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Life and Death in Shanghai - Nien Cheng
Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Life and Death in Shanghai - Nien Cheng
Advantages: A 'real' person's auto-biography
Disadvantages: Quite dark
Over the years I have read many autobiographies written by Chinese women about their lives prior to, during and since communism and the Cultural Revolution. For the most part they have been interesting, moving and informative with the odd exception. Having felt I had overdosed on the genre I left them alone for a while until I spotted this book languishing on my step-dad's bookshelf. He couldn't remember if it was any good or not, so I thought I'd find out for myself.
Nien was relatively fortunate in her early years having studied and lived abroad. Her late husband had been a senior director for Shell in their Shanghai office and initially the communist government had been pleased to keep the company and the income it generated. After her husband's death Nien also took a senior position with Shell, which subsequently relocated to Hong Kong, while Nien stayed behind. The book begins with Nien enjoying a comfortable and privileged life with a cook and servants and regularly having friends over to dine. She seems keen for us to know about all she had, such as her valuable antiques and collectors' pieces. Her constant reference to serving tea English style and European food made it seem that she thought she was somehow better than her fellow Chinese.
Once the Red Guards come to her house you feel sorry for her, as anyone familiar with that part of Chinese history will be aware, there was a dreadful culture of hysteria, and bullying that was legitimised under the guise of the Cultural Revolution. If you were unfortunate enough to have been educated to university standards, had a little bit of money or have a job that could label you an intellectual or a capitalist then you faced persecution. Eventually she was taken to a detention centre where she was kept in solitary confinement for months before questioning and constant requests to confess to her supposed crimes against the Communist Party, which believed she had spied for the British whilst at Shell. Cheng endured some harsh conditions and ill health but nothing was ever resolved, despite several rounds of interrogations and attempts to force her to confess. She was quite fortunate to have not been executed like some of prisoners who had refused to confess, even though former colleagues and even her brother said she was a spy (under duress, it is assumed).
Eventually she is released to discover that her daughter has allegedly committed suicide, although a cover up is suspected and her journey does not end as she understandably wants to find out the truth, and her alleged capitalist spy past remains a constant stigma.
Her comfy life at the beginning of the book seems a bit bragging; but there is no doubt that she did suffer under the Red Guards and other revolutionary groups. Cheng does re-create the period with startling accuracy and with great detail. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about this period in China will realize how futile her position was and it is certainly admirable of her to fight back and protest her innocence for as long as she did.
Most Chinese women's autobiographies do not include prison and the struggle meetings that Cheng experienced and I would recommend it for people who are interested in China during the period and fans of non-celebrity autobiographies but be warned, as the book is not a light read. Cheng's writing style is easy to follow however, and she tries to remain positive for the most part. You do not get bogged down in the depths of despair even in the darkest times that she experienced in prison as the story flows well and keeps moving on.
Life and Death in Shanghai is not the best of its genre (see To the Edge of the Sky by Anhua Gao), nor is it the worst (see Red Azalea by Anchee Min), but it is certainly one of the darkest that I have read.
As far as I can tell, at the end of last year Mrs. Cheng was still alive and well and living a quite life in the USA. This is her only book and was first published in 1988 (the edition I read), and again in 1995, which is the edition found at most online shops.
Summary: Living in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution.