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Life and Death in Shanghai
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Life and Death in Shanghai

4.31 of 5 stars 4.31  ·  rating details  ·  6,346 ratings  ·  639 reviews
This is a first-hand account of China's cultural revolution. Nien Cheng, an anglophile and fluent English-speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was put under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 and subsequently jailed. All attempts to make her confess to the charges of being a British spy failed; all efforts to indoctrinate her were met by a steadfast and fear ...more
Paperback, 560 pages
Published December 14th 2010 by Grove Press (first published January 1st 1986)
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Veeral
I kept stalling my review of Life and Death in Shanghai because I was in immense awe of Nien Cheng 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
...more
Scott
This book is one that I would definitely recommend to all readers. It is eloquently written and very engaging. It chronicles the imprisonment of a Western-educated business woman living in China during the Cultural Revolution.

It is a very intimate look at Mao Tse-Tung and how his philosophies affected the Chinese people--and not for the better. Mrs. Cheng is a wonderful narrator and writes a very excellent true story.

Recommended to all who like an intense story of human survival, and all those w
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Kid
This is a thrift store find. . .if you peruse my list of books (not likely) you might notice a number of stuck-in-prison-for-some-reason memoirs. I'm drawn to the brutality. What's amazing about this book is its umm "insider's" view of the Cultural Revolution. Nein Cheng was a "capitalist roader" - i.e. someone who associated with capitalists or sympathized with capitalism or had any appreciation for aesthetics that might be supported or cultivated in the west. Well - we all have a bit of class ...more
Konnie
I find myself rating books five stars, not especially for literary merit as much as for the window they are into a world unfamiliar to me. I am in awe at the moral and spiritual strength of Nien Cheng, a former Shell employee who lived, despite torture and imprisonment, through China's cultural revolution. I read this book shortly after reading "Wild Swans: Three Women of China." If you really want to learn about China, I recommend reading them in that order. Wild Swans gave me a wonderful broad ...more
Laureen
This is a remarkable autobiography for several reasons: one - Nien Cheng wrote this later in her life - I want to say her 50's or 60's in English, not her native language. Secondly, it is an amazing account of the cultural revolution in China during the 60's, political and cultural events that leave an eerie sense of deja-vu. Thirdly, this woman was wrongfully arrested, and even though she could have been released if she had lied, she told the truth - every time she was interrogated - and was ke ...more
Jennifer
Wonderful book. So well written. The author spent over 6 years in prison during the cultural revolution, during that time her daughter was murdered, after release she was harassed and spied upon. Eventually she left China, but had to leave all her possessions, money, etc. behind. Somehow you never feel depressed while reading about all these terrible things. The backbone of this woman is amazing, her poise in these situations that would destroy most people. And never a boring page.
Bruce
Nien Cheng’s memoir describes her life in Shanghai from 1966, at the beginning of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to 1987, when she was living in Washington DC, writing her memoir and preparing for US citizenship. The wife of a deceased former Guomindang official and Shell Oil Company executive, she had become an employee of Shell after her husband’s death and was thus targeted by forces within China as an alleged spy for foreign interests. Consequently she was imprisoned and interrogated f ...more
Cherie
This is an outstanding testimony to the power of the human will to survive adversity. Insightful documentation of the Cultural Revolution and its effects. I have always been interested in Chinese history, especially modern era. This book sparked my interest further and I continue to collect additional works on the topic. This is perhaps the most inspirational of the ones I have read.

At the time I first read this book, I taught a high school course in Asian Studies and needed personal accounts th
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Tom
I thought the late 60s in the US were a time of radical change, but they're nothing compared to how Mao's Red Guards turned China upside down. I live in Shanghai where this memoir took place. Surprisinly, there's very little local history preserved. No walking tours, nothing much in the Shanghai Museum. While reading I wanted to run out and find her former house and the prison where she spent six years. No luck yet finding them.

The author does a great job of blending her personal narrative with
...more
Toria
An amazing book by an amazing women. While Nien Cheng tellingly analyzes her own experience as a prisoner in communist China, she goes beyond herself and describes how individuals and communities responded to the pressures of communism and a cultural revolution.
I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book describing her life after prison, the political mood of the country, and what the future might look like.
This is a great book for people without any background on China's modern history
...more
Robert
Whilst I appreciate the hardships and struggles that the author went through I didn't manage to finish this book - the style was just a bit too grating. She seems to possess a picture perfect memory of conversations and justifies herself just a bit too much.
Marcus Clark
This is a wonderful story of determination and mental strength of a 51 year-old woman. A perfect book for International Women's Day! Accused of being a spy, she survived more than six years of harsh imprisonment by the Red Guards in China. It is a story of adaptability, courage, and bravery.

