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Life And Death In Shanghai - Nien Cheng I kept stalling my review of [b:Life and Death in Shanghai|537404|Life and Death in Shanghai|Nien Cheng|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348908435s/537404.jpg|619099] because I was in immense awe of [a:Nien Cheng|95739|Nien Cheng|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1338231155p2/95739.jpg] and doubted whether I could do justice to this extremely important book. I still am in awe of her… and going to be for the rest of my life. This woman transcends everything I have read about human resilience.

If I were to be imprisoned and mentally tortured as Nien Cheng was, I would have punched the first person that would have tried to wrongfully accuse me. But then, I would have been a loser, as that is exactly what the abusers want you to do. They want you to physically assault them in order to shoot you, or if they are feeling less upbeat, they can always beat you to death with fists and kicks.

But damn it, I wouldn’t be able to help it even if I knew the outcome. I am not Winston. Whatever the situation, I am never going to love Big Brother. And neither did Nien Cheng. But she survived while I would definitely die in the first wave of a similar kind of revolution. So, if there is a revolution in India and you don’t hear from me for a long time, it would be safe to assume that I was among the first “enemies” of the state who got what he deserved.

“Enemy of the State”. Yes, this term. This term seems to be one of the favorite terms (if not the favorite) of all the totalitarian states that ever existed in the history of humanity.

And that brings us to the Cultural Revolution of China. In order to sabotage Deng Xiaoping’s effort (because it threatened Mao’s position of being the supreme leader; or so Mao thought) to put China’s economy back on its feet after Mao’s disastrous “The Great Leap Forward”, a special committee of left-wing Maoists was appointed by Mao to conduct the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (Mme Mao) who later became infamous as the leader of “Gang of Four” (other three gang members were Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and the left-wing writer Yao Wen-yuan), enjoyed extraordinary power and throughout the years of the Cultural Revolution, made use of her position as Mao’s wife to become his spokeswoman, supposedly transmitting Mao’s orders and wishes, but in fact interpreted them to suit her motives. She was a ruthlessly ambitious woman who tolerated no opposition, imaginary or otherwise. Tens of thousands of Party officials, artists, writers, scientists, and common people who fell under the shadow of her suspicion were cruelly persecuted. Scores of them died at the hands of her trusted “Revolutionaries.”

Cultural Revolution was anything but “cultural”. Anything (read everything before Mao came into power) that didn’t praise the Communist Party (read Mao Zedong) was considered “uncultured”. Hence, one of the oldest civilizations of the world voluntarily tried to destroy its heritage during that ten year period.




The Red Guards mainly consisted of kids in their teens (along with adult Party members who had their own ulterior motives) who knew nothing about their national heritage, thanks to the brainwashing done by the Party over the years. They grew up under the watchful eyes of the Party reading fairy-tale praises of Mao Zedong.



The mission of the Red Guards was to rid the country of the “Four Olds”: old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ways of thinking. There was no clear definition of “old”; it was left to the Red Guards to decide.

So, the Red Guards even debated whether to reverse the system of traffic lights, as they thought red should mean “go” and not “stop.” In the meantime, the traffic lights stopped operating. Because you know, Red! The colour of the Party.

Nien Cheng became an obvious target of the Red Guards as she was educated in London, and her deceased husband was an official of Chiang Kai-Shek's regime, the Kuomintang, before the communists took over mainland China. She herself was an employee of Shell Oil in China, and was officially allowed to work there by the Communist Party, to serve China’s interest in the best possible way, which she did. But this important fact didn’t deter the Red Guards and she was asked to confess being a counter-revolutionary of bourgeois background. When she refused to confess that foreign education, working for a multinational company (with Party’s permission) and enjoying the comforts of life brought by such a high level job, made her an enemy of the state, she was placed in solitary confinement, where she remained for six and a half years.

Even if someone was not working for a multi-national company as Cheng did, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be arrested as an enemy of the state, as in each organization, three to five percent of the total employees were to be declared the ‘enemy’ because that was the percentage mentioned by Chairman Mao in one of his speeches. It was ‘The Great Terror’ all over again, in different time and place, but with similar consequences.

Millions of men and women were ordered to give up their jobs in the cities and were settled in rural areas to receive “reeducation” through physical labor. Those intellectuals allowed to remain in the cities were assigned the work of common laborers in their organizations. Medical doctors were “assigned” to emptying bedpans in the hospitals, professors cleaning toilets in the universities, and artists and musicians building walls and repairing roads. They had to attend struggle meetings and political indoctrination classes at which they had to abuse themselves by “confessing” to their “crimes.”









During the Cultural Revolution, many young men in China were sent away from their families to work in remote parts of the country, and allowed short “marital leave” only once a year. Children grew up hardly knowing their fathers, while women faced the dual responsibility of bringing up the children single-handedly and holding demanding jobs. The Party imposed this asinine cruelty in the name of “the needs of socialism” and “serving the people.”

The hypocrisy of the claim was exposed by the fact that Party officials and their children were seldom asked to make such sacrifices. Instead, they received “special consideration” and were given jobs in the same city as their spouses.

During the Cultural Revolution, no one in China was allowed a private telephone. To make a call, one had to go to a public telephone. The attendant took down the number one wanted to call and listened in to every conversation.

