Life and Death in Shanghai


“Are you going to confess, or do you want more punishment?”

Life and Death in Shanghai is Nien Cheng’s autobiography of her imprisonment in Shanghai’s No. 1 Detention House during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Since Cheng had been a high-ranking official in a foreign company and had many foreign friends, the Chinese Communist Party accused her of being a spy. She stayed in the detention house for six years while party workers urged her to confess.

What I found most extraordinary about Cheng is her ability to endure hardship. She always displayed a strong will and a sharp intellect, no matter how hopeless her situation. Even when she was beaten by the guards and left in handcuffs that tore at her wrists, she refused to confess and struggled to survive. Her resilience, despite bloodied hands and fingers that had swollen to the “size of carrots,” amazes me.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book, it did not command my attention. Like most autobiographies, it lacked the typical plot development of a work of fiction. This is in part because more than half the story was out of Cheng’s control–she was forced to wait in a room for six years, and was only allowed out for walks or interrogations. The narrative, since it mirrors her experience, is repetitive and slow-moving.

Overall, Cheng is more impressive than her autobiography. I did, however, find this book more interesting when I considered it alongside my AP Comparative Government and Politics class. Cheng’s story helped me to understand the timeline of Mao Zedong’s rule and to remember the names of other important communist leaders because she wove chronology of the revolution into her own personal story.


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