The book was a source of fame for Chang but was also controversial; it has been praised as a work which "shows more clearly than any previous account just what [the Japanese] did", and at the same time was criticised as "seriously flawed" and "full of misinformation and harebrained explanations". It was received with both acclaim and criticism by the public and by academics. Chang's research on the book was credited with the finding of the diaries of John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, both of whom played important roles in the Nanking Safety Zone, a designated area in Nanjing which protected Chinese civilians during the Nanking Massacre.
The subject of the Nanking Massacre entered Chang's life again almost two decades later when she learned of producers who had completed documentary films about it. One of the producers was Shao Tzuping, who helped produce Magee's Testament, a film which contains footage of the Nanking Massacre itself, shot by the missionary John Magee. The other producer was Nancy Tong, who, together with Christine Choy, produced and co-directed In The Name of the Emperor, a film containing a series of interviews with Chinese, American, and Japanese citizens. Chang began talking to Shao and Tong, and soon she was connected to a network of activists who felt the need to document and publicize the Nanking Massacre. In December 1994, she attended a conference on the Nanking Massacre, held in Cupertino, California, and it was what she saw and heard at the conference that motivated her to write The Rape of Nanking. As she wrote in the introduction of the book, while she was at the conference, she was "suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the world to remember it".
Chang's research led her to make what one San Francisco Chronicle article called "significant discoveries" on the subject of the Nanking Massacre, in the forms of the diaries of two Westerners that were in Nanjing leading efforts to save lives during the Japanese invasion. The first diary was that of John Rabe, a German Nazi Party member who was the leader of the Nanking Safety Zone, a demilitarized zone in Nanjing that Rabe and other Westerners set up to protect Chinese civilians. The other diary belonged to the American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who saved the lives of about 10,000 women and children when she provided them with shelter in Ginling College. The diaries documented the events of the Nanking Massacre from the perspectives of their writers, and provided detailed accounts of atrocities that they saw, as well as information surrounding the circumstances of the Nanking Safety Zone. Chang dubbed Rabe the "Oskar Schindler of Nanking" and Vautrin the "Anne Frank of Nanking". Rabe's diary is over 800 pages, and contains one of the most detailed accounts of the Nanking Massacre. Translated into English, it was published in 1998 by Random House as a book on its own, called The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe. Vautrin's diary recounts her personal experience and feelings on the Nanking Massacre; in it, an entry reads, "There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. It was used as source material for a biographical book about Vautrin and her role during the Nanking Massacre, called American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin, written by Hua-ling Hu.
The book discussed the research of historian Sun Zhaiwei of the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences. In a 1990 paper entitled The Nanking Massacre and the Nanking Population, Sun estimated the total number of people killed at 377,400. Using Chinese burial records, he calculated that the number dead exceeded the figure of 227,400. He then added estimates totalling 150,000 given by Japanese imperial army major Ohta Hisao in a confessional report about the Japanese army's disposal efforts of dead bodies, arriving at the sum of 377,400 dead.
Chang wrote that there is "compelling evidence" that the Japanese themselves, at the time, believed that the death toll may have been as high as 300,000. She cited a message that Japan's foreign minister Hirota Koki relayed to his contacts in Washington, DC in the first month of the massacre on January 17, 1938. The message acknowledged that "not less than three hundred thousand Chinese civilians [were] slaughtered, many cases in cold blood."
The Rape of Nanking sold more than half a million copies when it was first published in the US, and according to The New York Times, received general critical acclaim. Iris Chang became an instant celebrity in the US; she was awarded honorary degrees, invited to give lectures and to discuss the Nanking Massacre on shows such as Good Morning America, Nightline, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and was profiled by The New York Times as well as featured on the cover of Reader's Digest. The book was on the New York Times' Best Seller list for 10 weeks and sold more than 125,000 copies in four months. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House, US historian Stephen Ambrose described her as "maybe the best young historian we’ve got", and the Organization of Chinese Americans named her National Woman of the Year. The book's popularity prompted a lengthy book tour, with Chang visiting 65 cities in over a year and a half.
