How has Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai helped us to understand China during the Culture Revolution?
Nien Cheng's memoir of life in her native China during the tumultuous period of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution has a great deal to teach about that period of time in China. The "death" in the title Life and Death in Shanghai does not, obviously, refer to the author, as Cheng survived her ordeal. It does, however, refer to her daughter, who did not survive, a victim of Mao's brutal policies and the destruction the dictator inflicted on his own nation.
The Cultural Revolution was one of Mao's more spectacular and physically and emotionally devastating efforts at protecting his position atop the Communist Party while securing the "gains" of his revolution—a continuous process that would end only with his death. Cheng's memoir is a good, first-person narrative of the ordeals faced by those deemed to be enemies of the Revolution and the Party. The soul of Life and Death in Shanghai is Cheng's description of her relentless interrogation by Red Guards and other revolutionaries, a process intended to self-implicate those already judged guilty. During the manifestly unjust proceedings to which she was subjected, she recalls a young girl shouting at her in an effort at sparing the author a fate to which thousands had already been condemned: "Confess! Confess quickly! They are going to take you to prison!"
Cheng had nothing to confess, and refused to play the regime's game. The price she paid were years in solitary confinement, with beatings and subhuman conditions a daily reality. As a microcosm of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Cheng's memoir serves to illuminate the horrendous conditions under which millions existed for the benefit of one dictator. Life and Death in Shanghai teaches us a lot about what China was like during the Cultural Revolution, and it was all bad.