Nanjing Never Cries: Professor Hung Cheng Talks about his Journey from Mathematician to Novelist
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Professor of Applied Mathematics Hung Cheng has been at MIT for more than 50 years, where he is well-known for his work in mathematics and theoretical physics and for his dedication as a teacher. Less well-known was that Cheng is also a writer – that is, until the publication of his first novel in English, Nanjing Never Cries earlier this September.
On September 26, 2016, Cheng shared his journey from researcher and teacher to novelist at a reading and talk hosted by the School of Science, along with the MIT Chinese Students and Scholars Association and the Chinese Writers’ Association in Northern America, New England Chapter.
Cheng wrote his novel to give a human face to a tragedy that he feels has too long been ignored by history books, particularly in the West. Nanjing Never Cries follows four people through the Nanjing Massacre: MIT graduate John Winthrop, his brilliant partner, Calvin Ren, Ren’s wife, Judy, and daughter of Nanjing boat people, Cheng May.
The characters and events of the book draw on Cheng’s own experiences, both growing up in China and as a professor at MIT. Cheng was born about 2 months before the Sino-Japanese war started, experiencing first-hand the hardships and hazards of the war and its aftermath. He moved to Taiwan as a teenager and then moved to the United States to pursue undergraduate studies at Caltech. After earning his B.Sc. in 1959, he stayed at Caltech, earning his Ph.D. in in only 2 years. After postdoctoral appointments at Caltech, Princeton, and Harvard, he came to MIT as an assistant professor in 1965 and quickly rose to the rank of full professor 4 years later.
Cheng told the audience he was inspired to write the novel when he attended a symposium panel about Hiroshima at MIT in 1995. When he found that the panelists focused exclusively on American guilt as a result of the bombing, Cheng asked the panelists what they thought about Japan’s actions in China and to consider what the Chinese perspective might be. Cheng was disappointed in their brief answers. Afterwards, an MIT magazine published a long article on the symposium, but it too did not take the Chinese perspective into account. When Cheng wrote a letter challenging the magazine, they published it, but in a drastically shortened form. “You don’t allow me to publish my silly letter like this?” he thought. “I will publish even more!” The result was Nanjing Never Cries.
However, Cheng would have to wait a long time from his moment of inspiration in 1995 until publication in 2016. Because of the full-time demands of being a professor at MIT, Cheng would not take his first step toward writing the novel until 1999, when he moved to Nanjing for 3 months to learn to live like a Nanjing native and to interview two survivors about their experiences. Although more than 60 years had passed, Cheng said the two survivors could not stop crying as they talked about what happened to them and their families. Their stories would serve as seeds for the stories in his novel.
Cheng had to wait 4 more years after his Nanjing trip before he would have time to turn his own experiences and those of the Nanjing survivors into a novel. He would also have to write many drafts. Cheng assumed at first that his plentiful experience in writing academic papers in English would have prepared him for writing a novel, but when he plunged into writing, he found it was an entirely different world from writing about physics and mathematics. Fortunately, he met with a neighbor, Alexa Fleckenstein, who invited him to her writing group and worked with him every week to refine his manuscript. He would write ten drafts, working with Alexa and other readers, before his manuscript was finally finished.
When an audience member asked Cheng how it was possible to balance his time between being a professor and writing a novel, Cheng said he had to sacrifice every spare moment possible – but that “it shows if you are determined about anything, you can get it done.”