Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nian Cheng.

Because Nian Cheng (properly, Zheng Nian) had worked for Shell in Shanghai, her house was ransacked and vandalised before she was eventually hauled off to prison where she was detained without trial in terrible conditions and frequently berated to confess to being a spy for the British. Throughout this time, she steadfastly refused to admit to some crime she’d never committed, and often pointed out how absurd the arguments and claims of her interrogators were.

After six years, Zheng was released, although because she wanted to be exonerated, she initially refused to leave prison, but had no choice in the matter. Even outside prison, she was still under surveillance from her neighbours and her student, Da De. She also discovered, as she had feared, that her daughter, Meiping, had died. Officially, the girl was supposed to have committed suicide, but this, it became clear, was a lie. She had, in fact, been murdered when the extremists were trying to force her to denounce her mother.

Her daughter’s killer only received a nominal sentence.

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao, life gradually started returning to normal, and Zheng was eventually able to leave China, first for Canada and then the US where she died at the age of 94.

Unlike Jung Chang, whose parents were part of the Party elite until they were brought down by the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was from a wealthy, privileged background, which made her a class enemy. Although life in China was different after 1949, she still had a nice house with servants and a collection of some clearly very expensive objets d’art. Even when she left prison, she still behaved very much like a 太太, partitioning off her accommodation and having a garden. Her attitude seems to have been that her case should be dealt with immediately in much the same way that people in China barge up to the counter in a bank and expect the teller to deal with them even though someone else is standing at the window.

The dialogue in the book is often a weak point. Early on when Mr Hu first turns up, he fires off a staccato outburst of unconvincing clichés. When Zheng is summoned to the first meeting for Shell’s former employees, the conversation with Chi (Ji? Qi?) has a rather stilted quality to it. The “reconstructed” dialogue works better in the interrogation scenes where Zheng can skewer the warped logic of her interrogators.

Why do Zheng’s friends, Winnie and Henry, have English names (and ridiculous ones at that) and not Chinese ones? Does cook not have a name? And Ah-yee, who is Zheng’s servant after her release from prison is, er, 阿姨 [āyí] which means “nurse; nanny; housemaid”.

At the start of the book the Cultural Revolution is meant to be new and unknown, but in one passage Zheng says “Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand”, and yet this implies that it’d been in progress somewhat longer. The incident with the cat, where Fluffy leaps to Zheng’s defence against the Red Guards, is pure feline theatre.

I finished the book with a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this is yet another tale of human rights abuse from China from a period the Party barely acknowledges and doesn’t want to talk about; it’s a historical document of a sort that needs to exist even if professional historians might not find it so useful; on the other hand, I never entirely warmed to Zheng or found her a sympathetic figure, and I wonder what sort of character she might have been if this book had been written by some neutral third party.

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