Nanjing 1937 by Ye Zhaoyan was published in 1996; this edition 2003; translated from Chinese by Michael Berry.
Ding Wenyu, almost forty, is married and a womaniser; he’s a college professor proficient in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Romanian; his ‘legendary’ language abilities come in useful from time to time. When in his late teens he was banished to France as a result of a misguided pursuit of a young woman. In Paris he crossed paths with Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Indeed, the book is deliberately scattered with name-dropping, notably the hierarchy of China at the time (there’s a helpful glossary of historical figures). Wenyu does not appear to be a likeable fellow, though he is amusing and his conceit in disavowing the mores of his times evokes sympathy.
Whether a fault of the translator, the editor (if any) or the author, the text is peppered with far too many clichés: ‘hold a candle’, ‘between a rock and a hard place’, ‘a piece of cake’, ‘the short end of the stick’ to list a few. As the book contains irony as well as humour, perhaps this is intentional. Besides humour, there are a few scenes of farce, too.
Wenyu’s life is changed when he beholds the younger sister of the girl he’d pursued twenty years earlier: At her wedding to a popular fighter pilot, Yuyuan captures Wenyu’s heart. He is smitten with ‘a kind of adoration of the utmost purity’. Unlike his encounters with married women and prostitutes, he does not lust after her. [Yuyuan is also an exotic garden in the Old City of Shanghai.]
‘In this world there are many mistakes committed due to a lack of love, but love has the power to purify. It can make someone forget themselves and all their inhibitions. Before he met Yuyuan, Ding was a pathetic orphan, lost in a desert without an oasis in sight… Orphans to love are stranded at an eternal impasse; to pursue a woman without love will never quell the loneliness in one’s heart. Love is humankind’s starting point and its final resting place.’
So, he becomes obsessed with Yuyuan. He writes love letters (not lewd or salacious, just full of praise) to her every day. Perhaps nowadays he would be arrested for stalking. ‘True love is based on giving and not taking. Only a love based on giving is true love.’ In the final event, he follows that dictum, giving of himself.
In parallel – deliberately – the author juxtaposes Wenyu’s pursuit of his love against the threat of Japanese invasion – both seeming leisurely in pace, though that same pace quickens towards the end. There are some interesting snippets about the military situation, for example: ‘According to intelligence reports at the time, the Japanese military’s primary future target was not China but Russia. Moreover, if the Japanese navy wanted to conquer the Pacific, a direct conflict with America would be inevitable….’
This is, just, a love story; the blurb calls it ‘epic’ but it isn’t. Its emotional punch is weakened by the omniscient point of view, so as a result the ending was disappointing.
Some critics have mentioned ‘explicit’ scenes and ‘raunchy sex scenes’; these are minor, and most of the sex (there isn’t much) is handled without graphic detail. There is one curious item regarding women without pubic hair being called ‘white tigers’; the legend has it that white tigers can harm men, so apparently many superstitious Chinese men will not bed a ‘white tiger’. Another minor though dubious incident involves an acquaintance of Wenyu indulging in necrophilia.
The book is enlightening about the culture and attitudes of the time in China. What comes across most forcefully is the universality of the human condition, irrespective of culture. In 1937 Nanjing there was a cult of personality; the rich and notable craved to be seen at events; divorce was considered a scandal but accepted; and young girls attempted to marry older rich men.
Hanging over the leisurely and sometimes farcical courting by Wenyu is the oppressive knowledge that Japanese forces would prevail and Nanjing would fall. The Chinese saying is perfectly apt: ‘If good fortune awaits there is no reason to hide – if disaster awaits there will be no place to hide.’