Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tea Time with Ms. Nien Cheng 8/19/06

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.”

The meeting
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.

Lecture circuit
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.


Kay said...

Hi Andy!

This is Kay, Ed's friend. Ed forwarded me your recent post. I hope everything is well with you. Thanks for posting your meeting with Ms. Cheng. I am currently reading the book and I enjoy it very much. So I guess thanks for inadvertently introducing me to this book as well. =)

andylei said...


Thanks for your note. I'm glad to know you are enjoying the book. I learned so much about the Cultural Revolution from her book. I hope you, too, can meet her one day.


yeah right said...

I'm so impressed that you met up with her. Seriously, forget law school, go to journalism school! I'll even write you a recommendation, a really good one I promise! From an unemployed journalist trying to make a documentary about trash. How could they say no?!
Seriously, if you have ANY interest in journalism at all let's talk. I think your talents would be wasted locked up in some clerk office or whatever you have to do for x number of years before they let you into the courtroom.

Michele said...

Just finished her book. She is a remarkable strong and determine inspiring woman. Reading this book made me appreciate even more of our freedom of speech that is sometimes taken for granted here in the US compared to some countries, like China, North Korea, Iraq or Iran.

Ruth said...

Amazing! I wish I could meet her.She is a wonderful woman.I am only halfway through the book and I am happy she survived to tell her tale.

kalani said...

I read Mrs. Cheng's book after I took a trip to China in 1998. A marvelous writer she is. I have read her book at least 3 times. I too, had a hard time putting it down. I later wrote her...the first time I felt compelled to write an author, but also wish very much that I could meet her...through you, I felt like I have...thanks.

Mushu727 said...

Hello Andy,
I'm a Chinese, and sorry for being rude and just asking you like this I know it must be random and unexpected for you, however being really bad at doing research on the internet I guess you are my only hope. I've been trying to find Nien Cheng's contact details ever since I read her book 8 years ago, (I was too young then to fly to DC by myself). She is a phenomenal woman and I truly am a big fan, her book was so inspirational... It would be such a great honor to have the pleasure of meeting her, so I'm asking please if you could give me her e-mail or phone number or any form of contact?
I swear to god I mean no harm, I'm just a big fan.
Thank you and God Bless,
my email address is:

Mushu727 said...

Sorry I was so excited that I forgot to mention my name..
My name is Spencer Chu

Best Regards and Thanks again

Suon said...

Hi Andy.
I am Suon and I came upon your wonderful description of your meeting with Ms.Nien Cheng, Aug 19 '06. Thank you for sharing.
I am currently writing an essay on Ms. Cheng , as part of MAcourse in Biography.
I read her book when it was first published, twenty years ago, and it left a lasting impression. Re-reading it has been even more illuminating, given all the changes in China.
I am travelling to NY at Xmas 08. Where would I be able to write to / visit Ms. Cheng?

Suza Francina said...

I just finished reading Life and Death in Shanghai. I wanted to know more about Nien Cheng and found this article, "Tea Time with Ms. Nien Cheng, 8/19/06". Thank you so much for sharing your visit with us. Just wonderful to read this.

jiro1180 said...

You are very lucky to meet Nien Cheng! Where is she now? She's a woman of courage. I really like her. I was very touched when I read "Life and Death in Shanghai" way back in 2001.

barbara said...

I just finished reading Life and Death In Shangai for the 4th time. The book originally belonged to my grandmother. I had borrowed it to read shortly before her death and upon her death it became mine. I treasure this book for both the connection to my grandmother and the wonderful story. I am fascinated by the history of the Chinese people.

David said...


I just read Nien Cheng's book and, like you and the other people posting, wanted to connect with her. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It is the kind of conversation I wanted to know about.

It is now spring of 2009, and a debate is underway whether an investigation should be made of how the US government lapsed into condoning torture following 9/11.

Nien Cheng's book is a reminder of how delicate the verneer of civiliation can be, and how we all have a duty to stand up for what is right.

Puzhong said...

Hi, Andy, I am wondering whether you can kindly pass on Mrs Cheng's phone number to me if that is possible. I am so touched with the book I really really want to speak to her in person. Thank you, my e-mail is Thanks a million.

Sharmila Valli said...

Hi Andy,
I am from Malaysia and I just finished reading Nien Cheng's book early this morning (around 3.30am). I have not been able to get her off my mind. I decided to google her to see if she is still alive and I was delighted to come across your blog. What a lucky person you are that you actually got to meet her. I notice that your blog is dated 2006. Is Ms Cheng still alive? If she is, does she read emails? If yes, could I please have her email address if not at least her home address? I would very much like to write her a letter or email telling her how much I admire her courage.
I knew that the Cultural revolution was bad for China --I got a glimpse of it in June Chang's Wild Swans. But Ms Cheng memoirs was...I have no words to describe it. She is a very remarkable woman to have withstood all that mental and physical torture. It is true what Churchill said that human bodies can take more punishment that mortar and stones.
I was amazed at her quick thinking and her intellect...that she could think on her feet, turn the argument against her captors and use Mao's quotations for her own benefit and wriggle out of impossible situations. Most of all, her mental strength and moral conviction that she did no wrong and did not break down despite all that was thrown at her. I had tears when I read the part where she feared her daughter was killed...the only thing that had kept her going. This book should have been made into a movie --- but will there be brave Chinese film makers who are ready to take up the task?
China is blessed that it had Deng Ziao Peng who picked up the pieces after the mess left behind by decades of Maoism. That country owes a debt it cannot repay to Deng and his successors. And you know what is scary about the book -- if the pendulum were to swing to the extreme again, would such conditions as what happened during Cultural Revolution be allowed to happen again? Will a people of a nation be allowed themselves to be led blindly by slogans and turn on its own citizen again?
My email is Thank you so much.

paula said...

