What an incredible story this is! Nien Cheng’s memoir, Life and Death in Shangai is saturated with spiritual and soul stretching lessons from her exceptional life. I’ve read a few books set during Mao’s Cultural Revolution but this account stands out for the sheer courage, audacity, and fortitude displayed by the author.
In some respects, Nien Cheng reminds me of Kostoglotov (a fictional Character) in Solzhenitsyn’s book Cancer Ward – two individuals pushing against a totalitarian system.
Nien Cheng was born in Peking in 1915 and studied Economics in London in the mid-1930’s. She met her husband during this time and upon their return to China in 1939, he became a diplomatic officer in the Kuomintang Government.
When the Communist Party entered Shanghai in 1949 he was asked to remain in office for the transitional period, after which he was allowed to leave and take on the position of general manager of the Shell International Petroleum Company based in Shanghai.
In 1957 Nien Cheng’s husband died of cancer and she was asked to fill the position of assistant to the new general manager, becoming the only woman in Shanghai to occupy a senior role in a company that was acclaimed worldwide, a role she enjoyed until 1966.
Up until the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party didn’t decree how people should live, but from time to time political campaigns rocked the country, and when people fell victim to these their incomes were drastically reduced or they and their families were relocated. For seventeen years Nien Chen had made an effort to make her home a haven for her daughter, Meiping, and herself, and managed to maintain their standard of living, ‘so that we could continue to enjoy good taste while the rest of the city was being taken over by proletarian realism.’
Meiping, a young actress in the Shanghai Film Studio, was an attractive and intelligent young woman who had learned from an early age that ‘the classless society of Communism had a more rigid class system than the despised capitalist society.’
When the Communists gained control of China a new system of discrimination developed against the children of the educated and affluent, who found themselves handicapped because of their family background.
Nien Cheng was falsely accused of being a British spy in 1966 and imprisoned in solitary confinement for six and a half years. She steadfastly maintained her innocence throughout that time, defying her brutal interrogators with quotes from Mao’s red book and her quick wits.
There was a mysterious element behind her arrest that she wasn’t able to identify until much later, but it added a background of suspense to her story.
Although there were many sad and intense moments in Nien Cheng’s account, at times she made me feel like laughing and giving a cheer…such as when she was being outrageously denounced by former employees of the company she worked for:
My reaction was not what anyone had expected. There was a moment of stunned silence.
She disciplined herself to stay calm and maintain a cool politeness while her interrogators ranted and yelled at her. Her logical responses and her refusal to be bullied into a false confession were a source of frustration to those who were unaccustomed to this type of response. Throughout her imprisonment she had no contact with her daughter but her overwhelming concern was for her safety and she was careful not to do or say anything that would jeopordise her child’s future.
When she was facing the extreme cold of her cell and the lack of food, she forced herself to keep her mind active by recalling poetry she had memorised and worked out ways to give her body some exercise without the guards noticing.
There were so many quotable passages in this book but here are a few that especially stood out to me:
‘I’m not a spy for anybody. I have nothing to confess,’ I said firmly to the wall from where Mao’s portrait looked down on me. As I gazed at Mao’s face wearing what was intended as a benign expression but what was in fact a smirk of self-satisfaction, I wondered how one single person could have caused the extent of misery that was prevailing in China. There must be something lacking in our own character, I thought, that had made it possible for his evil genius to dominate.
When a man was denounced, he was depicted as totally bad, and any errant behaviour was attributed to the influence of capitalism.
A Party officer entered her home and spat on the carpet – the first time that the author saw a declaration of power made in a gesture of rudeness:
I had come to realize that the junior officers of the Party often used the exaggerated gesture of rudeness to cover up their feelings of inferiority.
The newspaper announced that the mission of the Red Guards was to rid the country of the ‘Four Olds’ – old culture, old customs, old habits and old ways of thinking. There was no clear definition of ‘old’; it was left to the Red Guards to decide…
Political correctness had them changing the names of streets…the Bund was renamed Revolutionary Boulevard.
The Red Guards debated whether to reverse the system of traffic lights, as they thought Red should mean Go and not Stop. In the meantime, traffic lights stopped operating.
They seemed to be blissfully happy in their work of destruction because they were sure they were doing something to satisfy their God, Mao Tze-tung. Their behaviour was the result of their upbringing from childhood in Communist China. The propaganda they had absorbed precluded their having a free will of their own.
Nien Cheng developed bronchitis and a ‘doctor’ was sent to her cell. After explaining to the young man that she had a fever and had been coughing for nearly two months he declared that she probably had hepatitis! She realized he was not a trained doctor at all, but had been given the job because although unskilled, he was politically reliable:
The young man was simply carrying out Mao’s order to ‘learn to be a doctor by being one.’
