A Matter of Life and Death
It was only a matter of time before she, too, became a victim
Nien Cheng had planned on running a few errands, but she was startled to see a group of people right in front of her seize a pretty, young woman. While one group member held the woman down, another one removed he shoes and a third one cut the legs of her slacks open.
“Why do you wear shoes with pointed toes? Why do you wear slacks with narrow legs?” One of the group shouted.
The woman struggled and protested. “I’m a worker! I’m not a member of the capitalist class!”
But her assailants removed her slacks, to the amusement of the crowd that had gathered on the street corner to watch. The mob laughed and jeered as her tormentors slapped her face. Someone opened her bag and examined her work pass, then threw her clothes back to her. The young woman dressed hastily, then hurried off, shoeless and humiliated.
Nien Cheng, who had watched the unfolding drama in horror, was relieved that she had worn an old shirt and loose-fitting trousers. She had even thought to cover her beautiful hair with a hat. With these nondescript clothes, she didn’t draw the attention of the group and was able to finish her errands without harassment.
But it was only a matter of time before she, too, became a victim. Tension had been building. Day and night resounded with the noise of drums and gongs as groups of young people roamed the streets near her home.
News of ransacking and looting across the city reached her from different sources, and the violence seemed to be escalating. At first, violence had been confined to the business areas. Now private homes were being ransacked, their residents terrorized and sometimes killed.
A dark and terrible night
The night they banged on Nien Cheng’s door, things were unusually quiet, almost as if the house were holding its breath, waiting for destruction. The windows were open, and the perfume of the magnolia tree in the garden wafted in on a cool autumn breeze. Calm, like the eye of a hurricane, was not to last.
From the direction of the street, she heard a faint murmur that gradually grew louder. She listened and waited, filled with dread. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by a furious pounding on her door, and Nien Cheng’s heart began to pound, too.
They were here! No more waiting!
The young people, their voices hysterical, shoved open the door and rushed in. There were about forty of them between fifteen and twenty years old, led by two people much older. “We have come to take revolutionary action against you!” The one who appeared to be their leader shouted. He was a lanky man, angry and belligerent, his eyes filled with hate.
Nien Cheng was ready. She held up a copy of the Constitution and told them it was against the law to enter a private house without a search warrant.
The wild-eyed man snatched the document from her hand and threw it to the floor. “The Constitution is abolished! We have abolished it!”
Sadly, Nien Cheng knew there was nothing else she could do. These people were government-sanctioned, and no police officer would dare interfere. She watched as another young man used a stick to smash a mirror facing the door. This seemed to unleash the group. In a furious night of destruction, they smashed her porcelain collection, annihilated her furniture, and destroyed 300-year-old antiques. When she tried to protest, they kicked and beat her. The slight, middle-aged woman was no match for this gang.
The situation gets worse
But things did not stop with the destruction of Nien Cheng’s home. This was only the beginning of her ordeal. A few days later, the government placed her under house arrest and the public denunciations began. She was ushered to a building and dragged to a platform, where she was ordered to confess her crimes.
She had worked for a capitalist company, Shell Oil, and her work had previously been sanctioned and approved by the government. But times had changed, and former employees were forced to denounce their capitalist associates. Many lied, falsely denouncing others, in their hope of avoiding imprisonment. But Nien Cheng refused to lie. She insisted she wasn’t a criminal. She was guilty of nothing.
“Our patience is exhausted. We could give you the death penalty, but we want you to reform. Are you going to confess?” One of her tormentors said. The mob of people who had gathered for this public humiliation waited expectantly. But the fearless woman answered calmly that she had nothing to confess. She had done no wrong.
Silently, she recited the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, and this gave her strength. Lifting her head, she repeated in a voice that was loud and firm, “I have nothing to confess.”
Nien Cheng’s indomitable spirit and sense of justice would see the fifty-one-year-old woman through seven years of imprisonment and solitary confinement. She was tortured, her body permanently damaged, and at times she barely survived. But she would never admit to lies or denounce anyone.
Determined to survive
She dreamed of being free so she could be reunited with her beautiful daughter, Meiping.
While in prison, she became so sick that prison guards called a doctor. Nien Cheng was surprised to discover the doctor had no medical training at all, because the government deemed university training unecessary. Peasants were taken from farms and given jobs as doctors, and doctors were sent to work on farms in place of the peasants. This was part of an attempt to equalize things between the classes and move toward a more classless and less discriminatory society.
Nien Cheng was interrogated over and over again, sometimes for hours at a time, until her voice was hoarse and her legs badly swollen from standing. Sometimes when she returned to her cell, no food was saved for her. The next day she was escorted to the interrogation room and the process began all over again.
She lost her teeth from malnutrition and her hands were handcuffed behind her back for days at a time. She was forced to use the toilet and eat without the use of her hands, and only her strong will and determination to live sustained her.
Finally, unable to break her, the authorities released her after seven long years in prison. But her nightmare did not end. She was devastated to learn that her beautiful daughter Meiping had been murdered. Once again, Nien Cheng was forced to call on every ounce of inner strength and fortitude.
There had been many murders carried out by The Red Guard, those militant young people encouraged by Mao Zedong to wreak destruction and havoc across the country. Meiping was one of a long list of casualties during that nightmarish time.
Eventually Nien Cheng escaped to the United States, where she wrote her extraordinary first-hand account of life and imprisonment during China’s cultural revolution. But her book, Life and Death in Shanghai, is more than a personal account of this historical and devastating time. It is a testament to the courage of one woman and to the nobility of the human spirit.
Source: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Grove Press, New York