A first-hand account of China's cultural revolution. Nien Cheng, an anglophile and fluent English-speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was put under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 and subsequently jailed. All attempts to make her confess to the charges of being a British spy failed; all efforts to indoctrinate her were met by a steadfast and fearless refusal to accept the terms offered by her interrogators. When she was released from prison she was told that her daughter had committed suicide. In fact Meiping had been beaten to death by Maoist revolutionaries.
It's 1966, and the Cultural Revolution is intensifying 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.
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.