By day, Hong Zheng works as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his workplace since 1965. The energetic 79-year-old still teaches at MIT, deferring retirement — “How many cruises can I go on in a year?” — for his passions of applied mathematics and theoretical physics. His academic career highlights includes being the youngest member of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica for many years and publishing his research in academic journals.
After hours, Zheng spent the last 10 years writing his first English novel, “Nanjing Never Cries,” exploring the Rape of Nanjing through intimate relationships. The Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) saw some of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese imperial army, which took hundreds of thousands lives throughout southeast Asia.
“I want to preserve this piece of history for the younger generation. My generation is dying,” Zheng said. “We owe it to history to preserve this memory.”
Zheng was born in 1937 in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Taiwan as a child when the Nationalists lost to the Communists. While Zheng did not live through the Rape of Nanjing, he felt it was a historical event deserving more attention.
“The Sino-Japanese War was not just a conflict between two nations. It’s genocide of the Chinese,” Zheng said. “A Japanese soldier wrote in his diary that killing a Chinese was easier than killing a chicken.”
The impetus for the novel came from a Hiroshima symposium at MIT. When the panelists discussed American guilt as a result of the bombing, Zheng asked whether the Japanese would feel any remorse for their actions. A Japanese panelist later approached Zheng and asked him to sign a petition urging the Japanese government to apologize to China. Zheng’s novel incorporates eyewitness accounts from two survivors in China, which brought Zheng and his wife Jill to tears.
“Many people could relate to the book because it’s based on real stories,” Zheng said.
“Nanjing Never Cries” is the first work of fiction published by MIT Press imprint Killian Press. The novel focuses on MIT graduate John Winthrop and his brilliant Chinese partner Calvin Ren, engaged in a top-secret project to build warplanes for the Chinese to defend themselves against the Japanese. John meets Chen May, a beautiful 18-year-old from Nanjing and spends many afternoons with her browsing antiques. Calvin’s wife Judy teaches middle school students, while Calvin keeps his nose to the grindstone building planes.
Tragedy strikes when the Japanese invade the city, killing thousands including people close to all of Zheng’s characters. As Nanjing falls, the four friends wonder if they will ever see each other again.
“It’s absolutely out of character for me to write a novel … In writing a novel, you need to have passion, feeling, emotion. Sometimes I cried,” Zheng said. “Writing a research paper, you need to be cold, rational, analytical.”
Zheng has little spare time to read novels, but has already published a Chinese novel. He has nothing against the people of Japan, but feels its leadership needs to take responsibility for the nation’s acts of aggression.
“The Japanese caused genocide, they killed, raped and burned. How can they defend that? How they say they suffered the most?” Zheng said. “It’s not just physical suffering, it’s a sense of humiliation and wrath for the Chinese. What would happen if your mother was raped and your father was killed by the Japanese, but the culprits never admitted they were wrong?”
Germany has denounced its role in the Holocaust, but Zheng sees war criminals being worshiped by the Japanese. The Nanjing massacre is denied or simply left out of history textbooks. Zheng plans to use all proceeds from the book for Nanjing massacre survivors, to commemorate their sacrifice. The book will also be published in Chinese by Yilin Press
“There is no word in Chinese for ‘genocide’ or ‘holocaust.’ The Chinese are unaware that there is a single word for such a crime to humanity. They lose a good weapon to speak against it,” Zheng said. “I hope the Chinese remember the word ‘genocide’ and how it happened to their parents. They have to know it’s not right.”
This post is also available in: Chinese