Life and Death in Shanghai

by Nien Cheng

Hardcover, 1986




Grove Pr (1986), Edition: 1st, 547 pages


The author tells of her solitary confinement and torture as a wealthy Chinese woman during the Cultural Revolution.


(230 ratings; 4.2)

User reviews

LibraryThing member techszewski
I thought the late 60s in the US were a time of radical change, but they're nothing compared to how Mao's Red Guards turned China upside down. I live in Shanghai where this memoir took place. Surprisinly, there's very little local history preserved. No walking tours, nothing much in the Shanghai
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Museum. While reading I wanted to run out and find her former house and the prison where she spent six years. No luck yet finding them. The author does a great job of blending her personal narrative with enough background history lessons that when you're done reading her story you come away with a much deeper understanding of why and how thousands of Chinese were persected. But for me, I have more questions about Communism than ever before. What Mao preached as class struggle and a new revolution was just the usual dictatorship diatribe. Maybe after reading up on it and comparing the Chinese revolution with the Cuban revolution I'll understand Communism better.Read this book.
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LibraryThing member michaelskelley
An amazing story of the power of the human spirit to survive adversity. While the story of a woman in solitary confinement during the height of China's cultural revolution may seem to be a story that would depressing and difficult to read, this woman's story is infused a tremendous amount of
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humanity and courage and steadfast belief in right and the ultimate triumph of right -- so much so that the book is continually uplifting and inspiring. Here is a woman to be considered a true hero.
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LibraryThing member Naberius
Having read this a second time recently for a book group, I was struck again by how graceful Cheng's writing is. For someone who has endured what most would call a slice of hell, she has a grace and strength present from start to finish. It is a wonder that she is able to recall the smallest
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details that she writes about, but with the time of her hands spent in isolation, it's no small wonder that she had time to hone her storytelling. A beautifully written book.
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LibraryThing member LamSon
Nien Cheng ended up in prison during the Cultural Revolution. Given nothing to read but the Little Red Book. She would use statements from the book to baffle and confuse her Red Guard interrogators. She would use the book to contradict her interrogators who could not argue with statements by
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Chairman Mao. A good compliment to [Wild Swans].
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LibraryThing member deebee1
a memoir of the author's life during the Cultural Revolution when she was incarcerated for 6 years for the "crime" of belonging to the so-called elite and capitalist class. this is one of those "unputdownable" books i've read lately. one can't help admire the strength and poise with which this
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remarkable woman endured all that. written in unsentimental prose, and for all the tragedy that she had to go through (losing her daughter to the Red Guards among others), she manages to be somewhat detached from events - a fact which allows her to observe the events around her with as much objectivity as she could. thus she is able to provide the reader a context and analysis that is more logical in its approach rather than sentimental. i felt, however, that she adopts an almost condescending tone, both with the people she dealt with, and somewhat in the tone of her storytelling, as if she believed she was better than most and above all "these toiling masses." the book gives a very good insight too of the turmoil in China during this period.
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LibraryThing member mahallett
hard to read because her time in jail was so demoralizing. inspiring because her old age was so traumatic- death of her only child, emigration. very good story of china at that time.
LibraryThing member csmirl
What a fantastic book of true stories! This book is a summary of NPR's National Story Project, which brought together books from all over the nation. Something to read from every part of life's full range of emotion and drama!Available at Teton County Library on CDBook, call number CD Book 973.921 I
LibraryThing member patrickgarson
Life and Death in Shanghai is a very interesting memoir, capturing a critical time in China's history. Cheng's intimate participation in the Cultural Revolution comes with its own limitations, of course, but also gives a unique perspective.

It's 1966, and the Cultural Revolution is intensifying
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across China. The wealthy widow of a Kuomintang official, former worker for Shell Oil in Shanghai and frequent overseas traveler, Nien Cheng stands out for all the wrong reasons, and it isn't long until the Red Guards are knocking at her door.

What follows is an incredible story of deprivation and injustice - all the more incredible for being so common at the time. Cheng shares with us her incarceration, and much else, over the many years of Cultural Revolution.

As a Westerner looking back some forty-odd years into the past, I can't help but marvel at the collective insanity of the Revolution. Cheng captures its meaningless banality, empty slogans and hopeless denunciations, but also how the Revolution, and communism in general warped the mindset of Chinese at the time.

