The Strength of Cheng

Carolyn Wakeman in her review of Nien Cheng's "Life and Death in Shanghai" (The Book Review, June 7) pushes the idea of blaming the victim to an offensive extreme. She seems to assume that all courage and strength of principle are found on the Left, and that the haute bourgeoisie are by nature weak and corrupt. Hence it galls her that for 6 1/2 years Nien Cheng resisted the attempt of her torturers to break her mind and spirit. This woman's strength of will is called by Carolyn Wakeman "intransigence," her stance as being "irate and self-righteous." For the reviewer the punishable crime was for Nien Cheng to live in a nine-room house, keep a "carefully tended garden," and serve tea. What is most offensive in the review are the unreconstructed Maoist innuendos, the implication that Mrs. Cheng was not merely naive to live this way but that she should not have had the right or the freedom to do so.

Wakeman believes that those who whipped up revolutionary zeal were attempting to "build a better society." Nothing Mrs. Cheng describes--or anyone else who lived through the Cultural Revolution--remotely resembles the intent or the result of a "better society." The reviewer appears to believe that the way you "build a better society" is to illegally arrest and torture for 6 1/2 years members of the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps most disgusting in her review is the claim that Mrs. Cheng was being "vindictive" in seeking the murderers of her daughter. Would Wakeman wish to claim that Argentinean women who petition their government to find the whereabouts of their children who disappeared and to punish those responsible are being "vindictive"? Are the relatives of the Jewish children rounded up by Klaus Barbie being "vindictive" in wanting to see him stand trial?

Finally, the reviewer implies that Mrs. Cheng's "hatred of the Maoist regime," since it "knew no bounds," was beyond reason. Does Wakeman wish to contemplate what the Red Guards did to people who wrote books and reviews for newspapers, to intellectuals like Ms. Wakeman?


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