Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Life and Death in Shanghai

by Nien Cheng

“The extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman who, despite 6 1/2 long years of imprisonment and torment in Communist China, not only survived but endured and even prevailed. . . . A story that so vividly documents the triumph of the human spirit over inhumanity.” —Time

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date December 14, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4516-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

Upon its initial publication, Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng’s searing memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was an instant international best seller. This phenomenal, unforgettable book captured the attention of the world just as Communism started to collapse, and is considered a twentieth-century classic, both for Cheng’s incisive writing and the light it throws on totalitarian history.

In August 1966, a group of Red Guards ransacked Nien Cheng’s home. Her background made her an obvious target. Educated at the London School of Economics, the widow of an official of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, and an employee of Shell Oil, Cheng enjoyed comforts that few Chinese could afford. When she refused to confess that she was an enemy of the state, she was imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement, where she remained for more than six years.

Life and Death in Shanghai is the powerful story of Cheng’s imprisonment, of the deprivation she endured, of her heroic resistance, and of her quest for justice when she was released. An astounding portrait of one woman’s courage, Life and Death in Shanghai is also a penetrating account of a terrifying chapter in twentieth-century history.


“Far from depressing, it is almost exhilarating to witness her mind do battle. Even in English, the keenness of her thought and expression is such that it constitutes some form of martial art, enabling her time and again to absorb the force of her interrogators’ logic and turn it to her own advantage.” —Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

“An absorbing story of resourcefulness and courage.” —J. M. Coetzee, The New York Times Book Review

“A harrowing story of personal suffering and tragedy, and at the same time a savage and compelling indictment of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, if not of Chinese communism itself . . . an extraordinary testament to human brutality.” —Elena Brunet, Los Angeles Times

“A gripping, poignant chronicle of her courage, fortitude, and, above all, stubborn integrity during . . . cold, hunger, disease, terror, and humiliation. . . . Her narrative deserves to rank with the foremost prison diaries of our time.” —Stanley Karnow, The Washington Post

“The extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman who, despite 6 1/2 long years of imprisonment and torment in Communist China, not only survived but endured and even prevailed. . . . A story that so vividly documents the triumph of the human spirit over inhumanity.” —Time


New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Best Book of the Year (1987)
Best Books for Public Libraries (1992)
ALA’s Outstanding Books for The College Bound (1996)



The past is forever with me and I remember it all. I now move back in time and space to a hot summer’s night in July 1966, to the study of my old home in Shanghai. My daughter was asleep in her bedroom, the servants had gone to their quarters, and I was alone in my study. I hear again the slow whirling of the ceiling fan overhead; I see the white carnations drooping in the heat in the white Qianlong vase on my desk. Bookshelves line the walls in front of me, filled with English and Chinese titles. The shaded reading lamp leaves half the room in shadows, but the silk brocade of the red cushions on the white sofa gleams vividly.

An English friend, a frequent visitor to my home in Shanghai, once called it “an oasis of comfort and elegance in the midst of the city’s drabness.” Indeed, my house was not a mansion, and by Western standards, it was modest.

But I had spent time and thought to make it a home and a haven for my daughter and myself so that we could continue to enjoy good taste while the rest of the city was being taken over by proletarian realism.

Not many private people in Shanghai lived as we did seventeen years after the Communist Party took over China. In this city of ten million, perhaps only a dozen or so families managed to preserve their old lifestyle, maintaining their original homes and employing a staff of servants. The Party did not decree how the people should live. In fact, in 1949, when the Communist army entered Shanghai, we were forbidden to discharge our domestic staff lest we aggravate the unemployment problem. But the political campaigns that periodically convulsed the country rendered many formerly wealthy people poor. When they became victims, they were forced to pay large fines or had their income drastically reduced. And many industrialists were relocated inland with their families when their factories were removed from Shanghai. I did not voluntarily change my way of life, not only because I had the means to maintain my standard of living, but also because the Shanghai municipal government treated me with courtesy and consideration through its United Front Organization. However, my daughter and I lived quietly, with circumspection. Believing the Communist Revolution a historical inevitability for China, we were prepared to go along with it.

The reason I am so often carried back to those few hours before midnight on July 3, 1966, is not only that I look back with nostalgia upon my old life with my daughter but mainly that they were the last few hours of normal life I was to enjoy for many years. The heat lay like a heavy weight on the city even at night. No breeze came through the open windows. My face and arms were damp with perspiration, and my blouse was clammy on my back as I bent over the newspapers spread on my desk reading the articles of vehement denunciation that always preceded action at the beginning of a political movement. The propaganda effort was supposed to create a suitable atmosphere of tension and mobilize the public. Often careful reading of those articles, written by activists selected by Party officials, yielded hints as to the purpose of the movement and its possible victims. Because I had never been involved in a political movement before, I had no premonition of impending personal disaster. But as was always the case, the violent language used in the propaganda articles made me uneasy.

