Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

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 after the Communists came to power in 1949. Chinese by birth, Nien Cheng and her husband had been educated in England. Her husband was head of Shell Oil for many years. He died of cancer in 1957. Nien was then asked to assist in the running of Shell in China. mykindredlife

In 1966 The Chinese Cultural Revolution burst onto the streets like the 1938 Nazi Crystal Night. It was a highly organised, political movement, aimed at removing all opposition, all disagreement to Mao Tse-tung. Anyone who showed the slightest opposition to his authority was murdered by the Red Guards. If you have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, then you have a very good idea of The Cultural Revolution in China. The similarities are uncanny.

As the attack on intellectuals, teachers, artists, became more intense Nien Cheng was denounced. Her daughter, a member of the Communist Youth, selected for a position in the National Film School as an actress was allowed to go free.

In the following weeks Nien Cheng was questioned often. It was hinted that Shell had done something wrong, something illegal, but no one knew what or by whom. The ex-staff had to write out criticisms of themselves and Shell, then they were questioned about their actions. Nien had amazing mental strength, despite great psychological pressure, she always maintained neither Shell or herself had taken any action harmful to the Chinese Government.

The Cultural Revolution was a struggle for power between the Maoists and the less radical faction led by Liu Shao-chi and Deng Hsiao-ping. To assist in this power struggle the Red Guards were created, they were mostly teenagers, manipulated by older Maoists. They were formed into roving bands, like Vikings, attacking everyone, and becoming more and more extreme in their views and self-righteousness. diagnozujmy

In the beginning the Red Guards’ enemy was the “capitalist class”, so most people felt safe. Before long, it widened to include anyone who was not a Red Guard, and even then, suspicion could come to them for not shouting loudly enough.

Those in professions, like university staff, were required to denounce everyone else within the organisation. If they could not come up with criticism, and lists of betrayers, it meant that they must be protecting enemies of the state. So people made up false stories about other members of their organisation to protect themselves, which led to more and more people being questioned and imprisoned.

It was not long before people were indiscriminately attacked by the Red Guards. Houses were smashed, people dragged through the streets by ropes, beaten, accused of all kinds of sabotage, and then came looting and murder. Maoists congratulated the Red Guard, encouraging them to accuse, destroy, steal, and murder.

The Red Guard was now recruiting everyone they could, schools and universities were closed. If you did not wish to join the Red Guard it meant that you must be against the teachings of Mao Tse-tung. The country was falling into ruin. Farmers became revolutionaries and left for the cities, Red Guards took what they wanted, factories were closed down, law and order decayed. The Red Guards felt important and declined to pay for travel or goods. Food became scarce, banks ran out of money, no one was paid; everyone was the enemy. Schools and universities were shut down. Intellectuals — people who had been to high school — doctors, teachers, skilled people, were sent to the countryside to work as farmers.

The cultural revolution, lasted for about ten years, in which time a million people were murdered by the Red Guards, thousands committed suicide, and hundreds of thousands of people were beaten, interrogated, robbed, tortured, and imprisoned.

As the war against intellectuals, rightists, capitalists, artists, continued in ever widening circles, it came to include children of capitalists. This meant that Nien’s daughter was no longer considered innocent, but was denounced as a class-enemy. Like others, she had to spend her time writing confessions and self-criticisms over and over in an attempt to purge herself of impure political thoughts, even though she was a member of the Communist Youth.


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