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.”

The long interrogations were mostly about foreign friends who were accused of being spies. Trying to pick up clues about why she had been imprisoned, Nien Cheng realized that she was essentially being used so that her interrogators could establish their bona fides; she was a pawn in the struggle between the conflicting party policies of radicals like Mao Zedong and “moderates” like Liu Shaoqi. Gradually she understood that the target of her ultraleftist interrogators was Premier Zhou Enlai, who was associated with policies permitting companies like Shell to operate in China: they hoped to use her testimony to prove that such firms provided a haven for the intelligence activities of foreign agents. The knot became yet more tangled when the Shanghai municipal government was overthrown by radicals in 1967, and factional struggle reached the prison itself. As the guards split into groups associated with either the followers of Liu or the ultraleft “Gang of Four,” some of her former questioners offered her hot water from their own thermoses to calm her coughing during the night. Liu Shaoqi’s downfall was a direct threat to them. “When a Communist leader fell from grace, all those who had ever worked with him were disgraced, no matter how remote the connection.”

Nien Cheng’s account of factional struggle in the prison suggests how the lack of a legal tradition leads Chinese to seek protection in groups based on “relationship nets” formed around certain leaders. The policies of the Party reflect the relative strength of various factions, which must turn to their grass-roots supporters in order to resolve conflicts, thereby encouraging social upheavals. The turbulent process by which factional struggle is translated into mass movements has given the Chinese good reason to fear the recurrence of campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution.

Early in 1968 the No. 1 Detention House came under the military control of Marshal Lin Biao’s extremist exponents of the Mao cult. Food got worse and dozens of prisoners were taken out to be executed. Nien Cheng herself was almost shot, but guards became distracted by a girl who had bashed her head against a cement toilet and they forgot about her. Although Nien Cheng had developed severe pneumonia, and had hemorrhages because of menopause, she was diagnosed as having hepatitis by a soldier carrying out Mao’s order to “learn to be a doctor by being one.” Nien Cheng recalls that despite propaganda accounts of unskilled coolies performing surgery by mastering Mao’s quotations, when Mao himself fell ill, Western-trained specialists were rushed in from labor camps in the countryside.

The situation in prison, and in China generally, improved in 1971, when Lin Biao was exposed as a traitor who was conspiring to assassinate Mao. Nien Cheng guessed that he must be in trouble when the guards tore Lin’s preface out of her Little Red Book; since Lin was largely responsible for the personality cult, there was a respite from Mao worship. Another encouraging sign was Nixon’s visit in 1972 which Nien Cheng describes as a great coup for China: the US guaranteed that it would never recognize an independent Taiwan, while the price China paid was “no more than a display of elaborate hospitality.” The Chinese people were told that Mao was generously recognizing the US imperialists’ surrender and acknowledgment of past mistakes.

Nien Cheng begged repeatedly for clothes to replace the rags she was wearing. Finally she was given the very clothes and household items that the Red Guards had permitted Meiping to take from the house. Although one jacket seemed to have been slightly worn, the towels were unused, and the mug had a trace of tea leaves in it, a sign that Meiping had left suddenly and not returned. Nien Cheng had to admit to herself that her daughter must be dead.

Nien Cheng was released in March 1973. An interrogator summoned her and told her that she had been imprisoned because she had defended Liu Shaoqi and had revealed details about the grain-supply situation to foreigners. (In fact, her office once wrote a letter to the wife of a Shell employee telling her that it would be unnecessary to bring her own flour to China.) Since she had shown an improvement in her thinking and a repentant attitude, she was being released. Nien Cheng was outraged and refused at first to leave. She demanded an apology for wrongful arrest.

