“Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng

Nien Cheng worked for Shell Oil and so was branded a pro-foreign “capitalist roader” during the chaotic Cultural Revolution.  In 1967 her house and possessions were trashed and she was soon thrown into prison, accused of being a spy.  She was in more-or-less solitary confinement for six and a half years.  Poor nutrition caused her to lose all her teeth.  At one point her hands were immobilized behind her back in handcuffs for several days, causing permanent nerve damage.  Her daughter was also persecuted and murdered.  Throughout all of this, the authorities tried to get Cheng to confess her crimes.  She steadfastly and courageously protested her innocence.  In the end, however, it was not a matter of justice that freed her but rather a shifting in the political winds.  What was once good was now bad, and what was bad was now good….

More than anything, this book helped me feel the frustration and appalling madness of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s communism.  Mao’s China, land of official lies and neighborhood spies.  It seems like China has gotten a bit better since that time … but you never know.  Rampant censorship and imprisonment of many pro-democracy activists (including the recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient) make me wonder.  What would Nien Cheng think of today’s China?

p. 30 – “The Communist officials always rewarded a person for his usefulness to them, not for his virtue, though they talked a lot about his virtue.”

p. 55 – “When the penalty for speaking one’s mind is so great, nobody knows what anybody else thinks.”

p. 90 – About the communist overthrow of the upper class – “…such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class.”

p. 407 – “You were locked up because you don’t understand China.”  Back door system, going along with the Party line

Speeches – always a virtual repetition of what higher-ups have said.  “To speak at the study group was an art.  Obviously one could not afford to be original, and there were only a limited number of ways of saying the same thing over and over again.  We generally chose to be boring rather than different.”

p. 489 – “I realized I would be granted rehabilitation simply because the policy of the Party had changed.  It had nothing to do with redressing justice.”

EDIT: I found a speech Nien Cheng gave in 1998.

On the Red Guards: “(Mao) turned to the high school kids, because those high school kids grew up since 1949 or they were very little when the Communists took over. They were brought up under Mao. They were brainwashed because they all had to go to Government schools. There was no other school to go to, and they were brainwashed. They were taught that Mao Zedong was their God, and they were taught songs like, “My mother is dear. My father is dear, but General Mao is the dearest of all.” Think of it. Little kids. And when they were given a cookie in the day-care center or kindergarten, they had to hold it up and say “Thanks to General Mao” in front of his photograph. They were brought up that way. So he thought these kids would be reliable to carry-out what he wanted to be done. And also, you must remember China was isolated. China’s door was closed. These children had no knowledge of the outside world except what was told them.”

On the future of China: “So at least the Chinese is 50 percent free, economically, they can now have a dream and work towards their dream. But politically, they’re still enslaved by the Communist Government….I will not be around, but one day, China will become a democracy. You young people will remember that Nien Cheng said so.”


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