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Surviving the Hurricane

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 spent six and a half years in solitary confinement, and during this time her daughter was murdered.

Many of Nien Cheng’s experiences were shared by thousands of Chinese intellectuals, but her clarity about important issues, her success in maintaining her dignity, and her determination, after her ordeal, to obtain justice for herself and her daughter make her memoir uniquely powerful and moving. Most remarkable was her ability to hold on to values utterly alien to those of the Maoist world—her sense of such concepts as law and justice, and her humanitarian, Christian ethics remained unshaken despite enforced solitude, brutal interrogations, torture, and painful illness.

In the Shanghai of the early Cultural Revolution, as Nien Cheng describes it, streets were lined with shops that had all been renamed “The East Is Red.” Only propaganda posters were in the windows, producing an uncanny effect of being watched by hundreds of faces of Mao. While the revolutionaries argued whether red should mean “go” rather than “stop,” the city was left virtually without street lights. Roving bands of youths with scissors cut off Western-style hair and trouser legs (a scene that was replayed, on a smaller scale, as recently as the 1983 campaign against spiritual pollution).

When a group of Red Guards came to Nien Cheng’s house, they seemed wholly ignorant of the value, both monetary and cultural, of the antiques they destroyed as symbols of superstition and feudalism, disturbing testimony to how far China’s young people were cut off from their own traditions. “One young man had arranged a set of four Kangxi winecups in a row on the floor and was stepping on them. I was just in time to hear the crunch of delicate porcelain under the sole of his shoe.” After one group of Red Guards was finished with their looting, another arrived, equally eager to help themselves to sweaters and watches, and other valuable items.

Surrounded by danger, Nien Cheng’s servants were loyal to her and her daughter and she to them. In what she writes about them, there is a tone of gentle reproach toward those unfortunate enough to have been taught to judge others only according to the Maoist categories of class. When she realized how serious her situation was, she went at considerable risk to her bank so that she could give her servants money before they would be forced to leave. While she lived under house arrest, those who remained spoke loudly to her guards so that she could overhear information about new political developments and about her daughter’s increasingly difficult situation at the film studio. One weeping servant wanted to give Nien Cheng a sweater as a farewell present, but “the Red Guards scolded her for lack of class consciousness…. ‘Don’t you realize she is your class enemy? Why should you care whether she has enough clothes or not?’ ”

A slogan of the Cultural Revolution directed people to classify children according to their parents’ status: “A dragon is born of a dragon, a phoenix is born of a phoenix, and a mouse is born with the ability to make a hole in the wall.” Meiping was locked up at the film studio. With characteristically understated irony, Nien Cheng writes, “Though I thought it rather astonishing in a country pledged to materialistic Marxism that a slogan should be based entirely on the importance of genetics, I had no time or heart to dwell on it.”

Nien Cheng’s account shows with exceptional clarity how the highest Chinese leaders were using the masses in their own internecine struggles. The scraps of Red Guard newspapers she picked up while under house arrest revealed that a bitter conflict was going on between Maoists and Shanghai municipal government leaders, and that city leaders were organizing their own Red Guards to try to regain control:

To succeed, each group had to be more red, more revolutionary, more cruel, and more left in their slogans and action. Thus, not only was it at times extremely difficult to identify a particular group until the bloody civil wars broke out, but also the so-called capitalist class and the intellectuals were confronted by two contesting groups that competed in dealing the heaviest blow to demonstrate their authenticity.

We see here more clearly than in most accounts by the Red Guards themselves how people who had been close friends and classmates could end up, to their own bafflement, in factional war on opposing sides.

Nien Cheng writes that when she first came under criticism she decided that, whatever happened, she would not give in to pressure to say she was an imperialist spy. Many of her colleagues “confessed” in the hope of avoiding further trouble, or because they became confused under severe questioning. She reasoned that if she did so she would end up in a faraway labor camp, where “many innocent men and women were serving harsh sentences simply because they had made false confessions of guilt.” Her stubbornness and her high status landed her in the No. 1 Detention House, a political prison well known for the dissidents who had earlier been sent there, including Catholic bishops and Kuomintang officials, industrialists, writers, and artists.

For Nien Cheng, the filth of her prison cell was especially difficult to endure. With extraordinary determination to preserve her dignity, she tried to improve the appearance of the cell by pasting toilet paper on the walls with rice. Years later, when she was tightly manacled as a special form of torture and shut into a windowless room in which there was barely space to turn around, she avoided touching the filthy walls for fear of contamination; when she was taken to a hospital, near death from repeated menstrual hemorrhages and bleeding gums, her hands swollen and bleeding from the manacles, she refused to use a stretcher because she feared it might be unclean.

Nien Cheng describes how at first she longed to be questioned, believing that her case would thereby be clarified. But her jailers used the topsy-turvy logic of the Mao era: when she tried to assert her innocence, they responded that she would not be in prison if she were not guilty. (A friendly Hunan policeman asked me just last year, in genuine puzzlement about the American justice system, “If you can’t beat them, how do you get them to confess?”) After she realized that appeals to any sense of justice or law were futile, she became fluent in quoting from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in order to arm herself with Communist logic. She often welcomed the opportunity to debate her interrogators, in part because even this human contact was better than none at all. She even picked arguments with the guards in order to stimulate her fighting spirit, finding herself in better humor despite the bruises and scars from being kicked by their heavy leather boots: “Whenever deep depression overwhelmed me to the extent that I could no longer sleep or swallow food, I would intentionally seek an encounter with the guards.”

To sustain herself, she spent many hours with the works of Mao open on her lap, pretending to read while she recited to herself Tang poetry from her childhood, prayed to her Christian god, and drew strength from the thought of seeing her daughter again. She believed that Meiping never provided her with packages of soap and towels as other prisoners’ relatives did because she had been forced to renounce her. She recalls how a spider in the cell became her companion, easing her sense of absolute isolation, keeping her spirits up as she watched it weaving a web. When it finally disappeared with the winter cold, “no trace was left of the life of the small spider at all…. Yet while it was there, it had worked and lived with such serious effort,…obeyed its natural instinct for survival. I should do the same.”

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