‘…It’s not the purpose if the proletarian class to destroy your body. We want to save your soul by reforming your way of thinking.’ Although Mao Tze-tung and his followers were atheists, they were fond of talking about the ‘soul.’ In his writing, Mao often referred to the saving of a man’s soul. During the Cultural Revolution, ‘soul’ was mentioned frequently…
While no one could ask Mao Tze-tung or Lin Piao what exactly they meant when they talked about a man’s ‘soul’, it greatly taxed the ingenuity of the Marxist writers of newspaper articles who had to explain their leader’s words to the people.
On the objective of the Proletarian Revolution to form a classless society, which at first seemed an attractive and idealistic picture when Nien Cheng was a student:
…after living in Communist China for the past seventeen years, I knew that such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class….
In Communist China, details of the private lives of the leaders were guarded as State secrets. But every Chinese knew that the Party leaders lived in spacious mansions with many servants, obtained their provisions from special shops where luxury goods were made available to their households at nominal prices and sent their children in chauffeur-driven cars to exclusive schools to be taught by specially selected teachers…
Nien Chen was finally told she could leave prison, that the proletarian had magnanimously decided to refrain against pressing charges against her, but she wanted a full apology and refused to leave without one. The interrogators had never had a prisoner refuse to leave detention and were nonplussed. Meanwhile two guards arrived and dragged her outside. She was to endure further years of harrasment before she was eventually able to leave China.
This is such an excellent book and there are so many parallels to our present age with the push to be politically correct and the Marxist influence in many university courses. It’s scheduled as a possible biography in Ambleside Online Year 11. I’ve used Mao Tse-Tung & His China by Albert Marrin in the past, which is a good book also, but not a personal account like Nien Cheng’s, and a couple of other books we already had, but I found a copy of Life & Death in Shanghai recently and it’s a wonderful book that I’d highly recommend.
Some information about the author:
“There were many Chinese who fought back and many who suffered much more. Some of them have never recovered,” she said. “But my privilege has been to write about it, and that’s only been possible because I could leave.”
“It was not until later that Cheng learned that her interrogators were trying to get her to confess to being a spy so that Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife) and other radicals could oust Premier Zhou Enlai, a moderate who favored allowing foreign firms like Shell to operate in China.”
15 thoughts on “Living books for the 20th Century: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (1986)”
This sounds very interesting! We have a daughter adopted from China, so I find myself interested in their history more than I would be otherwise. Thanks for sharing!
Great review. This is a sounds like a great book. Cheng's story sounds both inspirational and important. Communism was one of the great evils to have popped up in the world over the past Century or two.There is indeed something ominous rising out of the far left that that has manifested it self on many collage campuses as of late. I have been reading a lot about it as well chatted on social media with some people caught in the related witch hunts. It has parallels to Maoism and Communism but there are also some important differences. Books like this help serve as warning against such movements.
This book is a favorite. It was hard to read, but very inspiring and impressive. She is an unsung hero for sure. (The loss of her daughter was jarring to me.) I'm amazed at how many horrible things happen to the uneducated, the ignorant who want to stay like that, and dominate and destroy whatever they can't have.
The Small Woman is a great book if you haven't already read that one. We have a large population of Chinese around us, and more recently in our church, so now we have a Chinese translator. Lots of couples in their 30's or thereabouts, for some reason. A number of them are increasing their family size since arriving in Australia, too!
I think you'd really appreciate her writing, Brian. It is very literary. Re universities – something I've read a number of times is that a number of these totalitarian rulers became enamoured with their Marxist ideas while at university in Paris. Not Mao, he went to uni in Peking, but Pol Pot was one as were some of Mao's sidekicks.
Hi Silvia, I've been thinking about you today with the flooding going on…Yes, losing her daughter after all that time of being so careful not to incriminate her. I wonder if she would have survived if she had known of her daughter's death earlier.One of the saddest lines I read on one of the articles I posted, 'Nien Cheng left no survivors.'
I read this book some time ago. What I remember from this memoir was the awful puritanism of the Communists and Red Guards. Like drinking coffee was looked down on as a bourgeois affectation. And clothing was supposed to be purely functional, everybody had to dress like a proletarian. Just looking at pictures of Mao’s wife, Jiang Ching, we can see her uniform and spectacles were deliberately ugly. Such violence – no wonder the Chinese don’t like to talk about this period and their young people know nothing about it.
Yes! And Mao ordered flower gardens to be dug up as they were of no practical use. I was also struck with the absolute disregard of items that were culturally significant – out with the old, in with the new. Frightening!
I really appreciate your book reviews, thank you! This one sounds fascinating. Thank you for increasing my TBR pile. 🙂
Hi Amber, thanks for your comment – I'm never quite sure how much to say about a book & try not to give too much information so I sometimes think my 'reviews' are a bit all over th place! Considering the context and some of the things she had to face, this book is a real testimony to the author. I'd count it as one of the most inspiring true stories I've ever read.
This is an excellent book. I love most books by Nien Cheng.. http://aazae.com/
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