Life and Death in Shanghai

The daughter of a landowner in pre-Communist China, Nien Cheng was educated at Yenching University in Peking and at the London School of Economics. She married a Chinese man who took his doctorate at the London school and became a diplomat of the Kuomintang government. Accepting the Communist victory in 1949 as inevitable, they decided to remain in China, hoping to be able to assist the Communists to build a new and more viable China. That this view was overly optimistic is proven by Nien Cheng’s memoirs.

After the Communists had assumed power, Dr. Cheng became foreign adviser to Shanghai’s new mayor. Later, he became manager of the Shanghai office of the British firm of Shell International Petroleum. Upon his death in 1957, his widow assumed the position of adviser to management at Shell until the firm closed its office in 1966. Soon afterward the Cultural Revolution burst forth and her terrible ordeal began.

She was forced to attend “struggle meetings.” She was questioned about her role at Shell. After Red Guards looted her home and subjected her to indignities, she was ignominiously dragged off to prison, where she was incarcerated for seven years, suffering various hardships and illnesses. She was tortured to force her to confess to her “crimes.” Despite this treatment, she adamantly maintained her innocence. In 1973, she was released for “reasons of health” without the charges against her being dropped.

Her release brought little relief. She learned that her film-actress daughter had ben murdered by Red Guards, although the death was officially declared a suicide. Radical Maoists in Shanghai continued to harass her, yet she persisted in her efforts to seek justice. Not until after the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four did she succeed. In 1978, her daughter’s death was ruled the result of persecution and she herself was finally rehabilitated. In 1980, she was allowed to leave China for the United States.

If Nien Cheng’s story is not told with the literary finesse of Franz Kafka’s THE TRIAL, it is as absorbing, as stirring, and as absurd; if it is not as mysterious, it is more horrible. Her pluck and courage cannot but be admired. Surely she is a most extraordinary woman.