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Life and Death in Shanghai
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Life and Death in Shanghai

4.33  ·  Rating details ·  8,871 Ratings  ·  796 Reviews
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 Kai-Shek'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 thi ...more
Paperback, 560 pages
Published May 3rd 1988 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1986)
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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
Horace Derwent
May 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Several years ago, there was a guy from mainland who went to Hongkong to buy some books that were banned in Mainland. The book store was in the airport. I don't know whether he was interested in those books. But I can tell that he bought this book, he put it in the shopping cart.

You know what, when he'd finished the purchase and got out of the airport, he was taken away immediately by some guys from Mainland, who worked for some "related department" bureau of them comms motherfuckers, which supp
A grand slam of a book. An essential view of The Great Helmsman's wretched Cultural Revolution as told through the life of this woman—a wife and mother—whose husband had the misfortune to work for the imperialist dog, Shell Oil. A harrowing and mind-numbing read. Prepare yourself accordingly. Not for the faint of heart.
Dec 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
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.
Apr 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Michael Li
Dec 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-books
The last paragraph of Nien Cheng’s memoir, “Life and Death in Shanghai“, could not be a more fitting scene to end her tragic story in China:

“Many times in my life I had sailed from Shanghai to go abroad, standing just as I did now on the deck of a ship, with the wind whipping my hair while I watched the coastline of China receding. Never had I felt so sad as I did at that moment. It was I who had brought Meiping back from Hong Kong in April 1949, in response to my husband’s request. The shocking
Dec 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Donna Michel-dow
Apr 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"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
Jul 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
De Bookworm
Jan 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
I first bought the paperback edition when it was quite new, fresh off the press. I have always been interested in all books pertaining to the Cultural Revolution. After reading it, I thought I would never have the stamina to read it again!
But last June, I was privileged to visit Shanghai for the 2nd time in my life. First time was about 10 years ago. So, after coming home, I saw this on my shelf and chose to read it again. This edition is not the original one I bought. Somebody threw or discarde
Feb 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, china
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
Sizhe Liang
Mar 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Nien Cheng and Life and Death in Shanghai

Sizhe Liang

As a man who was born in China, it’s especially important to know the truths of the passed days .Because of the political reasons, many history facts are sensitive to talk about, The Cultural Revolution, undoubtedly included. So today, until 2016, we still have to read the books writing in English to know about our own history . What a joke!

Nien Cheng was born in 1915, Beijing. She had a good family background and was educated in London. In 196
Apr 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Feb 19, 2011 rated it liked it
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
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
Jul 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china-studies
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
Mar 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: asia
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
Sep 28, 2010 rated it it was ok
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.
Feb 10, 2016 added it
This one is on my list of books that are most memorable. Inspiring example of the resilience of the human spirit.
Chris Wolak
Jun 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite memoirs. I read it in the late 80s and still often think about Cheng's experience and strength. It might be time for a re-read.
Marcus Clark
Mar 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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 af
Loran (Algonquiins)
The story of Nien Cheng’s survival throughout the Cultural Revolution in China is one of the most inspiring stories you will ever read. Throughout the duration of her solitary confinement Nien Cheng demonstrates an audacity for survival and optimism that is unparalleled and teaches all who read it that hope can be found in even the darkest of situations if you stay true to yourself. Her resilience and bravery, along with an undying sense of justice helped her survive one of the worst revolutions ...more
Jun 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
The author has written an autobiography about her life in Shanghai and how she suffered during a variety of Maoist purges as political Communist China evolved. Nien Cheng and her husband were well educated overseas in the 1920's and her husband worked for Shell Oil in Shanghai, which provided them with an affluent lifestyle. They had one child, a daughter. When her husband died, Nien Cheng was asked to remain as an agent and run the Shanghai office for Shell. With this background she of course b ...more
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
Gypsy Lady
Aug 10, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Jan 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
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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
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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.” 14 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” 8 likes
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