My servant Lao-zhao had left a thermos of iced tea for me on a tray on the coffee table. As I drank the refreshing tea, my eyes strayed to a photograph of my late husband. Nearly nine years had passed since he died, but the void his death left in my heart remained. I always felt abandoned and alone whenever I was uneasy about the political situation, as I felt the need for his support.

I had met my husband when he was working for his Ph.D. degree in London in 1935. After we were married and returned to Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, in 1939, he became a diplomatic officer of the Kuomintang government. In 1949, when the Communist army entered Shanghai, he was director of the Shanghai office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kuomintang government. When the Communist representative, Zhang Hanfu, took over his office, Zhang invited him to remain with the new government during the transitional period as foreign affairs adviser to the newly appointed mayor of Shanghai, Marshal Chen Yi. In the following year, he was allowed to leave the People’s Government and accept an offer from Shell International Petroleum Company to become the general manager of its Shanghai office. Shell was one of the few British firms of international standing—such as Imperial Chemical Industries, Hong Kong—Shanghai Banking Corporation, and Jardines—that tried to maintain an office in Shanghai. Because Shell was the only major oil company in the world wishing to remain in mainland China, the Party officials who favored trade with the West treated the company and ourselves with courtesy.

In 1957, my husband died of cancer. A British general manager was appointed to succeed him. I was asked by Shell to become his assistant with the title of adviser to management. I worked in that capacity until 1966.

Successive British general managers depended on me to steer the company clear of the many pitfalls that often surrounded a capitalist enterprise maintaining an office in Maoist China. It was up to me to find ways to resolve problems without either sacrificing the dignity of Shell or causing the Chinese officials to lose face. My job was to manage the staff and act as liaison between the general manager and the Shell Labor Union, analyzing the union demands and working out compromises. I drafted the company’s more important correspondence with the Chinese government agencies, which had to be in the Chinese language. Whenever the general manager went on home leave or to Beijing for talks with Chinese government corporations, I acted as general manager. 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.

In the spring of 1966, Shell closed its Shanghai office after negotiating an “Assets against Liability Agreement” with a Chinese government agency. We handed over our assets in China, and the Chinese government agency took over our staff with the commitment to give them employment and provide retirement pensions. As a member of management, I was not included in the agreement; its scope was limited to our staff who belonged to the Shell Labor Union, a branch of the Shanghai Labor Union, which is a government organization for the control of industrial and office workers.

When the agreement was signed, my daughter, a young actress of the Shanghai Film Studio, was performing with her unit in North China. I thought I would make a trip to Hong Kong when she came back. But while I was waiting for her return, the Cultural Revolution was launched. My daughter’s group was hastily summoned back to Shanghai by the film studio to enable its members to take part in the Cultural Revolution. Since I knew that during a political movement government officials were reluctant to make decisions and that work in government departments generally slowed down, if not came to a complete standstill, I decided not to apply for a travel permit to Hong Kong and risk a refusal. A refusal would go into the personal dossier that the police kept on everyone. It might make future application difficult. So I remained in Shanghai, believing the Cultural Revolution would last no longer than a year, the usual length of time for a political campaign.

The tea cooled me somewhat. I got up to go into my bedroom next door, had a shower, and lay down on my bed. In spite of the heat, I dropped off to sleep. The next thing I knew, Chen-ma, my maid, was gently shaking me to wake me up.

I looked at the clock on my bedside table. It was only half past six, but sunlight was already on the awning outside the windows, and the temperature in the room was rising.

“Qi and another man from your old office have come to see you,” Chen-ma said.

“What do they want?” I asked her drowsily.

“They didn’t say. But they behaved in a very unusual manner. They marched straight into the living room and sat down on the sofa instead of waiting in the hall as they used to do before the office closed.”

“Who is the other man?” I asked as I headed for the bathroom. Qi, I knew, was the vice-chairman of our office branch of the Shanghai Labor Union. I had often conducted negotiations with him as part of my job. He had seemed a nice man: reasonable and conciliatory

“I don’t know his name. He hasn’t been here before. I think he may be one of the guards,” Chen-ma said. “He’s tall and thin.”

From Chen-ma’s description, I thought the man was one of the activists of the Shell union. We had no Party members. From the way the few activists in our office behaved, I knew they were encouraged to act as watchdogs for the Shanghai Labor Union. Since I had no direct contact with the activists, who were mostly guards or cleaners, I learned of their activities mainly from the department heads.