This is an autobiographical account of Nien Cheng who, after her husband died, became an assistant advisor to the manager of Shell Oil in China. Shell was one of the few companies that stayed on in China a
...more
Debra
"In August 1966 a group of Red Guards ransacked the home of Nien Cheng. Her background made her an obvious target for the fanatics of the Cultural Revolution: educated in London, the widow of an official of Chiang Kaishek's regime, and an employee of Shell Oil, Nien Cheng enjoyed comforts that few of her compatriots could afford. When she refused to confess that any of this made her an enemy of the state, she was placed in solitary confinement, where she would remain for more than six years. Lif ...more
Charlotte
This is an Incredible book! EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT. I can't recommend it strongly enough. It is a memoir by a Chinese woman about her experience during the Cultural Revolution, when she was taken prisoner (she was in her late 50s at the time) and held in a dark, dank cell in Shanghai for six years while the Communist Party lackeys and Red Guards tried to force from her a confession that she was an enemy of the state and a spy (since she had lived and studied abroad and worked for a foreign comp ...more
Gypsy Lady
Book club selection. 543 pages

Page 400
Official lies like this, habitually indulged in and frequently display by the authorities, served no purpose except to create an impression that truth was unimportant.

Page 413
I wondered why he wanted to learn English from me when his own mother was an English teacher. Once, I asked him point-blank. Her merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “You mustn’t ask anyone a direct question like that. In any case, you can’t afford to believe the answer, whatever it
...more
Ensiform
Educated in London, the widow of an official of Kuomintang, and an employee at Shell Oil, the author was targeted as a class enemy during the Cultural Revolution. She was placed under house arrest, then put in solitary confinement, subject to deprivation, degradation and insults, including one stretch during which her hands were shackled behind her back non-stop for eleven days. Through it all, she refused to admit any crime, demanded a retraction from the government, and pleaded her case with l ...more
Lisa
I've read a number of personal narratives from the Cultural Revolution, but most of them have been from authors who were still in school when the turmoil began in 1966. Cheng's account provides the perspective of someone who was middle-aged and who was imprisoned for much of the struggle in a vivid and highly-detailed account.

Her analysis of the political struggles taking place among the top party officials also is much more sophisticated than most of the other narratives out there, again proba
...more
Caroline
The Life and Death in Shanghai truly opens my mind. It presents so much information of the Chinese Communist Party in front of me, which I could by no means learned from my text book. Her sufficient experience from that age due to her prominent background make the book very informative. At the same time her distinct attitude from ppl who were in the same situation toward the suffering exclaims her clear POV that one should keep along with the truth no matter in what kind situation.

While reading
...more
Kristen
I read this book shortly after my first trip to Shanghai in 1992. At the time it resonated with me as I had just seen many of the places she mentions in her book, from the French Consession, to the Park Hotel (which is next door to my Shanghai office). The story, an autobiography of her life during the cultural revolution, tells the sad honest truth of what Mao's revolution did to the cultural and educated. The guise of permenant revolution is nothing more than an excuse to torture and maim, to ...more
Amber
4.5 stars. This book was amazing in so many ways and has awakened something in me I never knew existed. I usually read fiction and for pleasure-I now have a burning desire to read more memoirs, more non fiction and to have my eyes opened to the millions of things I don't yet know about this world.

Honestly, this probably wasn't something I would have picked up on my own, but because it was for book club I picked up and trudged slowly for the first few chapters. It is a long and dense read and yo
...more
Rob
this is a fantastic introduction to anyone who wants to know about the nightmare-on-earth that was the Cultural Revolution in china from 1966 to 1976. it is a memoir, but it reads like a novel, which is really the whole point. the truth of this decade was more amazing than most novelists could dream up.

the only thing i didn't like was that she had all this word-for-word dialogue from her countless interrogation sessions, and she remembers exactly who was in the room and where they were sitting a
...more
Alex
I am 15 years old and was required to read this book as a summer assignment for my AP World History class.