Hello, is Oct. 22, 2009, and I have just read this remarkable memoir. Is Nien Cheng still alive? I would love to contact her and thank her for such a powerful book. Thank you for sharing your experience. Paula LaBrot

AllanF said...

She died this week, I read this book twenty two years ago when I was in college. still have it, very compelling read from a time when we had a very different view of China...

Edward said...,0,5650075.story

One of my greatest regrets will forever be that I did not write you that letter I promised. You will be missed and remembered by all. I cannot thank you enough.

L F said...

梅平是我的小姨, 她比我大5岁,我们小时非常亲密。在1957年底前,在我的学校暑期休假和冬季假期之间我常常住宿在他们的家里. 当时我很喜欢和她睡在同一个房间谈至午夜,看书,玩......我也很喜欢他们的狗.有很多的有趣的回忆将会与我的永远在一起。最后一次我看到她是1964年在我前往沙漠之前, 当时我16岁,她是21岁. 数年之后(1966年)我返回上海时梅平已经走了,我带着我的朋友们一起去看了曾经有她的尸体躺在那里的在南京路上的人行道. 我记得, 当时我在我的心里面尖叫着...我流泪了.

Lily F

L F said...

梅平是我的小姨, 她比我大5岁,我们小时非常亲密。在1957年底前,在我的学校暑期休假和冬季假期之间我常常住宿在他们的家里. 当时我很喜欢和她睡在同一个房间谈至午夜,看书,玩......我也很喜欢他们的狗.有很多的有趣的回忆将会与我的永远在一起。最后一次我看到她是1964年在我前往沙漠之前, 当时我16岁,她是21岁. 数年之后(1966年)我返回上海时梅平已经走了,我带着我的朋友们一起去看了曾经有她的尸体躺在那里的在南京路上的人行道. 我记得, 当时我在我的心里面尖叫着...我流泪了.

Lily F

jgurl5 said...

Thank you so much for posting your blog. I am a great admirer of Nien Cheng and you are certainly fortunate to have met with her. I was saddened to hear of her recent death though I am happy that she can now be with her daughter once again. Dec 8th 2009

Michael Stanton said...

I too stayed up all night to read her book. It was riveting. What an honor that you got to meet her! Thank you for sharing your experience!

Seroun said...

Hi Andy!
I first met Ms. Cheng when she first published her book and she gave a talk on the top floor of the USA Today building for a journalists association. At the end of the speech she said that she had lost her daughter and would welcome visitors and would like to enjoy their children so I offered her that since I had two small girls at the time. It was a coincidence that she came from the same town as my father in China. I invited her to my annual home Christmas party. Sometimes I would see her walking around the shops at Friendship Heights and would greet her.

It is a great loss and tragic that she had to live alone in Washington, but she made the best of it with nice neighbors that I heard of. I will miss seeing her. She was a strong person and taught us many lessons. God bless Nien!

Pat said...


Thank you for your comments following your meeting with Ms. Cheng. I was cleaning out my bookshelf and took this book out to be recycled at a local bookstore even though it was a book I enjoyed very much. After reading your comments and those of others who have posted, I decided to read it again; I'm so glad I did. Ms. Cheng's courage was remarkable. She was tortured for that constant display of courage, but she remained who she was, and I doubt she ever regretted it.

Peace to Ms. Cheng.

Sarah said...

I am almost finished reading her book. I wish I knew about this book years earlier so I could have had a chance to meet her before she passed away. She is such an inspirational and graceful lady. Her soul never surrendered to the horrible torture and her spirit always stayed with the truth. Her mind was never confused. Her book touched my heart and let me love life and truth more.

thinking for dummies said...


This is such a wonderful entry. I came across this because I was trying to do a search of where the late Ms. Cheng lived while she was in Washington DC (where I currently live) and where she is buried now so I may pay her homage at either place. Please let me know if you can provide this information! Thank you!

Salim Saw said...

I was sad to learn that Nien died in 2009. In the comments on your blog, there was a lady, Lily who is related to Nien's daughter and must hence be related to Nien who wrote about her sleeps over in their house in 1957. I have tried in vain to contact Lily, to know more about Nien's and her daughter's life.Can you or someone help. Thank you. My email is :

charlotte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
charlotte said...

I am reading this book right now and have been so deeply impressed by Mrs.Cheng's wisdom and integrity.

Could anyone tell me where she was buried??? I really hope to pay a visit and honor this great woman.

Unknown said...

I read Nien's book in 1997 while visiting friends in Hong Kong and many times since. This was during the Chinese taking back Hong Kong's sovereignty from the Brits. Locals, many of whom were ex-patriots from the auto industries of North America and Europe, were disturbed that there were armed Chinese soldiers on many of the street corners throughout the city proper--something they certainly weren't used to. I heard about the book from the ex-pats and to my delight,found it in downtown Hong Kong bookstore. It was riveting--an auto biography of Nien Cheng's personal suffering and the vivid historical events in 1966 through the early 1970's--I couldn't put it down. I've since read it many times. I love her will and strength. Thank you Nien!