The book received praise from news media. The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was the "first comprehensive examination of the destruction of this Chinese imperial city", and that Chang "skillfully excavated from oblivion the terrible events that took place". The Atlantic Monthly wrote that it was "a crushing indictment of the Japanese army's behavior". The Chicago Tribune wrote that it was "a powerful new work of history and moral inquiry" and that "Chang takes great care to establish an accurate accounting of the dimensions of the violence." The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that it was a "compelling account of a horrendous episode that, until recently, has been largely forgotten", and that "animals do not behave the way the Japanese troops of the Imperial Army behaved."
According to William C. Kirby, Professor of History at Harvard University, Chang "shows more clearly than any previous account just what [the Japanese] did", and that she "draws connections between the slaughter in Europe and in Asia of millions of innocents during World War II". Ross Terrill, an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, wrote that the book is "scholarly, an exciting investigation and a work of passion". Beatrice S. Bartlett, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, wrote, "Iris Chang's research on the Nanking holocaust yields a new and expanded telling of this World War II atrocity and reflects thorough research."
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.Succumbing to her battle with depression, Chang took her own life in November 2004. After her suicide, a memorial service was held in China by Nanking Massacre survivors at the same time as her funeral in Los Altos, California, and the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre, a memorial site in Nanjing built to commemorate the victims of the Nanking Massacre, added a wing dedicated to her in 2005. In the US, a Chinese garden in Norfolk, Virginia, which contains a memorial to Minnie Vautrin, added a memorial dedicated to Chang, including her as the latest victim of the Nanking Massacre, and drawing parallels between Chang and Vautrin, who also took her own life. Vautrin exhausted herself trying to protect women and children during the Nanking Massacre and subsequently during the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, finally suffering a nervous breakdown in 1940. She returned to the US for medical treatment, committing suicide a year later.
In writing about this horrific event, Chang strives to portray it as an unexamined Asian holocaust. Unfortunately, she undermines her argument—she is not a trained historian—by neglecting the wealth of sources in English and Japanese on this event. This leads her into errors such as greatly inflating the population of Nanjing (Nanking) at that time and uncritically accepting the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and contemporary Chinese figures for the numbers of Chinese civilians and soldiers killed. What particularly struck me about her argument was her attempt to charge all Japanese with refusing to accept the fact of the 'Rape of Nanking' and her condemnation of the 'persistent Japanese refusal to come to terms with its past.'
Jeans continued against what he calls "giving the lie to Iris Chang's generalizations about the 'the Japanese'" by discussing the clashing interest groups within Japanese society over such things as museums, textbooks, and war memory.
Robert Entenmann, professor of history at St. Olaf College, criticized that the "Japanese historical background Chang presents is clichéd, simplistic, stereotyped, and often inaccurate. On Chang's treatment of modern Japanese reaction to the massacre, he writes that Chang seemed "unable to differentiate between some members of the ultranationalist fringe and other Japanese", and that "her own ethnic prejudice implicitly pervades her book." Stating that Chang's description of the massacre is "open to criticism", Entenmann further commented that Chang "does not adequately explain why the massacre occurred".
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer Charles Burress wrote that Chang's quote of a secret telegram sent by Japan's foreign minister in 1938 was incorrectly cited as "compelling evidence" that Japanese troops killed at least 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanjing. According to Burress, the figure of 300,000 Chinese civilians killed actually came from a message sent by a British reporter, concerning deaths not only in Nanjing but in other places as well. Additionally, Burress questioned her motivation for writing the book on whether she wrote it as an activist or as a historian, citing that the book "draws its emotional impetus" from her conviction to not let the Nanking Massacre be forgotten to the world.
Journalist Timothy M. Kelly described the book as "simple carelessness, sheer sloppiness, historical inaccuracies, and shameless plagiarism." He pointed out that "Chang's discussion of Japanese history exhibits several gross errors," citing her writing of subjects such as 15th and 16th century Japan and Matthew C. Perry. According to Kelly, Chang also had plagiarized passages and an illustration from Japan's Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini.