Her retrospective analysis, and the crude Sinology she is forced to engage in - a stumbling attempt to ascertain what is going on in the CCP at the time - mirrors what so many were doing.

There's nothing especially clever about Life and Death in Shanghai - it's not that kind of book. Rather it is a no-holds-barred testament. A powerful, strident voice shouting out the truth.

And yet, Cheng's decades of having to guard her thoughts is not so easily shaken it seems. Fiercely anti-Communist, there is nonetheless a feeling of careful construction to the memoir. She recalls so much, so perfectly, and her thoughts are always so... right. As a character she is faultless.

But I was left with a feeling that part of Cheng's survival came at the expensive of a certain type of self-reflection or even self-knowledge. This manifests most obviously in her (seeming) complete unawareness of either her incipient danger, or - for a woman with tens of thousands of dollars in domestic and overseas bank accounts; three servants; a house to herself filled with precious art and ceramic - curious inability to see herself as the Party (rightly, in this one case) saw her: a bourgeois member of the elite.

In some ways, this second layer - not Cheng as rebel, but Cheng as Chinese, and Cheng as representative of former elite - deepens the book considerably, adding a far more allusive and ambiguous set of questions the reader can ask. The answers, of course, are not supplied - at least not on the surface - but I wouldn't be surprised if the book ignites a hunger for more 20th Century Chinese history in anyone who reads it. Just this one voice is so compelling, and there are millions more.
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LibraryThing member BondLamberty
Compelling story of the violence and cruelty of the Cultural Revolution
LibraryThing member Tony2704
A great read, well written. Solitary confinement for over 6 years for being accused of being a spy. Poor woman. Would read again
LibraryThing member Zumbanista
Life and Death in Shanghai is Nien Cheng's memoir of her harrowing and tragic life under Communist rule in China. It's a long book that might have been shortened up by a third to improve focus and readability. Although I've rated it at 4 stars, I cannot recommend it as an enjoyable or easy read. In
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addition to reading about the author's life, you will receive excellent information about the workings of the Communist Party and the continual shifts of power within the leadership and how this affected the Chinese people in their daily lives.

One issue I had was the author's rather dry reportage style, which I concluded might be a reflection of her stoicism. Although she is the hero of the story, she appears remote and steely. Perhaps these characteristics, combined with her fearlessness, were exactly what allowed her to survive her ordeal. I really can't blame her for allowing herself to feel self pity and to complain about her circumstances from time to time.

Her reactions at first seem naive and unrealistic given she had already lived through many phases of the Revolution under Mao's takeover before she is imprisoned. She knows how the system works, but of course, it rapidly deteriorated especially after the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

The author was privileged before the Revolution, and continued to receive special treatment throughout her time in China. It does appear at times that she feels entitled to better treatment than others around her and this lends an air of arrogance to her story.

Ms. Cheng's painstaking details of her possessions, her imprisonment, her frequent interrogations, struggle meetings and mistreatment by her guards may weary certain readers.

I found as I continued to read the story, my admiration for her intelligence, determination, unwavering declarations of innocence and her cunning grew.

The memoir is slow to wind up after the author's release, subsequent reintegration into society and decision to leave China.

This is a serious, lengthy and sober study of one woman's survival in a murderous and chaotic time and place that seems very alien to Westerners.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
At one time Cheng's husband used to be a diplomatic officer for the Kuomintang government. Due to the entrance of the Communist army, his appointment soon led him to a career with the British Shell International Petroleum Company. Upon his death, his widow, Nien Cheng, became the assistant to the
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new general manager. Cheng's bilingual skills were invaluable to the organization and she soon filled in for the general manager. In addition, she had many international friendships and relationships. All these facts were seen as disloyal during the Cultural Revolution. Ultimately, she was accused of being a spy and imprisoned for six and a half years where she was treated to inhumane conditions and sometimes tortured. Despite everything, Cheng was able to use her fast thinking wit to turn Mao teachings against her captures as they tried time and time again to get her to confess to being a spy.
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LibraryThing member Chris.Wolak
One of my favorite memoirs. I read it in the late 80s and still often think about Cheng's experience and strength. It might be time for a re-read.


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Physical description

6.6 x 1.6 inches


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