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‘Life and Death in Shanghai’ Essay


“Life and Death in Shanghai” is an autobiographical book written by Nien Cheng who expressed her painful personal experience during the Great Cultural Revolution in China. To understand it better I’d like to make a brief historical overview. Chinese Cultural Revolution was a rebellion with the participation of working people and students who stood up against bureaucracy in the communist party.

What were the reasons for the Revolution? It was initiated by Mao Zedun in 1966 to affirm his ideology. He also tried to destroy political opposition. Nien Cheng was guiltlessly imprisoned for six years. She was thought to be a spy because she studied and worked in England. Her book “Life and Death in Shanghai” is based on her practical knowledge, feelings, and sufferings in that period. I must admit that the book captivates attention from the first pages and it seems impossible to put it away until the end. The success lies in sincere and vivid depiction. Besides, the story is written in a lively and fluent language. I remember having read that she rewrote the book for five times, expressing thoughts, checking linguistic mistakes and finally shortening it. I think that Cheng’s imprisonment didn’t influence her as much as the death of her daughter did. It stimulated her to write a book and reveal the truth about Cultural Revolution. History keeps many similar stories, but this one is especially tragic. Nien’s daughter was killed because she didn’t denounce her mother. The girl was mortally beaten. But it was arranged like a suicide as the body was thrown off the 9th floor. Nien Cheng has never forgotten (let alone forgiven) murder of her innocent daughter. Children’s death is the most unbearable pain of all.

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God knew how long I would have to remain in the detention house. The struggle between the Maoists and me was, in fact, a war of endurance. I simply must not die (Cheng, 1987).

The book became a real bestseller in recent years. Now Nien continues to inform people of past catastrophe and keeps contact with victims in other countries who’ve gone through similar sufferings. Although her book is not the only one that describes tragic events of those times, it is unique and peculiar. A specific thing about the book is that it gives an example of women’s persecution which was especially hard to endure. “Cultural Revolution” couldn’t be a revolution or social progress in its true meaning. It was rather a chaos which brought serious troubles to the political party, country and the whole nation. “Life and Death in Shanghai” is a psychologically depressing narrative. It made me think of people’s unpredictable and often unjust fate. The woman was put to tortures but managed to endure them and survive. Her daughter died for nothing. The narration is captivating. Nien Cheng put much effort to tell about her imprisonment in details. She skillfully describes her life, custodial questioning, officers’ appearance, analyzes his voice and vocabulary.

…His hair was plastered down with grease, and his black, leather shoes were carefully polished. On the wrist of his left hand, a gold watch peeped from under the cuff of his shirt-sleeve. He was a young man of about twenty-five with an air of self-importance… (Cheng, 1987)

She thought his clothes would be more habitual to capitalists, but during the Revolution, they looked rather odd. I liked the author’s style of writing for several reasons. On the one hand she vividly described miserable conditions in prison, such as hot shower only once a month. It is hard to imagine how she lived in winter. On the other hand she included her talks with officers, their reaction to her endurance and bravery. I liked the dialogue about dancing with a Swiss friend.

‘You were dancing with a foreigner […] that’s decidedly unpatriotic.’
‘Is dancing with a foreigner unpatriotic?’ I was rather taken aback by his line of attack […] ‘I didn’t know dancing with a foreigner was not patriotic […] at least I was useful […] you can simply send me to dance with all China’s enemies all over the world and let me make them unpatriotic… (Cheng, 1987)

This excerpt shows brave and witted resistance, as I think that coward would never dare to contradict the officer. On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is not only fascinating but also useful from the historic point of view. This book would surely help readers to learn more about Chinese Cultural Revolution and understand the historical events better.

Nien Cheng. (1987). Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Grove Press.

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