on 31 August 2003
Never have I finished reading a book with tears in my eyes. Even though I have read quite a few of the flurry of autobiographies set in "20th century China. This one is set apart. Written by a remarkable, intelligent women whose spirit and insight into humanity will stay with me for ever. I have never thought or looked for personal inspiration from one person, after reading this book one cannot help but be inspired.
Set apart from other biographies of the same ilk, in that this is one persons story,(not family) articulating a remarkable understanding of such a complex countries politics all while suffering the inhumanity of (wronged) imprisonment. Never have I read a book and wanted to know more about the author. Just to know if she found peace of mind (or some semblance of it)
on 25 July 2001
Yes, Nien Cheng suffered and was courageous - all the reviewers will tell you that. But this book is distinguished by also being intellectually stimulating. She was a business woman working for a foreign company in China before commercial enterprise was really accepted in China and she was a careful observer of modern Chinese history. She kept sane in prison through a simple method of constant intellectual self challenge. The content of this process alone makes the book a must read. It shows how, under huge pressure, she continually analysed what was going on; constantly reinterpreting history, small behavioral signs, snippets of information; taking advantage of the slight shifts in perspective afforded her. That she shares this process and her conclusions with you in such detail and with cooly argued logic, makes this book a treasure. That, in this tragedy, there is also so much humour in the mental repartee is a bonus.
on 15 August 2001
An amazing novel to read, it expresses all emotions a human being can over imagine to go through and more.
I really did feel for Nein Cheng, it's impossible not to. She is an amazing woman and an inspiration to us all the torture she suffered is unimaginable yet described so well.
The strength and courage she had, still has, is a lesson to us all. I am just thankful she lived to tell the tale.
on 1 March 2009
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng.
Over the last month or so I've given crime fiction a bit of a break and have been reading quite a lot about China, both fiction and non-fiction. The above is a factual memoir concerning a middle class woman caught up in China under Mao Tse Tung, the Leader of the People's Republic of China and Chairman of the Communist Party of China, and the impact the Cultural Revolution had on its people.
It's significant that the author is, to my mind, not always an entirely sympathetic individual. For example during the upheaval in China, when it was apparent that all aspects of Chinese society were going through fundamental social changes, she clings tenaciously to her middle class status and continues to live, in comparative terms, an affluent lifestyle. During these volatile times she retains a number of servants - an inflammatory action certain to ignite the ire of the authorities. This, coupled with her former work for a multi national English company - Shell - ensured that she was soon under the scrutiny of the unblinking and penetrating gaze of the Communist authorities. What is tiresome is the author's refusal to adapt to her changing circumstances and her insistence that each member of her family, including herself, has the temperance of a saint, the intellectual capacity of a genius and the humility of a Buddhist monk. This is a pity because it does, to an extent, detract from the sympathy we feel for Nien Cheng and the suffering she experiences at the hands of the oppressive regime under Chairman Mao. As a social document, however, this memoir is fascinating.
The memoir begins around 1966 and Niem is a reluctant witness to the Cultural Revolution and the resultant confusion and attendant terror. A struggle for power in the higher echelons of Chinese government is taking place, with Mao Tse Tung obviously in the ascendancy. A brilliant strategist, he manipulates disparate student groups and peasant workers sympathetic to Communist ideology. Indeed during this period of instability and before the blood red socialist idealism had began to fade, it seemed that ever more extreme factions appeared overnight like bamboo after a spring rain. Each cadre spouting mindless devotion to varying interpretations of Marxism and espousing virulent class hatred. Mao, for his part, adopts and favours The Red Guards - a particularly brutal and idealist caucus in order to consolidate his own position of power.
Niem Cheng is initially targeted as a class traitor and is forced to attend self-criticism classes as a result of a particularly savage pogrom. She is made to stand alone on a platform as minor communist party functionaries subject her to increasingly ludicrous accusations of spying for the West. Eventually she is arrested and thrown into a freezing prison cell and tortured in a fruitless effort to force her to confess to crimes of which she is innocent. She remains here for six years. She never confesses and retains her dignity and self worth by the sheer force of her intellect, fearsome personality and intransigence.