There was a knock on the door. Lao-zhao, my manservant, handed Chen-ma a tray and said through the half-open door, “They say the mistress must hurry.”

“All right, Lao-zhao,” I said. “Tell them I’ll be down presently. Give them a cold drink and some cigarettes.”

I did not hurry. I wanted time to think and be ready to cope with whatever was coming. The visit of these two men at this early hour of the morning was unusual. However, in China, when one had to attend a meeting to hear a lecture or political indoctrination, one was seldom told in advance. The officials assumed that everybody should drop everything whenever called upon to do so. I wondered whether these two men had come to ask me to join one of their political indoctrination lectures. I knew the Shanghai Labor Union was organizing classes for the ex-staff of Shell so that they could be prepared for their assignment to work with lower pay in government organizations.

While I ate toast and drank my tea, I reviewed the events leading to the closure of the Shell office and reexamined my own behavior throughout the negotiations between the company and the Chinese government agency. Although I had accompanied the general manager to all the sessions, I had not taken part in any of the discussions. It was my job only to observe and advise the general manager afterwards, when we returned to our office. I decided that if I was asked questions concerning Shell I could always procrastinate by offering to write to London for information.

I put on a white cotton shirt, a pair of gray slacks, and black sandals, the clothes Chinese women wore in public places to avoid being conspicuous. As I went downstairs I reflected that those who sent the men to call on me so early in the morning probably hoped to disconcert me. I walked slowly, deliberately creating the impression of composure.

When I entered the living room, I saw that both men were sprawled on the sofa with a glass of orangeade untouched on the table in front of each of them. When he saw me, Qi stood up from force of habit, but when he saw that the activist remained seated, he went red in the face with embarrassment and hastily sat down again. It was a calculated gesture of discourtesy on the part of the other man to remain seated when I entered the room. In 1949, not long after the Communist army entered Shanghai, the new policeman in charge of the area in which I lived had made the first of his periodic unannounced visits to our house. He brushed past Lao-zhao at the front door, marched straight into the living room, where I was, and spat on the carpet. That was the first time I saw a declaration of power made in a gesture of rudeness. Since then, I had come to realize that the junior officers of the Party often used the exaggerated gesture of rudeness to cover up their feeling of inferiority.

I ignored Qi’s confusion and the other man’s rudeness, sat down on a straight-backed chair, and calmly asked them, “Why have you come to see me so early in the morning?”

“We have come to take you to a meeting,” Qi said.

“You have been so slow that we will probably be late,” the other man added and stood up.

“What’s the meeting about?” I asked. “Who has organized it? Who has sent you to ask me to participate?”

“There’s no need to ask so many questions. We would not be here if we did not have authority. All the former members of Shell have to attend this meeting. It’s very important,” the activist said. In a tone of exasperation, he added, “Don’t you know the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution has started?”

“What has a cultural revolution got to do with us? We worked for a commercial firm, not a cultural establishment,” I said.

“Chairman Mao has said that everybody in China must take part in the Cultural Revolution,” Qi said.

They both said rather impatiently, “We are late. We must leave at once.”

Qi also stood up. I looked at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece; it was a quarter past eight.

Chen-ma was waiting in the hall with my handbag and a navy blue silk parasol. As I took them from her I smiled, but she did not smile back. She was staring at me anxiously, obviously worried.

“I’ll be back for lunch,” I tried to reassure her.

She merely nodded.

Lao-zhao was standing beside the open front gate. He also looked anxious but said nothing, simply closing the gate behind us.

The apprehension of my servants was completely understandable. We all knew that during the seventeen years of Mao Zedong’s rule innumerable people had left their homes during political campaigns and had never come back.

There were few people in the streets, but the bus was crowded with solemn-looking passengers. It took a circuitous route, so that we did not get to our destination until after nine o’clock.

A number of young men and women were gathered in front of the technical school where the meeting was to be held. When they caught sight of us approaching from the bus stop, a few ran into the building shouting, “They have come! They have come!”

A man came out and said to my escorts irritably, “Why have you been so long? The meeting was called for eight o’clock.”

The two men turned their heads in my direction and said, “Ask her!” before hurrying into the building.

This man now said to me, “Come this way.” I followed him into the meeting room.

The large room was already packed with people. Among those seated on narrow wooden benches in front of the assembly, I saw Shell’s physician and other senior members of the staff. The drivers, guards, elevator operators, cleaners, and clerks sat behind them among a large number of young people who were probably the students of the school. Quite a number stood in the aisles and in the space at the back of the hall. Hot sun streamed into the stifling room through bare windows, but very few people were using their fans. The atmosphere in the room was tense and expectant.

