Ye Zhaoyan, Nankin 1937 A Love Story (Chinese, 1996)

Oh the disappointment! I had such high expectations with this one, but it was such a hard read that I ended up skipping lots of pages to get me to the end. The book defeated me, in a way.

I expected a lot from Ye Zhaoyan, a respected name in contemporary Chinese literature. I’d read him before and remember liking it. Then the novel came with high praises as it was very popular in China. The title itself is ambitious, a contradiction by nature: adjoining the reference to the most horrific massacre of the Japanese army in China with the promise of a love story shows that the writer definitely isn’t afraid of challenges.

Eventually it wasn’t a harrowing reading like the Nanjing reference led me to fear, but just one that requires probably too much patience and tenacity than I could offer at this time of year. Ye Zhaoyan plays with the reader like a cat with a mouse, because everyone reading the book awaits the tragedy, but he will do everything but show it. In fact, the book’s last page just ends at the start of the massacre. Ye’s style is as convoluted as classic Chinese novels with many back-and-forth anecdotes and a myriad of characters. His angle of attack (if I may say so) is to show how blind Nanjing people were of the real risks of the war.

The novel construction is supposed to make the story more poignant, and it works to an extent. But the love story itself is the problem, because the characters are difficult to relate to. Using a literary tradition of Lao She or others, Ye chose to have a ridicule oddball as a antihero, and it’s really difficult to see why any woman, even one as ill-married as his heroin Yuyuan, would fall for him. The whole love plot is intersected with war, and love itself is compared to a military conquest. It makes sense to use this kind of character to indirectly criticize the vain and self-centered society of luxury and decadence of the nationalist capital Nanjing, but then the mix of genres doesn’t make it easy for the reader.

Make no mistake, I appreciated this book a lot, especially as a history and sociology book (showing painstaking research) of an era that was too easily dismissed by the Communists later on. But for the sake of novel-reading, on this subject I’d rather recommend Eileen Chang. Perhaps I’ll try Nankin 1937 again in a few years, or even The Besieged Fortress, a pre-Communist classics that has always intimidated, and which obviously influenced this novel.

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