According to the standards of the day, Nien Cheng was treated fairly well after she was released, perhaps because certain leaders were still hoping to trick her into giving information that would incriminate Zhou Enlai. She was given a suite of rooms and a friendly servant—a spy, of course. Soon after, two officials from the Revolutionary Committee of her daughter’s film studio visited her to inform her of Meiping’s “suicide” in June of 1967. Nien Cheng asked why there was no investigation into her death. One man explained, “In any case, according to our Great Leader Chairman Mao, committing suicide is an attempt to resist reeducation and reform. It’s a crime against socialism.”

Nien Cheng tried to pursue justice for herself and the truth about her daughter’s death. Those around her did their best to obstruct her. She describes the twisted and bizarre relationships of her new life. A young man named Da De asked her if she would give him English lessons. In fact, he was an ambitious revolutionary assigned to her by Shanghai ultraleftists, and Nien Cheng was well aware that she had no choice but to accept his presence in her life. Despite their growing affection and unexpected dependence on each other, they never acknowledged the real nature of their relationship: both acquiesced in the fiction that he was an English student “waiting for work.” Da De became her best source of information about the political situation, her adviser, and her secret advocate. When Premier Zhou Enlai died in January 1976, making secret investigations of Nien Cheng’s “case” moot, they both were sorry that Da De no longer had an excuse to come to see her.

Virtually all of the people in Nien Cheng’s life were spies to one degree or another, including a succession of young visitors claiming to have been close to her daughter and the ever-inquisitive members of the local Residents’ Committee, who forced her to attend study meetings. Sessions like these required a delicate etiquette: “If one spoke first, one might say the wrong thing; if one spoke last, one might find that all the right remarks had been made already…there were only a limited number of ways of saying the same thing over and over again.” Nien Cheng’s oldest and most trusted friend begged her understanding for telling the authorities she was too sick to visit her; she did not wish to continue to be forced to make reports on her. Even the little boy downstairs knew more about the actual status of Da De than she did, and one day he let it slip that “Uncle” was a member of the militia.

After Mao died and the Gang of Four was “smashed,” officials at the film studio held a memorial for Meiping. They now acknowledged that Nien Cheng’s worst fears were true: her daughter had been beaten to death during interrogation, one of twenty-nine people who died at the studio. Ten thousand people were said to have died “unnaturally” in Shanghai alone, and the Longhua Crematorium was so busy that all auditoriums for funeral ceremonies were booked into 1980. Nien Cheng was formally rehabilitated in November of 1978, twelve years after her arrest, but such gestures seemed hollow to her: “I…realized that I would be granted rehabilitation simply because the policy of the Party had changed. It had nothing to do with redressing injustice…. In Communist China, there was no law independent of Party policy.”

This comment is a telling one for the position Chinese intellectuals find themselves in today: although they are treated favorably according to the current political line, they continue to be the objects of jealousy and suspicion on the part of conservatives. When the pendulum swings, as it is now threatening to do, and the opportunity arises for revenge, there is always a possibility that the faction in power will again go to extremes.

Under the new regime, Nien Cheng’s bank accounts were unfrozen and once again she was a rich woman. She gave large amounts of money to help rebuild day-care centers and primary schools. Since she had little choice in the matter, she also gave the Shanghai Museum the best of the small number of antiques that had been returned to her by the “Bureau for Sorting Looted Goods.” These acts of public generosity brought her various honors, such as an invitation to membership in the Political Consultative Conference, an organization whose function was “merely to add an affirmative voice to decisions already taken by the Party.”

Not long before she left China in 1980, Nien Cheng learned at last that her daughter had been murdered by a member of the ultraleftist clique that was trying to bring down Zhou Enlai. He had beaten Meiping to death while trying to force her to provide evidence against her mother. A week after Nien Cheng arrived in Hong Kong, she read a newspaper account of the public trial of this man, attended by the families of his five other victims. His trial had been delayed until after she left so that his powerful friends would not have to deal with her; she would have insisted that the death sentence, which was suspended, be carried out.

In Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng has captured many aspects of Chinese culture which contributed to the Cultural Revolution: the capitulation of intellectuals to policies with which they disagreed; the suppression of humanitarian values in favor of treatment according to class background; the ignorance of tradition on the part of young people educated under Mao; the overwhelming power of the centralized, Leninist state to reach into the corners of people’s lives. Nien Cheng has also provided an unusually clear picture of an ongoing conflict between two basically irreconcilable views of how to save China: the Maoist, egalitarian, xenophobic “line” emphasizing class struggle (a discredited view that has been showing renewed signs of life during the past few months), and the contrary policy, associated first with Liu Shaoqi and now with Deng Xiaoping, emphasizing economic growth and cooperation with the outside world.

Although the Party’s official position on the Cultural Revolution is that it was an unmitigated disaster, its leaders have not welcomed accounts such as Nien Cheng’s: the responsibility of Mao, on whose name the Party’s legitimacy still rests, is too great. In 1981, a campaign against “bourgeois liberalism” attacked a script for a film to be called “Bitter Love,” which recounted the hardships of a patriotic painter who returned to China from overseas and was persecuted to death. The most criticized line in the film was, “You love the motherland, but does the motherland love you?” As Nien Cheng left China for good, she reflected, in a similar vein, “God knows how hard I tried to remain true to my country. But I failed utterly through no fault of my own.” In this, she has summarized the tragic relation of many Chinese intellectuals to their country.

Educated Chinese appear condemned to an uneasy relationship with a state that their traditional feudal heritage teaches them they must support as constructive critics. Some intellectuals believe that the ingrained Confucian abhorrence of disharmony and acceptance of social hierarchy has provided an all-too-solid cultural base for Leninist dictatorship.

Despite Nien Cheng’s reservations about communism, in many respects she was a typical Chinese intellectual. She describes herself before the Cultural Revolution as a supporter of the new regime, willing to give the Communists the benefit of the doubt while they cured themselves of the tendency to go to extremes. She tended to avoid trouble, her instinct for self-preservation being more powerful than her desire to denounce injustice. “I had been opposed to some measures of the People’s Government, such as large-scale arrests of innocent people, declaring a man an enemy just because of his class origin, etc.,” she writes. “But I never talked about any of these things to anybody. And certainly I never tried to do anything about them.”

Although she confronted her own guilt honestly, including her guilt at bringing her daughter back to China from Australia, like many Chinese intellectuals she forgave most of those who victimized her. Of the Red Guards who destroyed the antique objects in her house she writes, “The propaganda they had absorbed precluded their having a free will of their own.” When, toward the end of her prison years, she was taken back to her old Shell offices to be denounced by her old colleagues, she grieved that the Maoists had succeeded in degrading them. Toward the man who “confessed” that Nien Cheng had employed him as a spy, she felt only sympathy for his desire to end his own torment. This generosity of spirit is admirable and moving; but it may also, one fears, reflect a dangerous fatalism; a traditional reluctance to attribute responsibility and demand accountability may well have helped to make fascistic mass movements possible in China.

Still, in her quiet way, Nien Cheng made a stubborn and memorable effort to fight back and to see that justice was done to her and her daughter. When she was at last released, the prison doctor told her, “In all the years of the detention house, we have never had a prisoner like you, so truculent and argumentative.” She comments, “I had not behaved like wise Chinese who ‘bend with the wind to survive the hurricane.’ ” When a Public Security Bureau cadre enraged Nien Cheng by trying to get her to make a ritual declaration of gratitude to the Party for the “special consideration” she received in the detention house, he may have been right in one respect. If this strong-willed, opinionated, and dignified woman had not been in the No. 1 Detention House, she might have suffered even more or lost her life. As Deng Xiaoping grows older and China moves closer to the struggle that appears inevitable following his death, the question facing intellectuals remains the same one Nien Cheng faced twenty years ago: Is there greater foolishness in resistance or in bending with the wind?

This Issue

July 16, 1987