Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nien Cheng; Grove Press, New York, @1986; 544 pages.

Life and Death in Shanghai
Life and Death in Shanghai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life and Death in Shanghai  is wonderful—outstanding. Over and over, it made me ask: how could this happen? and Could this happen again?

Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of the Cultural Revolution that took place in China under Chairman Mao. It opens on a summer evening in 1966 when the author, Nien Cheng, is summoned to attend a struggle meeting. A large crowd of her former coworkers has been assembled to struggle against one of her former colleagues from Shell. Since Shell was a foreign firm that had operations in China and because during the Cultural Revolution all things foreign were deemed against the state, anyone who had worked for such a company was automatically suspected of espionage, or so it seemed.

What in fact was going on was a struggle within the Communist Party in China, with people serving as pawns.

As the revolution progressed, everything that reminded the leadership of the old ways was under attack. Art was destroyed; books were destroyed;  possessions were confiscated; people who had any educational training were deemed enemies of the state; anyone who could be considered a capitalist was under attack.

Nein Cheng, soon after attending her first struggle meeting, was visited by the Red Guard. The Red Guard amounted to a gang of young people who went house to house and ransacked, pillaged, confiscated, and destroyed.

Not too long after this event, Nien herself was seized and taken to a prison for political prisoners. Armed only with the advice to never give a false confession, her intellect, and her will to survive, Nein endured 6 1/2 years in solitary confinement, subject to temperature extremes, medical emergencies, and torture.

As I read this book, I was stunned by the character of its author, Nien Cheng. Through all that she had to endure, she is the most self-assured personality I have ever encountered. She comes to conclusions about her surroundings and the people who populate her life without question, without any kind of self-reproach or self-doubt. I am amazed. I wish I could have known this woman. To have met her would have been an honor.

Even though English was Nien Cheng’s second language, this book is effortless to read. She has great skill for the craft of writing. I looked, and I don’t think that she wrote anything else. It’s a real pity.

I bought this book on a whim for $3. In it I learned more about courage and perseverance and honesty than I think I have in any other place. Even after she was released from prison, she remained under the watchful eye of the party. Nearly everyone who came in contact with her had an agenda and sought to trick her into saying something that could send her back to jail.

For all the trouble they went to, I found myself often wondering, why they didn’t just make up a lie? Why go to the trouble of baiting her to say something against the party and then becoming disgruntled because she didn’t?

Maybe I’m revealing my Western way of thinking here. But for a system that wasn’t above torture and trickery, why were certain lies off limits?

There is so much in this book. It is probably one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

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