Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

4 thoughts on “Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

  1. I was so impressed by this woman – resilient, intelligent, courageous…an incredible story. I had to laugh a few times when she turned the tables on her interrogators and their circular questioning. Good to read such a great review about it. I found your blog via the Book’d Out nonfiction link up.

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    • Greetings!

      Sorry for not responding sooner! It looks like your comment got stuck in my spam filter. Thanks for the kind words! I agree, it’s an amazing story about a remarkable woman. Glad you find me via the Book’d Out link up. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Hi. I too found your link thru Book’d Out’s nonfiction challenge. And I read this book years ago (the year I started my blog) … and found it very powerful and this woman amazing. She was such a hero to me that I wrote to her (when she was still alive) and she invited me to Tea at her condo … we were both living in DC at the time. She spoke to me for 4 hours and it was the most incredible thing. So glad you read her book! I have written about my tea with her here: https://www.thecuecard.com/books/a-book-review-tea-with-nien-cheng/

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