Preparing for my Shanghai trip
Prior to my business trip to Shanghai in April 2006, I wanted to read up on the city’s political and social history. I peered through my book shelf and saw a copy of Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng. I had bought the book a few years ago from a library book sale because it looked like an interesting read; however, I had never read the book. So, I thought this was a good opportunity for me to educate myself on a slice of Shanghai ’s past.
Cheng's book recounts in compelling details her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong's red guards in the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being an “imperial spy,” but she never gave in during her six years of solitary confinement. Her only daughter Meiping was murdered in the first year of her incarceration, but she did not find out until shortly before she was released. The Library Journal wrote, “We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism.”
I stayed up all night to read the final 150 pages of the 560 page book. It sounds trite, but I could not put the book down. Parts of her book will make you cry. When I finished the book, I was so moved that I wanted to see if the author was still alive. She was 71 when the book was published in 1986, so she would be 91 now. Instinctively, I googled her. I found a DC address and a phone number. When I called, an elderly woman’s voice was on the outgoing message, “Please leave your name and number.” So, I suspected that she was still alive. I wrote her a little note thanking her for writing the book. I also wrote that if it is possible, it would be my honor to meet her one day. I did not expect a reply.
That Memorial Day weekend, I went hiking in the mountains of Western Maine . When I returned, I found a message in my email account from the author. She wrote that ever since her book was published, she has never refused to see a reader. “I am honored when a reader wants to see me. Generally they are interested in China. Usually they are full of interesting questions.”
Nien’s friends have cautioned her on welcoming so many visitors: “They ask me, ‘why do you let all these visitors come? What if they kill you?’ But, why would they do that? I’ve never done anyone wrong.”
After a few months of email exchanges, we finally settled on an afternoon meeting for August 19, 2006 .
When I meet her, I shake her hands. They are pale and slightly gnarled—the result of arthritis compounded by six years of torture at the hands of fanatical red guards. “It is an honor to meet you,” I began.
“It is good to meet you. It is always good to see young Chinese. You know, most of my visitors are American (meaning, non-Chinese).”
At 91, Nien appears to be more energetic than many 70 year olds. She is skinny, upbeat and very lucid. Her hair is now completely white. Glasses sit atop her sharp nose. She speaks in a cheerful tone with a slight British accent.
“Should I take my shoes off?” I ask politely.
There are fresh vacuum tracks on the blue-green carpet. “No, that’s not necessary,” she says as she invites me in to sit down on the couch. She walks to the kitchen to prepare tea.
Her living room walls are decorated with various Chinese scrolls. On one side of the room by the door, books line the shelves. I see a few Chinese end tables here and there.
I take out my two prepared gifts: a small package of baklava from my corner Halal meat store and a package of Taiwan ’s High Mountain green tea. She accepts the baklava, having never eaten it before, but declines the tea. I think she is just being polite. “You must accept the tea,” I insist.
“I cannot. It’s a medical condition—I’ll explain.”
She serves me a huge piece of Black Forest chocolate cake with frosting and two cups of tea. When I begin to drink, she explains that both cups of tea are for me. She cannot drink tea. She had one of her kidneys removed many years ago. Since then, her doctor has advised her to abstain from tea, since the acid will build up in her remaining kidney and eventually damage it, killing her. “From the time my kidney fails to my death, there will be about three days,” she explains in a matter-of-fact way.
As a young woman, she studied at the Yan J ing University in Shandong Province . Her father, who was fond of Britain , sent her to study at one of England ’s finest Universities. People in England , he said, knew their places in society. In other words, he preferred the class distinctions. (Nien observed however, that the US is special because “in one generation, you can do better than your parents.”)
Her tutor at the London School of Economics could not pronounce her name Yao Nien Yuan, so suggested that she adopt “Nancy” or “Nina.” She refused. She asked her tutor to simply call her Nien. In time, she would take her husband’s surname Cheng to form Nien Cheng. However, to her American friends now, she is known simply as Nien.
While at School in London , she met a young Mr. Cheng, whom she would eventually marry. He invited her to movies and dinners and would go to the country with her on a green bus only after lunch because of his morning church service. A religious man, he began to invite Nien to his Presbyterian Church service. Despite a Buddhist mother and a non-religious father, she would eventually adopt Christianity. She is now Methodist.
