Book Summary: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Life and Death in Shanghai is a true, hauntingly human story based on one woman’s experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. The author, Nien Cheng, met her husband while attending school in England. They returned home to China in 1939.

When the Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang government and infiltrated the nation ten years later, Nien Cheng and her husband, a Kuomintang diplomat, chose to remain in China and support the new Communist regime. With the approval of the newly appointed government, Mr Cheng became general manager of Shell Oil International’s Shanghai office. 

After he died of cancer in 1957, his wife went to work for Shell, where she acted as staff manager and as a liaison between the Shell labor union and the company’s general manager. At that time Nien 

Cheng was the only woman in Shanghai occupying a senior position with a large foreign company. Then, in 1966, Shell closed its Shanghai office and turned over the company’s assets to a Chinese government agency, to provide Shell’s non-senior staff with continued employment and pensions.

That same year the Cultural Revolution was launched by Mao Ze Dong. Mao assembled the Red Guard and gave them the mandate to rid the country of the “Four Olds”: old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ways of thinking. It was left up to the Red Guards to define just what “old” might mean; and define they did, with a vengeance. Street names were changed to reflect the revolutionary movement. 

Shops catering to the rich were destroyed. Sofas, innerspring mattresses, cosmetics, and clothes that reflected anything remotely capitalistic were burned. Names of stores were changed, and Mao’s picture was hung in every store window. Mao’s Red Guards ruled the streets. 

They would stop passersby who were not dressed and groomed in “laborer-drab” and ridicule them for their “western” ways: “Why do you wear shoes with pointed toes? Why do you wear slacks with narrow legs?” The Guards, young and idealistic, were leading a cause that would eventually set the country on a backward course.

Inevitably, the shouts arose: Down with Tao Feng (Shell’s chief accountant in China)! Down with the running dog of the Imperialists, Tao Feng! … Down with the capitalist class! Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution! Long live our Great Leader Chairman Mao! “Reform” had taken the place of sanity.

Nien Cheng and her 24-year-old daughter, Meiping, an actress at the Shanghai film studio, found themselves in the middle of this fevered chaos. Nien was an obvious target of persecution because of her foreign and capitalist connections.

One day, the fanatical Red Guards invaded and ransacked Nien’s elegant Shanghai home. Shredding ancient Chinese paintings and smashing glass cabinets lined with antique porcelain pieces, inlaid ivory and jade figures, they shouted, “These things belong to the old culture. … Chairman Mao taught us, ‘If we don’t destroy, we cannot establish’. …” Then they accused Nien of being an enemy of the People’s Communist Government. The revolutionary “witch-hunt” had caught up with her.

Most “old” and foreign books were destroyed during these years by Mao’s callous peasant armies of henchmen. Instead, everyone was given for study a copy of Mao’s essays and sayings. During this Cultural Revolution, China closed its doors to the rest of the world and persecuted the educated and anyone who had dealt with foreigners. It was Mao’s philosophy that the professional and intellectual classes must be humbled. The favored treatment they had traditionally been accorded now dictated that they be forcibly “equalized.” 

Accordingly, learned, accomplished people were transported to remote provinces to labor in the fields. And because of Nien Cheng’s senior position with Shell, her foreign education, and her affluent life-style, she, with others like her, was forced to spend long hours facing hostile accusations at the “struggle meetings” held to condemn the enemies of Communism.

“Are you going to confess?” asked Nien’s interrogators.

“I have never done anything against the Chinese people and government,” she rejoined. “The Shell office was here because the Chinese government wanted it to be here. The order to allow Shell to maintain its Shanghai office was issued by the State Council and signed by no less a person than Premier Zhou Enlai. Shell is full of goodwill for China and the Chinese people and always observed the laws and regulations scrupulously. It is not Shell’s policy to meddle in politics. … ”

“… Even though I spoke in a loud voice, no one in the room could hear a complete sentence, for everything I said was drowned by angry shouts and screams of ‘Confess! Confess!’”

Nien Cheng was thrown into prison because she would not falsely admit to being a “spy of the imperialists.” During the Cultural Revolution, jailed inmates were coerced to denounce their relatives and break relations with them. Neighbors, friends and family members were pressured into giving false statements just so they themselves would not be imprisoned. At one time, even Nien’s brother passed on lies about her to protect himself.

Still, Nien Cheng determined to tell the truth, notwithstanding the fact that a false confession could lighten her sentence. For six and a half years she endured solitary confinement. “I’ve never committed a crime in my whole life,” she protested.

“If you have not committed a crime, why are you locked up in prison? Your being here proves you have committed a crime,” was the appalling logic used against her.

As testament to her strong will and character, Nien survived. While in prison she was supplied only with Mao’s books and Communist newspaper propaganda (“Footpath News”) to read. But from the attitudes of the guards and from what she read between the lines, she gathered that political turmoil was growing within the party. (In fact, a struggle was building between senior party officials: Mao, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, all part of the Gang of Four seeking to gain power when Mao died.)

Nien Cheng’s treatment during her imprisonment was modified by this left-to-right swing of the political pendulum. The authorities tried one sort of abuse and interrogation tactic after another to force a confession, but nothing could bend her. Kept in a tiny, cold, damp cell, she suffered bouts of pneumonia. Equally weakening and disheartening were the lack of nutritious food, fresh air and sunshine. But the “prospect of losing my ability to think clearly frightened me more than the fact that my hair was falling out by the handful, my gums bled, and I had lost a great deal of weight. The psychological effect of total isolation was also taking its toll. Often my mood was one of despair. …”

Nien devised a regimen of discreet exercises to sustain her physical health. She could not afford to allow the guards to see her moving around with a purpose. For mental exercise, she turned to the dynasty poetry she had memorized as a girl – and learned Mao’s essays by rote. Forced to stand for hours, day after day reading Mao’s works aloud, Nien’s legs wobbled and her dry throat reduced her voice to a hoarse whisper:

“Speak clearly! Are you going to surrender?” the well-dressed man asked. I made a great effort. With all my strength I managed to say, “Not guilty!” “You will surely be shot!” He left the room …

Unable to break Nien’s will, in 1973 the authorities finally released her. “It’s high time, isn’t it? 

Six and a half years is a long time to lock up an innocent person,” she scolded. Her spirit was still unbroken.

After obtaining a job as a teacher, Nien Cheng’s next seven years were nearly as demanding as her years in prison. She learned that her daughter had died of mysterious causes in the interim. Corruption was everywhere, especially among government officials. China had become increasingly backward.

Nien was constantly shadowed by government agents. She became increasingly concerned that her maid, close friends, and even some of her students were government informants. Caution was her watchword for everything she said and did.

Over time, Nien conceded that she would have to leave her homeland. However, her exit, she deduced, must be timed to coincide with changes in political climate. The time was not right, until Den Xioaping was put back in power and his open-door policies were reinstated. In 1980, Nien Cheng sadly fled China and eventually moved to Washington DC, where she wrote Life and Death in Shanghai. “God knows how hard I tried to remain true to my country,” she concluded in anguished understatement. “But I failed utterly through no fault of my own.”

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