Life and Death in Shanghai
by Nien Cheng
Grove Press, 547 pp., $19.95
At a time when the new freedoms of the post-Mao years are in jeopardy, many issues of intense concern to Chinese can freely be discussed only abroad. Of these, among the most important is the Cultural Revolution, about which Nien Cheng has written one of the best books yet to appear. Life and Death in Shanghai is a clearsighted and moving account by a cosmopolitan Shanghai woman now in her seventies who left China in 1980 and has since lived in Washington. It is a very different tale from those of former Red Guards, who were hardly more than children during the upheaval and were groping to find coherence in a world in which families and public institutions had been shattered.
Nien Cheng was born into a well-to-do family in Beijing in 1915. She studied at the London School of Economics, and married a Chinese diplomat, who was assigned during the Kuomintang period to Canberra, Australia. Her years abroad appear to have given her a sense of distance from events that few of her contemporaries share, and she can now write with a frankness that would be impossible had she stayed in Shanghai. Her book is remarkable for being written in graceful and evocative English without the aid of a collaborator or translator.
On the eve of revolution, like many other educated Chinese living abroad, Nien Cheng, her husband, and their small daughter Meiping returned to China to help build New China. Nien Cheng’s husband became general manager of the Shanghai office of Shell International Petroleum, the only Western oil company that maintained offices in China under the Communists. After her husband died in 1957, and until Shell left for Hong Kong in 1966, she was the company’s chief adviser on Chinese matters. When the Cultural Revolution broke out that year, Nien Cheng and her twenty-three-year-old daughter Meiping were among a dozen or so families that had managed to maintain their prerevolutionary way of life throughout the successive political upheavals of Mao’s regime. In Shanghai, she owned a large house filled with antiques and had five well-trained, trusted servants; she writes that she and her daughter continued “to enjoy good taste while the rest of the city was being taken over by proletarian realism.”
When Shell moved to Hong Kong, Nien Cheng stayed in Shanghai. Her daughter Meiping, a film actress, was working in North China, and she did not want to leave without her. When she began to receive visits from discourteous officials summoning her to criticism meetings at Shell, she feared that her visa application would be refused: that would have placed a black mark in her political dossier. So she delayed leaving, believing that the Cultural Revolution would last no longer than the many other campaigns she had managed to survive. Her miscalculation was disastrous. Soon the Red Guards came to search through her belongings; she was put under house arrest and then sent to the prison called the No. 1 Detention House. She …