A Return Visit to England
In the mid 1980s, She made a visit to some friends and former coworkers from Shell Oil, her old company. While staying at their home, the daughter of her hosts was also visiting from school. She invited along her friend, who was in the book publishing business. When Nien recounted her story and her completed manuscript, the daughter’s friend wanted to read it. Nien promised to send her a copy.
After she returned to DC, she went to the post office to post a copy of the manuscript to London . “At the time, I did not have much money,” recounted Ms. Cheng. The package would cost her about $20. She asked for a lower rate. The clerk explained that the lowest rate was surface or about $6.00, which sounded like a much more reasonable figure to the cash-strapped author. She understood that at the surface rate, the package could easily take a month or more to make its way to London on a ship.
Later, she received a phone call from London . It was the book publisher. “Nien—have you had a chance to post the manuscript yet?”
Nien explained that she had indeed, about a week earlier.
“But, I have not yet received it,” she replied.
“I sent it by surface,” Nien explained.
Her book publishing friend was stupefied.
After the manuscript arrived safely and the book publishing friend read it, she offered Nien £30,000 (In today’s currency, accounting for inflation, this amount is roughly $100,000). Having never published or sold a manuscript before, Nien consulted some friends in New York City . Both of them advised her to accept right away for some key reasons: first, since she was an unknown author, many publishers would not take a chance on her. Second, £30,000 wasn’t a bad amount for a first book. Once the book came out, it became a bestseller. Soon, publishers in the US and Australia wanted to buy the rights to her manuscript.
The speaking invitations arrived shortly after the book was published. First, it was the Universities. So, Nien traveled across the country speaking to young people about her story. Then, corporations and businesses came calling, asking her to speak to their conventions. She traveled to Japan and many other places for a few years. In Japan , she delivered five speeches at $10,000 each.
One year, President Ronald Reagan invited her to a state dinner. She sat to one side and another guest from Central America sat to his other side. However, the other guest spoke no English, so required a translator. So, President Reagan was more comfortable speaking with Nien the entire night.
She served on a special government commission to sponsor a radio program that would be broadcast to the Chinese. Similar to the Voice of America, the program would teach democracy to the Chinese audience. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) sponsored the legislation creating the program. To dedicate herself fully to this government appointment, she cancelled her speaking engagements for the year.
Nien believes her book has been more successful than other accounts of the Cultural Revolution for two reasons. First, her book contains historic background besides an account of her personal suffering. Understandably, her book is used in high school classrooms and universities to study the Cultural Revolution. Second, she did not use too many Chinese names, which can be very confusing for Western readers. For example, she would introduce her cook as Lao Zhao, but thereafter refer to him simply as “the cook.” Nien recently bought three copies of the new book Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chung. She kept one for herself, but gave away two to friends. One friend says she cannot finish the book because “there are too many names for her to keep track of.”
I’ve found that forgiveness is a strong theme in Christianity. In 1981, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt. Two years later, he forgave his would-be assassin and even met with him in prison, saying “I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust." What feelings does Nien hold for her red guard tormentors? Surprisingly, Nien says she has forgiven them, saying simply, “They were doing their jobs.” However, “I cannot forgive my daughter’s murderer.”
I pull out my copy of her book and ask for her autograph. She takes the book to her living room table.
“What is today’s date?” Nien asks me as she begins to pen her note and autograph to me.
“August 19.” I reply.
“Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday,” she says softly.
I do a quick calculation in my head. Her daughter Meiping would be about 60 had she lived.
“Please come back in a few months, maybe late September or October and tell me how your law school plans go. I’ve given up driving, so if you come with a car, we can go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant.”
I thank her and shake her hand a final time. These are the hands that typed up her manuscript five times on a manual typewriter.
I look at my watch -- 8:20pm . Four hours have passed.
I leave feeling that I’ve been blessed by meeting a graceful lady, whose best revenge of all may be that she has outlived her tormentors. I detect not a hint of anger or bitterness at those who caused her so much pain.
She has already suffered enough for many lifetimes. She lost her home, her liberty, her daughter and nearly lost her life. Despite all these setbacks, Nien maintains a remarkably optimistic Life Philosophy: everyday is a new day. Naturally, on the front cover of the book, she is smiling in her picture. I now know why.