Nanjing Never Cries, the first novel by physicist Hong Zheng, tells the story of four central characters and how their lives are forever changed by the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and the sacking of the capital of Nanjing in 1937.
The novel’s 352 pages cover a lot of terrain, from quotidian life of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students in the 1920s and 1930s to the apocalyptic Chinese exodus of Nanjing amid the Japanese offensive. The many historical figures who show up along the way do much more than just furnish this fictional account with the stuff of reality. Chiang Kai-shek, his charming wife, as well as American Minnie Vautrin and German John Rabe all interact with the author’s other, perhaps more relatable, characters and alter their fate.
There’s John Winthrop, a very naïve American, and his genius Chinese classmate Calvin Ren who meet as students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and eventually move—or, in Calvin’s case, return—to Nanjing. The friends aren’t exactly yin and yang, yet complement each other. Calvin has a first-class theoretical mind for physics, while John’s good at bringing concepts to life in the lab. Together these aeronautical engineers just might be able to help save China from Imperial Japan, a wild aspiration of Calvin’s that John knows nothing about when he’s beckoned to “the Orient,” ostensibly to teach.
Calvin is also joined in Nanjing by his New York City-born Chinese wife Judy. She has suffered the indignities of growing up Chinese in the first half of 20th century America. She’s alternatively ridiculed and coldly ignored by should-be cohorts in grade school. It’s when she’s in college that her life changes. She meets the impassive Calvin, who, after a little feminine coaxing, marries her and provides her what America alone couldn’t.
Most important to the story is May Chen, born in 1919 in Nanjing. Her curiosity about all things—boys, international affairs, the English language—is boundless by the time Calvin and, later, John arrive on her doorstep. She lives in the general store her father owns and the professors come to frequent. She looks up to Calvin, who incredibly made it to MIT via Nanjing, and seeks his advice about education and the wider world.
If John is interested in applying Calvin’s theories in the lab, May’s interest is in making them universal. At one point, after Calvin explains a basic law of physics, she wonders aloud if such rules also govern human behavior. Calvin doesn’t know the answer, because no one really does, but he realizes May is trying to make sense of the evil she sees every day in the actions of the Japanese in her city.
“A human being is an amphibian between good and evil,” Calvin explains. “All of us, you and I no exceptions, have the seed of a demon and that of a saint inside of us. We can grow into either one.”
May initially objects, maybe because Calvin is, in a way, implicating her in all the atrocities she witnesses. Yet she starts to understand his meaning much later in the book after she confronts her father’s killer, a Japanese man sweeping the Nanjing streets as prisoner of war. One way to address the hatred she feels for this man is to discover what they have in common, that is, find out what might be good in the person who acted so horribly.
May’s curious about John in a different way. She’s met foreigners before: American missionary Minnie Vautrin registers her for her first day of school and names her May. She’s just never met someone exactly like John. He’s kind to her, tells her to call him by his first name, despite having a prestigious doctoral degree, and helps her learn English as they shop for local porcelain.
Things are complicated when she wins an English-speaking competition reciting the Declaration of Independence at about the same time that John stars in her romantic dream. May’s confidant Judy knows John’s fiancé Cynthia, who’s still in the US. She tells the much younger May to keep her distance, though John’s impure thoughts about the shiny-haired girl suggest Judy might be cautioning the wrong party.
John faces other challenges beyond the cultural and the carnal. About a third of the way through the novel, he learns why he’s been lured thousands of miles from home and fiancée and why, when he met Madame Chiang Kai-shek, she says she’s heard a lot about him. China’s First Lady, also Secretary General of the Aeronautical Affairs Commission, wasn’t only being polite. He’s roughing it in the East to help Calvin—and struggling China—design and build planes to fight Japan. This changes the American’s life in a big way, and soon his person and his reputation are under attack from people and factions he didn’t realize were enemies.
The Japanese invasion then tests everyone’s resolve. Anyone with a general knowledge of recent Chinese history will know the city’s fate, although little or no prior knowledge is necessary. Key historical events are recounted as background or become the story itself. John, for example, has an intense conversation about military strategy for Shanghai with the Chinese president over breakfast, and later, Calvin and Judy are aboard the USS Panay in the Yangtze River when Japanese planes attack.
Zheng’s writing is most focused and exciting when recounting the effects of the invasion. Here, the third-person point of view moves from character to character almost seamlessly as they seek shelter from the violence and pain. Earlier in the book, however, there are sections that feel a little less like a narrative and more like a list of details the reader must remember for later.
Perhaps to convey the utter confusion John felt upon arrival in China, in the span of two pages of the chapter titled “An American in Nanjing”, the story moves from drinking with the Generalissimo, to John’s overflowing toilet, to a mysterious door in the aeronautics lab, to a short encounter with May, finally to John’s letter home to Cynthia. The effect is a little jarring, but in the end should not dampen a desire to see what happens to these otherwise well-rendered characters.
In the preface to Nanjing Never Cries, Zheng, who became a full professor at MIT in 1969, tells how an uncomfortable encounter at a 1995 symposium made him realize that
English novels about the Sino-Japanese War are needed. The true nature of this war must be brought to a higher level of Western consciousness.
This way of thinking will be heartening for those who see the novel as more than entertainment—that it should have a more esteemed purpose—but, in this context at least, it’s also a reminder that books also don’t need to be boring to be considered serious.