The irony of a tight control over its populace for an authoritarian state is often that that it knows much less about what its people really think compared to what a government of a free society knows about its own. In Cheng’s own words:

“Who knows? When the penalty for speaking one’s mind is so great, nobody knows what anybody else thinks,” Li Zhen said. I had to agree with her. In fact, after living in Communist China for so many years, I realized that one of the advantages enjoyed by a democratic government that allows freedom of speech is that the government knows exactly who supports it and who is against it, while a totalitarian government knows nothing of what the people really think.


Even under normal circumstances, the Communist Party of China was far from being an egalitarian society in which everyone enjoyed equal opportunity and status. Instead, children with “bourgeois” family background, such as Cheng’s daughter Meiping, were introduced to a new system of discrimination. For instance, to be admitted into a good middle school, she had to pass the entrance examination with marks of 80 percent, while children of workers and peasants got in with a pass mark of 60 percent. According to the Constitution, women and men enjoyed equal rights, but in practice there was great discrimination against women. While there was no difference in pay or benefits for women (at least in the cities) doing the same work as men, majority of women remained in specialized occupations that traditionally employed women; textile workers, shop assistants, hospital nurses, and schoolteachers. Men always held the more prestigious positions.

Since good intentions at work and in public life often led people into trouble due to the authoritarian government, they intentionally tried to be as less productive and active as possible. The Chinese people had invented a new proverb that said, “The more you do, the more trouble you have; the less you do, the less trouble you have. If you do nothing whatever, you will become a model citizen.”

The Party lent its own hand to escalate such thinking.

Zhang Chunqiao, an associate of Jiang Qing, said, “We would rather have socialism’s lower production figures than capitalism’s higher production figures.” The radicals in the rural areas took up his statement and proclaimed, “We would rather have socialism’s poor harvest than capitalism’s abundance.” Not to be left behind, other radicals declared, “We would rather have socialism’s trains that are behind schedule than capitalism’s trains that are on time.” As a result, the workers became fearful of doing too much, the peasants became reluctant to go into the field, and drivers of trains, buses, and even mules deliberately slowed down so that they could arrive behind schedule. The already strained economy took another tumble.


Mao just didn’t stop at having failed at Economics 101. He hated formal education and literature (clearly he was no Goodreads material), and firmly believed that one could “be a doctor by being a doctor”. That is, you know, if you wanted to be a brain surgeon, you could become a brain surgeon by performing an actual brain surgery (yes, on a real human being) instead of getting a degree first. Although, reading his Red Book was mandatory for all the Chinese.



There were many reports of cases where untrained hospital coolies were said to have performed operations successfully after mastering Mao’s quotations (hahahahahaha…).

Even here, hypocrisy reigned. When Mao himself or one of the other radical leaders needed medical attention from experts other than their own personal doctors, those experts, trained in Western universities before the Communist Party took over China, were bundled into special planes and flown to Beijing, often hastily removed from the countryside where they had been exiled to perform hard labor.

And while according to its ideology, the Communist Party believed in atheism, Mao Zedong and his followers were very fond of talking about the “soul.” In his writing, Mao often referred to the saving of a man’s soul. Even during the Cultural Revolution, “soul” was mentioned frequently.

The Communist government controlled all goods, services, and opportunities and dispensed them to the people in unequal proportions. The term “internal” was used for goods and services available to officials of a certain rank and a few outsiders on whom the government wished to bestow favor. The term “internal internal” was used to describe goods and services reserved for the very senior officials who received a major share.

Coming back to Nien Cheng, she was imprisoned and made to attend several struggle meetings at which she was abused cruelly and asked to confess her crimes. Which she never did. Never. Not even once. The main reason being, there was nothing to confess (but that didn’t stop numerous others from “confessing” even though they were innocent of any wrongdoing). She took her stand resolutely.

When accused of being an enemy of the state because of being educated abroad and owning books by foreign authors, she replied:

“Well, the tomato is a foreign food. It was introduced into China by foreigners. So was the watermelon, brought from Persia over the silk route. As for foreign books, Karl Marx himself was a German. If people didn’t read books by foreigners, there would not have been an international Communist movement. It has never been possible to keep things and ideas locked up within the national boundary of any one country, even in the old days when communication was difficult. Nowadays, it’s even more impossible. I’m pretty sure that by now people all over the world have heard that Chinese high school students are organized as Red Guards.”


When accused of being a sympathizer of the Kuomintang due to her late husband’s past, she said:

“In fact, by remaining in Shanghai and not following the Kuomintang to Taiwan, my late husband demonstrated his goodwill towards the Communist Party. He was an official of the Kuomintang government. Yet he disobeyed their orders. It’s the Kuomintang in Taiwan who should loot our home and put us in prison. They are powerless to do so. You have done it for them. Now who is acting for the Kuomintang?”


She championed every accusation thrown at her, often leaving her interrogators helpless and seething with anger. She was cajoled, threatened and even once physically tortured to confess her crimes against the state. This went on for six and a half years.

After that, the Party relented and let her go free. Yes, a lone woman beat the Party.

But even after being set free, she was spied on round-the-clock by the Party (often obliging her own relatives to spy on her), hence she decided to leave the country once and for all. She acquired their trust and got a visa to visit the USA and never came back. She wrote her autobiography in US after many years and even then she had to stop many times while recounting the horrific events.

With impeccable writing and clear arguments, her book is the best there is on The Cultural Revolution of China.

Finally, if I have to point out at least one good thing that happened due to The Cultural Revolution, it would be... this: