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Hung Cheng (Hong Zheng), MIT Professor of Applied Mathematics, will give a talk on his recently published novel, Nanjing Never Cries, on Thursday, September 29, 7:00pm at MIT in Building 6-120. The event, which is open to everyone, will begin with introductory remarks by Dean of Science Michael Sipser and will be followed by a reception.
The Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 left hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians dead. In her book The Rape of Nanking, American journalist Iris Chang opened the eyes of the world to the horrors of this act of genocide in the middle of World War II.
Now Cheng, who was born in China in 1937, has brought a new, personified light on the story through the eyes of four richly wrought characters in his debut novel, Nanjing Never Cries, published by MIT Press/Killian Press.
Having been a child throughout the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, Cheng witnessed the difficulties of this time first hand. He has long advocated for the voices of those whom he feels have been ignored by the history books, and during a symposium at MIT on Hiroshima, his frustration rose to the surface. When the panelists discussed American guilt as a result of the bombing, Cheng was prompted to ask whether the Japanese might feel any remorse about their actions. The Japanese speaker later approached Cheng and asked him to sign a petition urging the Japanese government to apologize to China. It was during moments like these that Cheng considered the novel he wanted to write. He traveled to China and met with two Nanjing massacre survivors, and his research and interviews are incorporated into the story.
Nanjing Never Cries is focused on MIT graduate John Winthrop and his brilliant Chinese partner Calvin Ren. The two collaborate on a top-secret project to design and build warplanes for the Chinese to defend themselves against the Japanese. As John and Calvin work on their plans, their naïve thoughts of winning the war with their inventions make the actual conflict seem surreal and far away.
While in China Winthrop meets Chen May, a beautiful 18-year-old girl from Nanjing and spends many afternoons with her browsing antiques. Calvin’s wife Judy continues teaching her middle school students while Calvin keeps his nose to the grindstone building their planes.
Ultimately tragedy strikes when the Japanese invade the city, killing thousands including people close to all of Cheng’s characters. Amidst the chaos, the four friends wonder if they will ever see each other again, after the city of Nanjing falls to pieces around them and their loved ones are killed in the attack. May vows to look for the soldier who murdered her beloved father; she finds him after the war, and the novel ends with a touching scene. Vivid and lyrical, Cheng’s novel captures the intimate relationships and churning emotions that are at the heart of war.
Cheng has been Professor of Applied Mathematics in the Theoretical Physics Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1970. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife, Jill. Nanjing Never Cries is his first novel.
Cheng’s reading is sponsored by the MIT Chinese Students and Scholars Association, the Chinese Writers' Association in Northern America, New England Chapter, and the MIT School of Science.
This article has been adapted from a press release from the Killian Press.