made them no match for the strong military power of the Japanese. Nanking was quickly defeated by the Japanese and became the victims of mass murder, rape, and slavery. Many of the surviving women were forced into prostitution in military brothels known as comfort houses.
The third part is from the perspective of the Europeans and Americans who stood witness to the massacre. These heroes risked their own lives by creating a protective safety zone within the city, sending reports to other countries about the atrocities and asking their own governments for assistance. In the end, many of these helpers lives had tragic outcomes including suicide, poverty and obscurity.
The biggest question the author raises is how could genocide of this magnitude be so easily forgotten? Ms. Chang describes the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War and how these circumstances created a climate where Japan was not held accountable for their actions at Nanking. In particular, the United States didn't prosecute the Japanese like the Germans after World War II because they needed Japan as an ally as the threat of communism loomed in the region. These factors played a part in Nanking becoming a footnote in history. Even China itself didn't hold Japan responsible or seek reparations, and as time has moved on much has been forgotten. The most disturbing observation is that few Japanese today know the story of Nanking.
As a book club, we were all struck by how little we knew about this tragedy. We were all sickened by the atrocities at Nanking but couldn't help feeling that the author had a very one sided, anti-Japanese perspective. At times, she made sweeping generalizations about Japanese culture as a whole. We spent time discussing her tragic demise at thirty-six from a suicide. We also reflected on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki since the seventieth anniversary of the bombings took place just prior to the book club meeting.
Our discussion was lively and most of us were glad to have read the book despite its very graphic and disturbing content. As a whole, we recommend the book, but be warned that it is not for the faint of heart. All in all, the book highlights what seems to be a recurring theme throughout history; the depravity and the cruelty that surfaces during times of war.