Cheng was born into a patrician family in Beijing in 1915. She doesn't talk at length about her parents and her grandparents, but it is abundantly clear that they came from a blue-blooded lineage of wealth and influence. She experienced a long list of things that hardly any other Chinese person of her generation did. She studied at the London School of Economics for a couple years in 1935. She spent lots of time abroad traveling in Europe, Australia, and the United States. And she hobnobbed in English with foreign intellectuals and dignitaries in China from around the world.
As one might guess, this background did her no favors once Mao and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. She and her husband, a member of the Kuomintang government and then an executive at Shell Oil, debated whether to leave China with their daughter at that time. The ultimately decided to stay in China. Cheng regretted that choice later in her life.
All of this is background to the beginning of the cultural revolution in 1966, which is when Cheng begins her story. The following passage is the first page and a half of her book:
Life and Death in Shanghai is written in three sections: "The Wind of Revolution," "The Detention House," and "My Struggle for Justice." Those three section titles can give an idea to what the book is about and how it progresses.
"The Wind of Revolution" captures the moments before, and the first days and weeks of, the denunciations, campaigns, and persecution that marked the beginning of the cultural revolution. Life wasn't exactly normal in the early parts of 1966; China had already suffered through the great leap forward a few years earlier and was completely isolated from the world community. But there was at least the semblance of normality on a day-to-day basis. Cheng describes the final days in her house, her art work and literature collection, her servants, her relationship with her daughter, and the other things in her life that were soon to be destroyed.
Cheng is eventually targeted in the political campaigns herself. Her house is ransacked. Red guards went out of their way to destroy many of the centuries-old cultural relics that Cheng, an art collector, had accumulated. She is denounced as a "capitalist roader," or someone who is against Mao and the party's policies. She is removed from her house and put into a political prison.
"The Detention House" is about Cheng's years-long detainment in solitary confinement. She had been singled out by higher ups in the party and they wanted her to confess to a laundry list of crimes that she had not committed. This section is about her long, brutal struggle standing up to constant bullying, manipulation, and torture.
"Struggle for Justice" is about her time once out of prison. I'm not going to go into much detail about this section since there are a lot of potential spoilers. But I will say that it holds up with the rest of the book.
Life and Death in Shanghai is a painful read. It's long, repetitive, and there are sections that are hard to get through. It's not Cheng's writing or story-telling that is the problem, though. It's what she's going through. Day after day of arguing with illogical prison guards is insane and Cheng's writing captures that. One particularly section where she is handcuffed for eleven days straight without reprieve is simply excruciating to digest.
Conceding that the book is hard at times, Life and Death in Shanghai captivated me. The book is 550 pages and I got though it in just a few days. It's very readable despite the distressing experiences described in it. Cheng is a wonderful writer (she wrote the book in English herself). Her writing shines light on the darkest corners of the cultural revolution.
I highly recommend Life and Death in Shanghai to someone wanting to understand China's violent recent past. I also recommend it so that you can see heroic bravery in the face of pure evil. Nien Cheng, who died in 2009 at the age of 94 while living in the United States, was a truly special soul.