LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI by Nien Cheng (Grove: $19.95; 496 pp.)

Wakeman is the author of "To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman."

There was ultimately no place in China for Nien Cheng after 1949. Following the death of her husband in 1957, she remained comfortably settled with her daughter, Meiping, in their nine-room Shanghai home, attended by a staff of servants and surrounded by priceless collections of porcelain and white jade. Outside her carefully tended garden, the world had changed, but she lived aloof from the revolution and from the effort to build a better society that inspired workers and intellectuals alike in the wake of the corrupt Guomindang regime. Untouched by poverty and misery, secure in her privileged status, she was "prepared to go along with the Communist Revolution."

After succeeding her husband as managing adviser to Shell International, the only foreign oil firm that maintained an office in China, she was "treated with courtesy and consideration" by the Shanghai municipal government, which benefited from her knowledge and social skills and thus tolerated her flagrantly aristocratic life style. The early pages of her compelling memoir quite unself-consciously project her sense of pride and well-being: "I thought myself fortunate to have a job I could do well and enjoyed the distinction of being the only woman in Shanghai occupying a senior position in a company of world renown." Clearly her situation was unique.

Even in the tension-ridden weeks of August, 1966, when, for nearly three months, fervent Red Guards had been viciously assaulting every vestige of the old society, she continued to serve tea in her accustomed fashion. "Lao-zhao brought in the silver tea set, my best china, and a large plate of small iced cakes, as well as thinly cut sandwiches in the best British tradition, something I reserved for my British and Australian friends who understood the finer points of afternoon tea." Such a condescending attitude toward her countrymen, though not intended to offend, was bound to arouse resentment and hostility.

When finally she is summoned for investigation, she remains uncowed. The officials can wait while she changes clothes; when they don't ask her to be seated, she sits anyway. Coolly, she parries every accusation and ignores every threat, determined that her intelligence, her strength of purpose, and her innocence will triumph. Irate and self-righteous, she will under no circumstances flatter or curry favor, let alone admit to wrongdoing. "It's not in my nature to be obsequious," she explains to a friend who comes to warn her not to offend her questioners.

The saga of her inevitable persecution is painful to read. Her intransigence unleashes the cruelest persecution. Red Guards raid her home, smash her records, burn her books, wantonly confiscate her porcelain and jade, her furs and precious jewelry. When every further effort at intimidation fails, she is imprisoned for 6 1/2 years in the most degrading conditions, culminating in 11 days of torment with her wrists manacled, as frustrated and sadistic wardens try unsuccessfully to make her confess.

Her body gradually deteriorates from hunger, illness, and physical abuse, but she never fears death, only the weakening of her will. Somehow her indomitable sense of personal dignity, her faith in God, and her fierce determination to survive and prove her captors wrong enable her to endure, her spirit unbroken, until the political storm subsides.

But the most terrible ordeal still lies ahead. Near the end of her confinement, she demands replacements for her threadbare winter jackets and is one day thrown a bundle of clothing that she recognizes instantly as her daughter's. The garments are all that were allowed Meiping, a talented young actress in the Shanghai Film Studio, when their household was ransacked. The clothing has not been worn. Nien Cheng shrinks from the only possible explanation, that her beloved daughter is dead. Her long-awaited release from jail thus marks the beginning of another heart-rending struggle as she determines to learn the truth about Meiping's alleged suicide.

By this point, the author's vindictiveness and her hatred of the Maoist regime know no bounds. Finally she learns that her daughter died at the hands of interrogators trying to force a confession that her mother was a foreign spy, part of a larger effort by stalwart Maoists to discredit Premier Zhou Enlai. Nothing less than the summary execution of Meiping's murderers will satisfy the mother's tormented heart.

Just a week after she leaves China forever, she reads in a Hong Kong newspaper that the man responsible for her daughter's persecution has indeed been caught and condemned to death, but to her dismay, he is given a two-year's suspended sentence. "Meiping's murderer lives in China today," she declares, bitterly condemning the leniency of the verdict.

Nien Cheng's appalling story is unfortunately not unique. Many others in China suffered comparably during a decade when physical and psychological torment were commonplace. But, unlike others, she finds no comfort in the knowledge of shared agony, no sense of renewal in the common effort at healing and recovery. Instead, she settles in a Washington, D.C., condominium, her bitterness unabated, and at last finds some personal solace in her mission as a writer.

Other survivors write about the recent nightmare in the hope that their testimony will help prevent such a tragedy from recurring. Nien Cheng's gripping story has other goals. Her powerful book will be widely read and admired in the West; her denunciation of the Communist Party will reach a sympathetic audience. Foreigners who now praise China's efforts at reform may even reconsider, heeding her warning that the regime merely uses and manipulates well-wishers for its own tyrannical and self-serving purposes. "Life and Death in Shanghai" is not only an outcry against personal injustice but an act of vengeance.

It is at the same time a moving affirmation of the capacity for human endurance as well as a valuable chronicle of the traumatic events she lived through. But at times, her outrage and injury lead to dangerous distortion.

The suppression of the Tiananmen demonstration, when vast crowds spontaneously poured out their grief following Zhou Enlai's death and voiced their opposition to the repressive Gang of Four, has been widely documented. Numerous eyewitnesses have described the scores of people brutally clubbed and hauled off to the Public Security Bureau for interrogation, and more beating after multiple warnings failed to disperse the impassioned mob. The next morning, fire engines hosed down the Square, presumably washing bloodstains from the paving stones.

The events were cruel enough, and in six months led to the downfall of Mao's widow and her followers. But Nien Cheng significantly inflates the brutality. In her version, the militiamen wield pistols as well as clubs; "thousands were killed, and tens of thousasnds wounded." Demonstrators found with poems were shot without trial, she claims, and corpses littered Tiananmen Square. The factual misrepresentation is troubling. Readers will subsequently question her previous assertions, and wonder whether at the height of the Cultural Revolution, 100 people a day in Shanghai, in fact, committed suicide. Such statistics cannot easily be verified.

The author's refusal to compromise and the depth of her pain prompt only admiration and compassion. But her objectivity and accuracy remain in doubt. "Life and Death in Shanghai" is Nien Cheng's retaliation; it must be read with sympathy, and a measure of caution.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World