Although we had worked in the same office and seen one another daily for almost nine years, not one of the senior staff greeted me or showed any sign of recognition when I brushed past them to take up the seat allocated to me in the second row. Most of the men averted their eyes; the few whose gaze met mine looked deeply troubled.

I wondered what these men had been through in the months since Shell had closed its office. They were the real losers in the “Assets against Liability Agreement” reached between Shell and the People’s Government agency authorized to take them over. Nearly all the men had been with Shell for a very long time, some since the 1920s. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, some of them made the long and arduous journey from Shanghai to the company’s office in the wartime capital of Chongqing, abandoning home and family; others remained in the city and suffered great economic hardship rather than work for the Japanese oil company that had taken over Shell’s premises. Most of the men were nearly sixty and approaching retirement. The agreement specified that they were all to be given jobs in Chinese organizations. What was not mentioned was that they would not be given jobs commensurate with their former positions in Shell but would be employed as clerks or translators at a low rate of pay with much-reduced retirement pensions. None of them had dared to oppose the terms of the agreement since it was what the government wanted them to accept. Both the last general manager and I tried to obtain assurances from the union chairman, but we were told that every member of our staff was pleased with the terms of the agreement.

At my last meeting with the Shell union chairman, he had said to me, “Everybody is extremely pleased at the prospect of being freed from the anomalous position of working for a foreign firm. They all look forward to making a contribution to socialism as workers of a government organization.” That was the official line, in which even the union chairman himself could not possibly have believed. Senior members of the staff who came to my office during those last days would shake their heads and murmur sadly, “Meiyou fazi!”—a very common Chinese phrase meaning, “Nothing can be done,” or “It’s hopeless,” or “No way out,” or “There’s no solution.”

From nine o’clock to lunchtime, when the meeting might be adjourned, was more than three hours. The room was bound to get a great deal hotter as time went on. I knew I had to conserve energy while waiting for events to speak for themselves. The narrow wooden bench was just as uncomfortable as the one I had sat on during the war in a cave in Chongqing while Japanese planes rained incendiary bombs on the city. Perspiration was running down my face. I opened my bag to get a handkerchief. I saw that Chen-ma had put in it a small folding fan made of sandalwood with a painting of a peony on silk done by my painting teacher. I took it out and fanned myself to clear the air of the unpleasant odor of packed humanity.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the rear. Several men dressed in short-sleeved shirts and baggy cotton trousers came through the door at the back and mounted the low platform. One of them came forward to a small table covered with a white cloth while the others sat down in the row of chairs behind him. One could no longer assess a man’s station in life by his clothes in China because everybody tried to dress like a proletarian, a word the Chinese translated as wuchanzhe, which meant “a man with no property.” To look poor was both safe and fashionable for the Chinese people. So, while I could not tell the approximate rank or position of the man in charge of the meeting, I thought he must be an official of the Shanghai Labor Union.

“Comrades!” he said. “Our Great Leader Chairman Mao has initiated and is now personally directing the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. With our Great Helmsman to guide us, we shall proceed to victory without hindrance. The situation is excellent for us, the proletariat!

“The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is an opportunity for all of us to study the Thought of Mao Zedong more thoroughly and diligently than ever before so that our political awareness is sharpened. Only then can we truly differentiate between those who are in the ranks of the People and those who are on the side of the Enemy.

“The enemies of socialism are cunning. Some of them raise the red flag to oppose the red flag, while others present us with smiling faces to cover up their dirty schemes. They cooperate with the imperialists abroad and the capitalist class within to try to sabotage socialism and lead the Chinese people backwards to the misery and suffering of the old days. Should we allow them to succeed? Of course not! No! A hundred times no!

“It’s seventeen years since the people of Shanghai were liberated. Yet, until recently, foreign firms remained in our city. Their offices occupied prominent locations, and their cars sped through our streets. The foreigners and the few Chinese who forgot their national identity and worked with them swaggered around with insolence. We all know these firms were agents of the imperialists, who hoped to continue their exploitation of the Chinese people. We could not tolerate this state of affairs, so we have closed their doors and thrown out the foreigners. Most of the Chinese on their staffs have been contaminated, and their way of thinking is confused. But we must also recognize the fact that some of them are downright reactionaries. It’s our job to implement our Great Leader Chairman Mao’s policy of educating and reforming them. For several months we have conducted political indoctrination classes for them. But no one can be reformed if he himself does not come face to face with reality and recognize and admit the facts of his own mistakes. Self-criticism and confession are the first steps towards reform. In order to make a real effort at self-criticism, a man must be helped by the criticism of others. Today’s meeting is called to criticize Tao Feng and to hear his self-criticism.

