Miss Diang and the Atom Bomb

Translation by Jeremy Tiang,
#1 bestselling and beloved contemporary Chinese novel sold under title The Second Handshake. Sold over 4.3 million copies since the 1980s.
Cover inscription made by ex-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Miss Diang and the Atom Bomb is at the same time a wistful, elegiac story about unfulfilled love, and a hard-hitting political narrative about the development of the atom bomb, and the human cost of scientific advancement. Ding Jieqiong (based on real-life Manhattan Project scientist Chien-Shiung Wu) is a complex, well-rounded heroine, sacrificing personal happiness for the sake of human progress, caught between China and America, and her love for two very different men.  Historical events form a constant background to this novel. The protagonists are involved in their own struggles, but it's made clear that they are very much at the mercy of the widerdevelopments surrounding them, from the Japanese invasion of China to Roosevelt's death, and of course World War Two itself. We also see China transformed, looking away from the West andincreasingly inward; the rather romantic view of Communist society reads today like nostalgia for a lost innocence.

At the heart of the novel is the development of the nuclear bomb, and the paranoia that comes in its wake. Ding Jieqiong's ethical doubts about using such a destructive weapon are captured in all their complexity, and the author efficiently shows how the foundations of the Cold War were laid in the desert of Los Alamos. 

The protagonists are somewhat idealized Su Guanlan is six foot tall, boyishly good-looking, and speaks fluent “London English”, German and French. Ding Jieqiong and Ye Yuhan are similarly attractive and intelligent. Yet for all their gilded youth and privilege, world events prove too much for these unfortunate individuals, and by the end they are left wondering at the ruins of their lives – in a final sequence, Ding Jieqiong reflects on how an entire generation has been robbed of happiness. 

Initially titled The Return, The Second Handshake caused its writer, Zhang Yang, to be imprisoned by the Gang of Four when it first appeared. He would have been executed if his sentence had not been overturned by party chairman Hu Yaobang. (Hu was later purged; his death in 1989 would trigger the Tiananmen Square protests.) The Second Handshake was published in a new edition in 1979; its editor, Hu Yuping, has called this book “encyclopedic” for its breadth, taking in “everything from international relations to human philosophy, from medicine to atomic physics, from poetry to love, dipping into politics, military affairs, economics and culture.” Zhang Yang remains the head of the Hunan Writers Association today; Miss Diang and the Atom Bomb is the only novel he has ever published.