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Novel confronts painful history

MIT professor Zheng Hong recently published the historical novel “Nanjing Never Cries.”

MIT professor Zheng Hong recently published the historical novel “Nanjing Never Cries.”

MIT professor Zheng Hong recently published the historical novel “Nanjing Never Cries.”

MIT professor Zheng Hong recently published the historical novel “Nanjing Never Cries.”

A MIT professor, Zheng Hong has spent his academic life as a theoretical physicist. However, at 80 he published the historical novel “Nanjing Never Cries.”

Set in the city of Nanjing during the time of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), this novel tells the story of four people caught up in the violence and tumult of these year.

American physicist John and his Chinese MIT classmate, Calvin, take up positions at Nanjing’s National Central University and collaborate on a top-secret project to design and build warplanes that will enable the Chinese to defend themselves against Japanese bombers.

Meanwhile, John enjoys his new life in Nanjing. He helps the lovely Chen May, his neighbor’s daughter, falling a little in love with her in the process; he shops for antiques; meets with Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang; and attends an evening’s entertainment at one of Nanjing’s notorious Wine Houses.

But when the Japanese invade, there is no safe place in the city. They murder, torture, and rape indiscriminately. Chen May sees her own family killed; John works in a shelter for women and children; Calvin’s family flees the city while he stays behind to work on the warplane project. Each tries to survive against the odds.

Chen May vows to hunt down the soldier who murders her father. When the war is over, she finds him sweeping Nanjing streets as a prisoner of war. The story ends with the force of an explosion at a military trial of the Japanese war criminals in Nanjing.

“Many people I know were surprised that I spent 10 years of my spare time writing an English novel,” said Zheng. “Yet, I had no choice but to plunge into such a foolish endeavor.”

Zheng says the idea of writing such a novel started in 1995, when he attended a symposium at MIT in memory of the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast. After hearing lecturers repeating the story of American guilt over dropping the bomb, he raised objections but says he was ignored.

He later composed a letter to MIT’s Technology Review describing the holocaust the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese during the war. The magazine edited down his letter before publishing it.

“Being a physicist, I understand the horror of the atomic bomb, but history should be presented with no ideological tilt. The prejudice I encountered made me realize that English novels about the Sino-Japanese War are needed. At least some such novels must be written by the Chinese, who have the right to tell the world their side of the story, ” Zheng told Shanghai Daily.

To write the novel in its proper setting, Zheng spent several months in Nanjing during his next sabbatical leave. He came to Nanjing again in 1999 when he interviewed two of the massacre survivors.

“These old men could not help crying when they recounted what had happened to their families half a century ago. My wife, who was with me during the interview, cried with them,” Zheng said.

Based on real-life events, incidents and historic figures, “Nanjing Never Cries” is a compelling story of love and friendship, balanced against the horrors of war. The intensity builds as Nanjing falls into the hands of the Japanese, a world-shattering event that changes the story’s characters forever.

“In Nanjing, I realized that many Japanese soldiers had come to China with ideals — like young people everywhere else during those days. They were led to march to the wrong drums. Circumstances turned human beings into animals,” Zheng said.

Q: What other books can you suggest for readers who want to learn more about the Nanjing Massacre?

A: There are two excellent books about the Nanjing Massacre: “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang, published in 1997; and “The Nanjing Massacre” by Honda Katsuichi, published in 1999.


Q: What was your purpose in writing a novel on the Nanjing Massacre?

A: Literary works are meant to mend wounds, to heal trauma and reveal the complexity of humanity. In particular, people in my generation, having lived through the Chinese holocaust, have a responsibility to pass down the lessons of history to the next generation.


Q: How do you think we should look at the Nanjing Massacre today?

A Human beings can be vicious — be they Japanese or otherwise. We must not forget what happened in Nanjing, while in the meantime trying to forgive the failings of a past generation.


Q: Can you elaborate a little more on the foundation you set at MIT which will help students from Nanjing study in the US?

A: My wife and I have pledged one million US dollars for a scholarship fund. The interest it generates will pay a Chinese college student what he/she will need to attend MIT, no matter his/her financial resources. The first priority goes to one coming from Nanjing. This will hopefully go on forever.

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