Knowing the Lord was with her sustained Nien Cheng in a Red Chinese prison.
“The past is forever with me and I remember it all.” So begins the haunting first chapter of Life and Death in Shanghai, the vivid portrayal of one Chinese woman’s life, imprisonment, torture, and release during Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s.
Today Nien Cheng lives in a one-bedroom condominium in Washington, D.C. She wrote her book on a manual typewriter on a mahogany desk near a window overlooking Cathedral Avenue.
The view is far different than the one she enjoyed from her elegant home in Shanghai, before the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution. It is also far different from what Nien Cheng saw through the rusty, thick-barred window of a bare prison cell, her home for more than six years after Mao’s purges engulfed her. Her only crime: wealth, position, and an appreciation of Western art and culture.
Not only did Cheng, the widow of a Shell Oil executive who died of cancer in 1957, suffer imprisonment and torture. Her only child, Meiping, a spirited young actress at the Shanghai Film Studio, also disappeared during her mother’s imprisonment. Upon Cheng’s release, she was told by the authorities that her daughter had committed suicide. But after an exhaustive investigation, she discovered that her daughter had been beaten to death during interrogation concerning her mother’s alleged crimes as an imperialist spy. Years later, under post-Mao reforms, the man responsible for Meiping’s murder received only a two-year prison sentence.
Nien Cheng was able to leave China on a temporary visa in 1980. After living in Canada, she settled in Washington in 1983. Life and Death in Shanghai, published last June by Grove Press, was featured on the cover of Time as well as the New York Times best-seller list. To her surprise, Cheng soon found herself the focus of media attention and the recipient of a variety of awards.
What many secular interviewers failed to note or emphasize, however, was the fact that Nien Cheng is a committed Christian. “My survival of the Cultural Revolution was not due to any merit of my own,” she says today. “Without the grace and mercy of our Lord, I could not have lived through such abuse and persecution. Throughout the six-and-a-half years of solitary confinement, and after I learned of my daughter’s death, I turned to our Lord often. It was his love and guidance that sustained and encouraged me to carry on. Without him, I am nothing.”
This month Penguin Books releases its paperback of Life and Death in Shanghai. And the multitudes who read it will encounter not only a story of human imprisonment, but also a powerful testimony to the sustaining power of a sovereign God.
“Are you going to confess?” the man in the tinted glasses asked again. I was silently reciting to myself the Twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want …”
“Have you gone dumb?”
“Have you lost your voice?”
“Confess!” They were shouting.
The man with the tinted spectacles and the man from the police department were looking at me thoughtfully. They mistook my silence as a sign of weakening. I knew I had to show courage. In fact, I felt much better for having recited the words of the psalm. I had not been so free of fear the whole evening as I was in that moment standing beside the black jeep, a symbol of repression.
I lifted my head and said in a loud and firm voice, “I’m not guilty! I have nothing to confess.”
This time there was no more shouting. The Red Guards and the Revolutionaries, as well as the onlookers, were perhaps awed by the solemnity of the occasion. After I had spoken, at a signal from the man in the tinted glasses, the young man from the police pulled my arms behind my back and put the handcuffs on my wrists. There was a deep sigh from an elderly man.
The driver of the jeep started the engine. “Get in!” The young man gave me a push. [He] got in with the driver, and the man with the tinted glasses sat down beside me. The jeep drove off into the dark streets (from Life and Death in Shanghai).
The Journey Of Faith
It is clear from your book that faith played a critical role in your surviving the Cultural Revolution. How did you become a Christian?
Through my husband. You see, his was one of the earliest Chinese Christian families. His mother was converted at a girl’s school run by the China Inland Mission. And she married a man—his father—who also went to a Christian school. So my husband grew up in a Christian family.
Years later, when I was engaged to my husband and we were both students in England, he wrote to his mother, and she said, You must try to convert her to be a Christian. That’s how I went to church with him; gradually I read the Bible.
Did you have any resistance to it?
No, I loved it. I wanted to have a more harmonious life. And in any case, I had no prejudice against being a Christian. It was just that my family background was different. We were a traditional Chinese family. We believed in ancestor worship. My father was not interested in religion in any sense, but he didn’t forbid my mother from practicing Buddhism. She was very devout. She used not to eat meat on certain days of the month, and she read the Buddhist scriptures every day. And she always did good deeds.