Shudo Higashinakano, professor of Intellectual History at Asia University, pointed out 90 historical factual errors in the first 64 pages of The Rape of Nanking, some of which were corrected in the 1998 Penguin Books edition of the book. Amongst the mistakes that were pointed out, for example, the book stated that for "250 years Japanese military technology failed to advance beyond the bow and sword", but Japan had actually been producing their own guns since rifles were introduced to the country. Another mistake that was pointed out was that the book had referred to Matthew C. Perry as "Commander Matthew Perry" when he was actually a commodore and should be referred to as "Commodore Matthew Perry". As further criticism of Chang's book, Higashinakano argued, in an opinion column that appeared in Sankei Shimbun, that the book was "pure baloney", that there was "no witness of illegal executions or murders", and that "there existed no 'Rape of Nanking' as alleged by the Tokyo Trial."
In A Study of "The Rape of Nanking," Nobukatsu Fujioka, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo, wrote that he examined the 34 photographic materials included in The Rape of Nanking, and concluded that none of them constitutes direct evidence of the incident.
Sonni Efron of Los Angeles Times warned that the bitter flap over Iris Chang's book may leave Westerners with the "misimpression" that little has been written in Japan about the Nanjing Massacre, when in fact the National Diet Library holds at least 42 books about the Nanjing massacre and Japan's wartime misdeeds, 21 of which were written by liberals investigating Japan's wartime atrocities. In addition, Efron noted that geriatric Japanese soldiers have published their memoirs and have been giving speeches and interviews in increasing numbers, recounting the atrocities they committed or witnessed. After years of government-enforced denial, Japanese middle school textbooks now carry accounts of the Nanjing massacre as accepted truth. Fogel also writes: "Dozens of Japanese scholars are now actively engaged in research on every aspect of the war.... Indeed, we know many details of the Nanjing massacre, Japanese sexual exploitation of 'comfort women,' and biological and chemical warfare used in China because of the trailblazing research" of Japanese scholars.
Chang also issued a rejoinder against Burress' argument that she incorrectly cited a telegram sent by Japan's foreign minister. She wrote that while the original figure of 300,000 Chinese civilian deaths in Nanjing was reported by a British reporter, this figure was cited in a message that Japan's foreign minister sent to his contacts in Washington, DC. Being a figure used by a high-ranking Japanese government official, Chang argued that this was evidence that the Japanese government recognized 300,000 as the number of Chinese civilian deaths. Finally, she criticized Burress for his "nitpick" of small details in order to draw attention away from the scope and magnitude of the Nanking Massacre, writing that such was a "common tactic" of Holocaust deniers.
The Rape of Nanking has caused controversy in Japan. Los Angeles Times staff writer Sonni Efron reported that in addition to receiving criticism by Japanese "ultranationalists" who believe that the massacre in Nanjing never took place, Chang was also criticized by Japanese liberals, who "insist the massacre happened but allege that Chang's flawed scholarship damages their cause". Associate Professor David Askew of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University stated that Chang's work dealt a "severe blow" to the "Great Massacre School" of thought, which advocates for the validity of the findings at the Tokyo Trials, the tribunal that was convened to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for crimes committed during World War II. Askew further argued that "the Great Massacre School has thus been forced into the (unusual) position of criticising a work that argues for a larger death toll."
Following the publication of The Rape of Nanking, Japanese critic Masaaki Tanaka decided to have his 1987 book on Nanking translated into English. Entitled What Really Happened in Nanking: the Refutation of a Common Myth, Tanaka states in his introduction "I am convinced that [American researchers] will arrive at the realization that violations of international law of the magnitude alleged by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking (more than 300,000 murders and 80,000 rapes) never took place.
The book was not published in a translated Japanese language edition until December 2007. Problems with translation efforts surfaced immediately after a contract was signed for the Japanese publishing of the book. A Japanese literary agency informed Chang that several Japanese historians declined to review the translation, and that one professor backed out due to pressure placed on his family from "an unknown organization". According to Japan scholar Ivan P. Hall, revisionist historians in Japan organized a committee of right-wing scholars to condemn the book with repeated appearances at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo and throughout Japan. They prevailed on Kashiwa Shobo, the contracted Japanese publisher of the book, to insist that Chang edit the book for "corrections" they wanted made, to delete photographs and alter maps, and to publish a rebuttal to Chang's book. Chang disagreed with the changes and, as a result, withdrew the Japanese publishing of the book. The rebuttal piece was nonetheless published in the form of a 288-page book, titled A study of The Rape of Nanking, written by Nobukatsu Fujioka and Higashinakano