Meanwhile the changes outside Cheng's prison cell continue to flow as deep and wide and as the Yangtze River. Indeed the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China under the by now immovable Mao was as far-reaching and sufficiently radical to satisfy the most extreme autocrat. All those Chinese who had once ran their own businesses prior to the Revolution were branded as capitalists, ostracised by their communities, beaten up and frequently imprisoned, as were their extended families. Because of the disastrous isolationist policies propagated by Mao, fuel supplies became low until they only warmth felt was that which was generated by the ubiquitous bonfires burning "decadent" western influenced books. In an inherently flawed attempt to create a utopian, classless society, intellectuals were victimised and given the most demeaning jobs; hospital surgeons became porters overnight; rural peasants - those with unblemished working class credentials - found themselves replacing those with professional academic degrees; University professors were forced to clean the toilets of the colleges in which they had formerly taught. Those less fortunate faced execution squads. Equally sinisterly a new ethos of snooping was established and became for the ambitious a well chosen, potentially lucrative and prestigious career path: by now the supposedly egalitarian Chinese were encouraged to betray those failing to demonstrate sufficient revolutionary awareness or obsequious allegiance to Chairman Mao. To be identified as a class traitor could mean facing a firing squad or lifetime imprisonment. Whole neighbourhoods en mass became sullen and uncommunicative; an imprudent or casual Chinese Whisper could quite conceivably result in tortured screams in a blood spattered freezing prison cell. Villages unable to meet the ever rising agricultural quotas were accused of betraying their comrades or charged with deliberately undermining the Socialist aims of the Chinese people. Whole communities starved to death as a result of this unswerving policy. Meanwhile, chairman Mao Tse Tung and his chosen sycophants, holed up in mansions, lived the affluent and luxuriant lives of, well, Chinese Emperors.
In order to discourage individuality or independent thought, the population, both male and female, were issued with industrial identikit cheap woollen Mao suits. The Red Guards, encouraged by Mao, committed cultural vandalism on a scale not seen in history, either in the West or the East. Centuries old Buddhist temples were razed to the ground and beautiful ancient artefacts and paintings deliberately smashed and destroyed and derided as the results of:
"The enduring exploitation of the working class by the capitalist oppressors."
Upon her release Nien Cheng discovers that her ordeal is far from over and that her uncompromising stance has partially contributed to a brutal act perpetrated on a member of her family. With her characteristic tenacity and bamboo like inflexibility she sets out to discover the truth, which is shocking and powerful. Life and Death in Shanghai, despite the somewhat clumsy title, gives added poignancy to the Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times."
Fascinating memoir that reminds us just how fortunate we are to live in a liberal democracy.
When this book was chosen as our latest book club text, initially I felt really unsure about it. I'm not a big reader of biographies, and somehow the cover made it look dry and uninteresting, so I placed it on the pile of books 'to be read - sometime' and overlooked it. What a huge mistake I nearly made! Without a doubt, this is a MUST READ type of book.
When I eventually opened it this Half term, I found myself totally engrossed - enthralled by the horrors and longing for some evidence of justice within its pages. Although I already knew something of the horrors of the Cultural revolution from previous reading and from my own, recent visit to China - where we had been lucky enough to have had a local guide who was a Social Historian and who wasn't afraid to tell us about his life; this was still something of an eye-opener, focussing as it does on the experience of one, normal, upper middle-class person.
As I read on, I found myself asking...
... how could one man have such a cult following that it took over such a huge nation so totally - particularly so soon after the rest of the world was still reeling at the horrors of the 2nd World War?
... what made them think that he was right? Some of his ideas were so ridiculous, but millions of people jumped at his every word as his "awesome power (spread) like a banket over China, threatening to smother whomsoever he chose." (p.199) And even now, many years after his death, this blanket is still evident.
... how could cultural anihilation to this extent be called a Cultural revolution? And how come so many wonderful treasures survived? How many must have been lost?
But more than anything else, I found myself asking ...
... how could one woman suffer so much pain (both mental and physical) and so much injustice - and yet still survive?
...where did she find her strength?
Our book club discussions have never been so deep or so involved. Every one of us had been caught up by this one woman's story. Her amazing strength of will and courage is an example to us all. I feel priveleged to have read her autobiography. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nien Cheng.
on 11 July 2003
I read this book during my travels in China and not only did it help me to understand a lot about the present day mentality there but also how much these people have suffered. Myself and the 2 others who read it couldnt put the book down, it was both fascinating and appalling. It is not difficult to read but it really stirs emotions. I'll be reading this book again, thats for sure.