But I became a Christian, and then, when we returned to China in 1948, my husband received a letter from his mother saying she had no one to live with. Chinese old people always live with their children. So in 1950 we went to North China and brought her to Shanghai to live with us. She lived with us for seven years, until she passed on. During those seven years I was very close to her. I think she exercised a great deal of influence on me.
In your growth as a Christian?
Yes. We used to read the Bible together. She had a copy of the Bible with large characters, because her eyesight was failing. Often I read to her—and I learned from her. She helped me a lot.
Did that discipleship lay the groundwork for the way in which you survived your prison experiences?
It strengthened my resolve to resist, because I didn’t feel alone. The Lord was with me. He sustained me. Sometimes I felt, Oh, I’m so weak, I can’t do it. But then I felt strengthened through prayer. When I lost my daughter, if I had not been a Christian, I think I would have wanted to die. It was very, very difficult.
Did you know you had this strength within you? Before you went to prison you hadn’t been tried in such a way. You had had a very comfortable lifestyle.
I could endure hardship because—let me put it this way—I knew that the Lord was testing me. The Lord wanted to see if I could do it—if I could endure it. So I was compelled to endure it.
Do you question why God allowed you to experience such pain?
I’m the sort of person who has never asked God to tell me what he wants to do or why he wants to do it. I never do that. I think God has his own plan—I can’t see that far or that high. I can see only a little bit. So I obey the will of God. And I accept whatever happens.
I had this attitude long ago. Because, you see, I lived in an environment in China that encouraged people to be atheists. Frequently people would argue with me—Why do you believe in God? Can you see God? Why do good people have to suffer? So I gave it a lot of thought.
And how would you respond to that question? Why do people suffer?
I would have to say we don’t know why. We can’t assume God is like us.
Sometimes young students, my daughter’s friends, would say to me, “Do you think God is cruel? God punishes people.” And I would say that I don’t think God is cruel. God is merciful. People punish themselves. It is not God’s punishment.
It’s when we are face to face with danger, with hardship, with threats to our lives, that we are much stronger in our faith. Also, when I was in prison, I realized I hadn’t been as kind a person as I might have been. I was casual toward other people’s suffering. I’d say, “Oh, I pity them.” But it would pass. Now I understand suffering better.
You can identify with the suffering of others.
Yes, I know what it means to be hungry, to be cold, to be alone with no family. So when I hear about other people or meet somebody in that situation, I want to help. I know what it means to suffer.
A Changing China?
Throughout its long history, China has been a source of mystery and fascination for the West. After years of isolation and domestic upheaval, those in the leadership of China today seem determined to bring what General Secretary Zhao Ziyang has called their “backward” nation forward in an effort to recover from the failures of the past.
Last September’s thirteenth congress of the 46 million-member Chinese Communist party, the first since 1982, had been anticipated as a watershed event for the political and economic future of China. As the “reformers” set their policies at that meeting, it was clear that a long struggle lies ahead in the face of resistance from the more orthodox Marxists within the Communist party. It remains to be seen whether planned reforms will yield viable political, economic, or religious freedoms for the more than one billion Chinese people.
Although I have decided to become a citizen of the United States, I continue to be concerned with the situation in China. I am heartened by the news that unprecedented economic progress has been made since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s new economic policy. Often I look back on the wasted years of the Mao Zedong era and the madness of the Cultural Revolution. I feel deeply saddened that so many innocent lives were needlessly sacrificed. I was glad when the Cultural Revolution was officially declared a national catastrophe, but I regret the Communist Party leadership’s inabilityor unwillingness to repudiate Mao’s policy in explicit terms.
From the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party, the greatest casualties of the Cultural Revolution were the Party’s prestige and its ability to govern. When Mao Zedong used the masses (the Red Guards and the Revolutionaries) to destroy the so-called capitalist-roaders in the Party leadership, he forced the Chinese people to witness and to take part in an ugly drama. The prolonged power struggle and the denunciations of one leader after another enabled the Chinese people to stumble upon the truth that the emperor had no clothes. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the country was in a state of political disintegration. Obviously if the Party was to continue to govern, it must change course.
What kind of leadership will General Secretary Zhao Ziyang provide?
We have to remember two things from Zhao Ziyang’s report at the Chinese Communist party congress. One is the call to collect capital through the issuing of more stocks and bonds. That’s definitely a step toward capitalism. He said people should be allowed to earn money in ways other than direct labor. For instance, he legitimized income from dividends, from a profit. According to orthodox Marxism, that’s a form of exploitation, because you didn’t actually earn it.
