Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Life and Death in Shanghai is an amazing book about an amazing woman. The tone in which she tells her own story is deadpan, but the events are extremely dramatic. If you’ve never read about the Cultural Revolution, it’s eye-opening.

Some of my memories of the book are:

  • how Nien Cheng’s private home was turned into living quarters for several families, and regular household routines were disrupted by food rationing;
  • how when destructive Red Guards came knocking, Nien Cheng tried to preserve, and in only some cases succeeded in preserving, some antiques she had in her house, by relinquishing them to be stored in government museums;
  • and how after she was arrested, she had to live in a freezing concrete cell, where her food was insufficient and her clothing was insufficiently warm, yet she maintained exquisite poise and self-assurance.

A few passages from the book are reproduced below.

Quotes from Life and Death in Shanghai

Communism vs. capitalism:

[T]he classless society of Communism had a more rigid class system than the despised capitalist society, where a man could move from the lower to the upper class by his own effort. (28)

The 1976 Tangshan earthquake:

In July, an earthquake registering eight on the Richter scale hit Tangshan, an industrial and mining city in North China. There was no warning because the State Bureau of Seismology was embroiled in a new round of power struggles and its work  was completely paralysed. The city was 80 percent destroyed and over a million inhabitants died or were severely wounded. The quake area included both Peking and Tiensin where, though casualties were not heavy, houses collapsed and thousands were rendered homeless. As the news of the earthquake spread all over the country, rumours of government ineptitude and inability to cope with the situation spread with it. (429–30)

There’s a bureau for everything:

A few days after I handed in my application form for the passport to go to the United States, Ah-yee brought me an official-looking letter. It was from ‘The Bureau for Sorting Looted Goods’, which I thought was a unique title for a government department…. Now that the government decreed that looted goods should be returned to their owners, the local officials had to make a show of doing so. Thus they organized this Bureau to put on an act and invited us to take part. When a sufficient number of receipts for worthless objects had been collected and enough pledges made to relinquish claims, the work of returning looted goods to their rightful owners could be considered accomplished successfully. (458)

What does ‘egalitarian’ even mean?

Since I left Shanghai, I have met many Europeans and Americans who thought Communist China was an egalitarian society. This simply is not true. The fact is the Communist Government controls goods, services and opportunities and dispenses them to the people in unequal proportions…. Though the salary of a member of the Politburo was no more than eight or ten times that of an industrial worker, the goods and services available to him and his family without charge was comparable to those enjoyed by kings and presidents of other lands. (469)

When and Why I Read Life and Death in Shanghai

This was hands down the best of the five books I got from my Canadian friend in Singapore when she moved away.

Genre: non-fiction (China, biography)
Date started / date finished:  11-Nov-13 to 26-Nov-13
Length: 492 pages
ISBN: 9780006548614 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1986
Amazon link: Life and Death in Shanghai