I found this book to be one of the best I have ever encountered. From the moment I picked it up, I could hardly put it down. Her experiences feel so vivid in my mind and her feelings come easily across the page. This is an excellent source of history on the Cultural Revolution and her insider knowledge left me feeling like a new world had opened up for me. i knew almost nothing on the Cult
...more
Lindquistheather
Wow. This makes you appreciate all the freedoms we have. I can't imagine not being able to express how I really feel about things and being constantly watched and monitored even while doing simple daily tasks. I can't imagine having to clear what I do everyday with someone else first. I was very inspired by her will to survive and her example of standing up for the truth.
Shari Leid
Almost rated this book a 4...but given the extraordinary woman who's memoir is contained in this book, I felt compelled to give it a 5 Star rating. Not the best written book, but a fascinating true life story of a woman's experience during the Cultural Revolution. Part of my fascination derives from my travel to China in 2001 to adopt, and upcoming 2014 travel plans to China.ij
Jessa
So I almost gave up on this book at about 60 pages. The political history was too much for me and my eyes started to glaze over everytime she went into it. Then I went to bookclub and the ladies there said it was well worth the read so I decided to give it another try. So glad I did! Once you get to her arrest it becomes more about her story and she is such an amazing lady. I can't believe all that she went through and had no idea all of that happened in China. It makes me so grateful for the co ...more
Linda
I just finished this book; an incredible woman's true account of her life in China, imprisoned in solitary confinement for over six years during the Cultural Revolution. I can't walk down the streets of China now without looking at people old enough to have been alive during the Mao-caused ten-year nightmare and wonder,"What did these poor people suffer?" This best-seller is a must read. How I wish I could recommend it to all my Chinese students, but this book is silenced here in China.
Donna Michel-dow
Apr 29, 2014 Donna Michel-dow rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Parents of children from China
Recommended to Donna by: Oprah magazine
There's reading historical facts (very dry) and there's reading personal accounts from someone who lived through a time in history (ie Nien Cheng, Anne Frank). I don't think I fully appreciated how recent the cultural revolution was (launched in May 1966 - Oct 1976) and how it affected he population then how it continues to affect the Chinese people to this day. Although I have read books about China before, they were usually based on stories from long ago. The people were subjected to rhetoric ...more
Helen
Nien Cheng was an amazingly intelligent, courageous, honorable, and patriotic individual despite being betrayed by the chinese government during the cult revolution years. i was full of admiration for her by the end of the life and was really touched by her ability to forgive even the most unforgivable acts...not exactly a light read, but i was hooked and read this in a day. thanks lilian for recommending this to me.
Gail Jeidy
I've had this book on my shelf for years and finally read it. A compelling first person account of one woman's struggle and imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution in China in the '60s. I visited Beijing a few years back and read "Wild Swans" prior to that trip. This book helps fill in the gaps of the tumultuous Mao years and helped me better understand the difficult history that continues to inform modern day China and its people. Nien Cheng's strength is inspiring; whatever it is you are d ...more
Kfhoz
Riveting book. Even better than Wild Swans. Nien Cheng has a very good memory and can recall details of her questioning sessions in prison during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She is an amazing woman in a complex time.

I had read several other books about this time period in China, but this is the one that finally let me begin to grasp how an entire population could have this happen to them. This is the clearest description of how what has happening at the top of the Chinese leadership power s
...more
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95739
Nien Cheng is a Chinese American author who recounted her harrowing experiences of the Cultural Revolution in her memoir Life and Death in Shanghai. Cheng became a target of attack by Red Guards due to her management of a foreign firm in Shanghai, Shell. Maoist revolutionaries used this fact to claim that Cheng was a British spy in order to strike at Communist Party moderates for allowing the firm ...more
More about Nien Cheng...
Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil

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“It's alwasy best to look ahead and not backwards. Possessions are not important. Think of those beautiful porcelain pieces I had. Before they came to me, they had all passed through the hands of many people, surviving wars and natural disasters. I got them only because someone else lost them. While I had them, I enjoyed them; now some other people will enhjoy them. Life itself is transitory. Possesions are not important.” 7 likes
“Large portraits of Mao on wooden boards several feet high stood at main street corners. Painted to make the old man look extremely youthful, healthy, and fat (a sign of well-being in China), these pictures provided a mocking contrast to the thin, pale-faced pedestrians walking listlessly below them. Pg. 193” 4 likes
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