Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nien Cheng

This book is an autobiography of Nien Cheng’s life and imprisonment during the 10-year Cultural Revolution in China. The widow of a Shell Oil executive, Cheng served as a consultant to Shell for many years after her husbands death in 1957. She was able to preserve her way of life, living in a three-story home, filled with antiques and art, with her daughter until 1966, when she was evicted from her home and accused of being a spy.

The Cultural Revolution was to set into motion by Mao Zedong, and was designed to further cement socialism in the country by removing capitalist elements from Chinese society. Red Guard groups were formed that raided homes and imprisoned people who were supposed to have capitalist ideas or were contradicting communism in some way.

Cheng’s home was raided, and was unjustly charged with being a spy at a neighborhood meeting. She was imprisoned for more than six years. The book details the years of torture and sickness because of her resolve to maintain her innocence. The interrogations she endured were a battle of wills in which she used silence and quotes from Zedong’s little red book. She later learned the captors purpose was to use her “confession” to take down another.

Upon release from prison, she was given a small upstairs apartment and was spied upon by the family who lived downstairs, as well as her own family members. She covertly learned that her daughter’s death was not suicide, but was murder at the hands of the Red Guard.

In 1980, she was able to get a visa to visit her sisters in California, and she never returned to live in China.

The well-written book is a testament to the power of human resolve. It also gives a lot of history about China before, during and after the Cultural Revolution from a personal stand point that is hard to ignore. The cruelty man sometimes inflicts on man is unbelievable.

The book also looks at the political climate from a general perspective, describing the thinking that really destroyed more than it built.

I enjoyed reading the combination of intelligent historical information and Cheng’s personal experiences through the late 1960s and 1970s, though man’s inhumanity to man was at times difficult to read.


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