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[544] Life and Death in Shanghai – Nien Cheng

shanghai

” How incredible! It seemed that their persecution of me and the denunciation of Shell was not simply due to their antiforeign attitude or their adherence to the principles of class struggle. The problem was much more complicated than I had thought. Their targets, I saw, were the Party officials whose policy permitted foreign companies to operate in China. If they could make me and others like me confess to being foreign spies, they could claim that allowing foreign firms to operate in China was providing a safe haven for the intelligence activities of foreign agents. ” (8: Party factions, p.227)

Life and Death in Shanghai is a memoir of an indefatigable woman struggling to maintain her dignity and sanity; it is also an impartial account of the dark days during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In summer 1966, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Proletarian campaign, in which Revolutionaries known as the Red Guards ransack the homes of middle class people and intellectuals with the objective to form a classless society, Nien Cheng’s house is looted and ravished. The country boils in the frenzy to create a class in which each individual labors for the common good and enjoys the fruit of that labor, and where no one is above anyone else. It’s an attractive and idealistic picture, but Cheng’s story demonstrates that such a society is only a dream, a beautiful lie rather, because those who seize power would invariably become the ruling class that bends people’s will and control all the wealth.

Looking back on those years, I believe the main reason I was able to survive my ordeal was that the Maoist Revolutionaries failed to break my fighting spirit. (11: A Kind of Torture, p.329)

Nien’s background and affiliations make her the prime target of the fanatics of the Proletarian movement: educated in London, the widow of an official of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, a high-standing employee of Shell Oil. A month after her beautiful home is rooted, she is arrested and taken to a detention house in Shanghai, where she spends nearly seven harrowing years. Repeatedly at interrogation sessions a confession to crimes that she never committed is demanded of her. Not only the charges and accusations brought against her are groundless and fabricated, Cheng finds herself a victim of the internal power struggle between Party leaders, caught between two irreconcilable policies. For is she admits to being a spy for the British imperialists, the one branch of the Community Party that allowed foreign firms to operate in China shall be held responsible for treason and thus eradicated. All this is under the cunning of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, in her own capacity.

The Proletarian Cultural Revolution, ushered in with so much fanfare and promise for the Chinese masses, had not really changed their lives or given them new opportunities for development. The Chinese people continued to struggle against poverty, shortages, and lack of choice. The Cultural Revolution had merely created a new set of circumstances to which at least the young workers were adjusting with cynicism and audacity. (14: The Search for the Truth, p.409)

Cheng’s story is a testimony to human capacity of endurance and courage. In the face of persecution she stood firm with stubborn integrity and dignity. Her entire life is a lambaste against the caprice and hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party, the ugly drama of a power struggle between Mao and those who threaten his position. Not to discredit other memoirs on the same subject, but Cheng’s lucid narrative lends an amazing credence to the period and torture. Despite her 6 1/2 long years of imprisonment and torment, not only survived but endured and even prevailed, it’s a story that began more than 50 years ago but has special relevance today. That is partly because those who are in power of Communist China today still control people’s lives and enjoy material luxuries beyond reach of the common people. Cheng moved to the United States in 1980 and lived in Washington D.C. until her death in 2009. Until then, the Chinese Communist Party has yet to repudiate Mao’s policy in explicit terms.

547 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. Yes, this is an amazing book. I read about 5 years ago. Should be made into a movie! I think Ang Lee would do an excellent job.

  2. Amazing woman and amazing story.

  3. I read this book a decade or more ago, and I’ve always thought it should be on more lists of “Required Reading.” It’s glimpse into an era that is (mostly) no more, and the courage and dignity of the author are certainly lessons we could all still learn from today.

  4. […] Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng. (2/14-2/18/13) Cheng’s story is a testimony to human capacity of endurance and courage. In the face of persecution she stood firm with stubborn integrity and dignity. Her entire life is a lambaste against the caprice and hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party, the ugly drama of a power struggle between Mao and those who threaten his position. […]

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