Life and Death in Shanghai
Nien Cheng, 1988
Penguin Group USA
In August 1966 a group of Red Guards ransacked the home of Nien Cheng. Her background made her an obvious target for the fanatics of the Cultural Revolution: educated in London, the widow of an official of Chiang Kaishek's regime, and an employee of Shell Oil, Nien Cheng enjoyed comforts that few of her compatriots could afford. When she refused to confess that any of this made her an enemy of the state, she was placed in solitary confinement, where she would remain for more than six years.
Life and Death in Shanghai is the powerful story of Nien Cheng's imprisonment, of the deprivation she endured, of her heroic resistance, and of her quest for justice when she was released. It is the story, too, of a country torn apart by the savage fight for power Mao Tse-tung launched in his campaign to topple party moderates. An incisive, rare personal account of a terrifying chapter in twentieth-century history, Life and Death in Shanghai is also an astounding portrait of one woman's courage. (From the publisher.
• Birth—January 28, 1915
• Where—Beijing, China
• Awards—Christopher Award
• Currently—lives Washington, D.C., USA
Nien Cheng, born in on January 28, 1915, is a Chinese American author who recounted her harrowing experiences of the Cultural Revolution in her memoir Life and Death in Shanghai. Ms. Cheng became a target of attack by Red Guards due to her management of a foreign firm in Shanghai, Shell. Maoist revolutionaries used this fact to claim that Ms. Cheng was a British spy in order to strike at Communist Party moderates for allowing the firm to operate in China after 1949.
Cheng endured six-and-a-half years of squalid and inhumane conditions in prison, all the while refusing to give any false confession. Her daughter Meiping Cheng, a prominent Shanghai film actress, was murdered by Maoists after the young woman refused to denounce her mother. Ms. Cheng was rehabilitated after the Gang of Four (including Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife) were arrested, and she used the opportunity to leave for the United States, as she was still a constant target of surveillance by those who wished her ill.
Cheng used Mao's teachings successfully against her interrogators, frequently turning the tide of the struggle sessions against the interrogators. Some of the exchanges are hilarious in retrospect. The nonsense of revolutionary rhetoric is completely exposed by Ms. Cheng's brilliant counter interrogations against her oppressors. (From Wikipedia.)
Life and Death in Shanghai is an absorbing story of resourcefulness and courage, spoiled only by a touch of self-righteousness: Mrs. Cheng is always right, her persecutors always wrong. It also provides fascinating insights into thought reform in Mao's China. Though Mrs. Cheng was accused, at least nominally, of a specific offense, what her interrogators wanted from her is much more like what we would think of as a confession of sin or of sinfulness. As one of them explained to her, ''The first requisite to confession is an admission of guilt. You must admit your guilt not only to the People's Government, but also to yourself. The admission of guilt is like the opening of the floodgates. When you admit sincerely that you are indeed guilty...your confession will flow out easily."
J.M. Coetzee - New York Times Book Review
This is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman who, despite 6 1/2 long years of imprisonment and torment in Communist China, not only survived but endured and even prevailed. It is a story that began more than 20 years ago but has special relevance today. That is so partly because many of those who benefited during a decade of madness not only have gone unpunished but are trying to make a comeback, and partly because a story that so vividly documents the triumph of the human spirit over inhumanity is always relevant.
This gripping account of a woman caught up in the maelstrom of China's Cultural Revolution begins quietly. In 1966, only the merest rumblings of political upheaval disturbed the gracious life of the author, widow of the manager of Shell Petroleum in China. As the rumblings fast became a cataclysm, Cheng found herself a target of the revolution: Red Guards looted her home, literally grinding underfoot her antique porcelain and jade treasures; and she was summarily imprisoned, falsely accused of espionage. Despite harsh privation,even torture, she refused to confess and was kept in solitary confinement for over six years, suffering deteriorating health and mounting anxiety about the fate of her only child, Meiping. When the political climate softened, and she was released, Cheng learned that her fears were justified: Meiping had been beaten to death when she refused to denounce her mother. The candor and intimacy of this affecting memoir make it addictive reading. Its intelligence, passion and insight assure its place among the distinguished voices of our age proclaiming the ascendancy of the human spirit over tyranny. Cheng is now a U.S. resident.
Cheng's widely acclaimed book recounts in compelling specifics her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution'' (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being a "spy'' and "imperialist,'' but during the harrowing years of solitary confinement she never gave in, never confessed a lie. We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism. Highly recommended. BOMC main selection. —Charles W. Hayford, History Dept., Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
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