“You all know who Tao Feng is. For nearly thirty-five years he was a faithful running dog of Shell Petroleum Company, which is an international corporation of gigantic size with tendrils reaching into every corner of the world to suck up profit. This, according to Lenin, is the worst form of capitalist enterprise.

“Capitalism and socialism are like fire and water. They are diametrically opposed. Tao Feng could not have served the interests of the British firm and remained a good Chinese citizen under socialism. For a long time we have tried to help him see the light . . .”

I was surprised to learn that Tao Feng, the former chief accountant of our office, was the target of the meeting, because I had always thought the Party looked upon him with favor. His eldest son had been sent to both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia for advanced studies at the government’s expense in the fifties, and the young man had later joined the Party. I knew that when a student was selected to go abroad, the Party always made a thorough investigation of his background, including his father’s character, occupation, and political viewpoint. Tao Feng must have passed this test at the time his son was sent abroad. I could not understand why he had now been singled out for criticism.

Since the very beginning of the Communist regime, I had carefully studied books on Marxism and pronouncements by Chinese Communist Party leaders. It seemed to me that socialism in China was still very much an experiment and no fixed course of development for the country had yet been decided upon. This, I thought, was why the government’s policy was always changing, like a pendulum swinging from left to right and back again. When things went to extremes and problems emerged, Beijing would take corrective measures. Then these very corrective measures went too far and had to be corrected. The real difficulty was, of course, that a state-controlled economy stifled productivity, and economic planning from Beijing ignored local conditions and killed incentive.

When a policy changed from above, the standard of values changed with it. What was right yesterday became wrong today, and vice versa. Thus the words and actions of a Communist Party official at the lower level were valid for a limited time only. So I decided the meeting I was attending was not very important and that the speaker was just a minor Party official assigned to conduct the Cultural Revolution for the former staff of Shell. The Cultural Revolution seemed to me to be a swing to the left. Sooner or later, when it had gone too far, corrective measures would be taken. The people would have a few months or a few years of respite until the next political campaign. Mao Zedong believed that political campaigns were the motivating force for progress. So I thought the Proletarian Cultural Revolution was just one of an endless series of upheavals the Chinese people must learn to put up with.

I looked around the room while listening with one ear to the speaker’s tirade. It was then that I noticed the banner on the wall that said, “Down with the running dog of imperialism Tao Feng.” The two characters of his name were crossed with red X’s to indicate he was being denounced as an enemy. This banner had escaped my notice when I entered the room because there were so many banners with slogans of the Cultural Revolution covering the walls. Slogans were an integral part of life in China. They exalted Mao Zedong, the Party, socialism, and anything else the Party wanted the people to believe in; they exhorted the people to work hard, to study Mao Zedong Thought, and to obey the Party. When there was a political campaign, the slogans denounced the enemies. Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand. It was impossible to read all that one encountered. It was very easy to look at them without really seeing what was written.

The man was now talking about Tao’s decadent way of life resulting from long association with capitalism. It seemed he was guilty of having extramarital relations, drinking wine and spirits to excess, and enjoying elaborate meals, all acts of self-indulgence frowned upon by the Party. These accusations did not surprise me, because I knew that when a man was denounced, he was depicted as totally bad and any errant behavior was attributed to the influence of capitalism.

When the man had thoroughly dissected Tao’s private life and exposed the corrosive effect of capitalism on him, his tone and manner became more serious. He turned to the subject of imperialism and aggression against China by foreign powers. To him Tao’s mistakes were made not because he was a greedy man with little self-control but because he had worked for a firm that belonged to a nation guilty of acts of aggression against the Chinese people more than a hundred years ago. He was talking about the Opium War of 1839-42 as if it had taken place only the year before.

Though he used the strong language of denunciation and often raised his voice to shout, he delivered his speech in a leisurely manner, pausing frequently either to drink water or to consult his notes. He knew he had a captive audience, since no one would dare to leave while the meeting was going on. A Party official, no matter how lowly his rank, was a representative of the Party. When he spoke, it was the Party speaking. It was unthinkable not to appear attentive. However, he had been speaking for a long time. The room had become unbearably hot, and the audience was getting restive. I looked at my watch and found it was nearly twelve o’clock. Perhaps the speaker was also tired and hungry, for he suddenly stopped and told us the meeting was adjourned until one-thirty. Everybody was up and heading for the exits even before he had quite finished speaking.