Another interesting thing he said was that the power of the party must be exercised in a more indirect way. Hitherto the party secretary was the boss in each organization. Now the party secretary will have only a supervisory role, and the managers will have the real power. The managers are better educated, they are the technocrats; now they will be the ones administering the office, the research institution, the hospital, the shop or factory. The party secretary will have to cooperate.
There are millions of party secretaries on all different levels, right down to the village party secretary, who until now has been the king in his own village. Now he is going to have to let an administrative head run the shop.
It’s going to take a long time to implement this policy because the party secretaries will resist it. There is quite a lot of corruption among them now. When the party secretary’s power is reduced, he will lose all his opportunities. He can’t openly oppose the policy because it’s from Beijing, and he would risk party discipline. So he is going to covertly oppose it.
What is the government reformers’ objective?
No government does things out of charity. For every government, whether democratic or totalitarian, the first consideration is the consolidation of power. If its leaders can’t consolidate their power unless they treat the people well, then they will treat the people well. The Cultural Revolution exposed the weakness of the communist system. So Deng Xiaoping now has to give the people something to win their support.
Do you think in the process that the people of China now will enjoy a little more personal freedom?
Oh, yes; economic freedom. That is, they can now set up a little something for themselves; a little shop or something.
But this brings up another point: In Zhao’s report, he said categorically that China will never tolerate a political system with two parties taking over the government alternately. Another thing China won’t tolerate—even though it is demanded by many Chinese, especially educated Chinese—is the separation of the three powers of government: the administrative, the executive, and the judicial. Unless you have an independent judiciary, you won’t have the guarantee of law. The law is in the hands of the Communist government. And without an independent judiciary, law is under politics. Whoever is in power can change the law.
You’ve got a constitution in America. Nobody can change that. But in China you’ve got this leader; he does it this way. You’ve got another leader; he does it another way. China is a country ruled by the will of a man, not ruled by law.
Unless the Communist government changes, China will never have the guarantee of human rights and all that we enjoy in the United States.
So we mustn’t confuse economic reform with political reform. I don’t think the Communist party will ever voluntarily give the people real political freedom.
Do you think that could ever come in China as a result of these economic reforms?
In, say, 50 years the Chinese people will be much better off through this economic reform. When they don’t have to worry about food, clothing, where they live, or anything like that, then they will demand political freedom.
It depends on whether or not the reform policy is perpetuated after Deng has died.
What about the issue of religious freedom in China?
The Chinese people as a whole are not religious. Before the Communists came, we had only four million Christians. What guided Chinese society was the teachings of Confucius.
He provided the ethical framework?
Yes, because Confucius’ philosophy had very comprehensive rules and regulations governing human behavior and human relationships. For instance, he said that the individual is the basic element of society. Individual, family, state. Individuals belong to a family. Many family units make up the state, to be governed by the Son of Heaven, who is the emperor.
But if he misgoverns, then the mandate from heaven will be withdrawn. So every emperor must strive to govern according to justice, benevolence—but he must never set himself up as a god.
There is a saying that a king is a good king if in his kingdom the poets can write poetry, the ministers can give advice to the king, the young people can think whatever they like, and the old people can grumble about everything they don’t like.
Through these kinds of stories, the Chinese people learned what is good. Good is the freedom of speech: The poet can write anything, the minister is not afraid the king will kill him, and the people have their freedom of expression. If you judge by that standard, Mao Zedong was no good at all.
How did the Communists crack down on the churches?
The Communists came and established their Marxist government. Right away they denounced Confucius and they abolished religion. But they didn’t close all the churches until 1958, when Mao Zedong started the Great Leap Forward campaign.
Today, the Chinese constitution provides for freedom of religion. That sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you see the next line. It also provides for freedom of unbelief. So if you preach or try to convert somebody, you are infringing on his freedom of unbelief. By this one stroke they made it impossible for religions to spread—or even to preach, except in their own churches and temples. So people became very afraid to talk about religious matters or to lend the Bible to somebody.
But now China has over five million Christians. One million more grew when no churches were allowed. Isn’t that marvelous? It’s a miracle, really. Because this one million are mostly young people.
We hear a lot about the underground churches in China. Were you able to be involved?
I didn’t take part in any of that for the simple reason that in the cities it was very difficult. You lived in close proximity with others. You were constantly watched. But in rural areas, in the villages, you could gather together without anybody knowing. Also, the Chinese villages are most often inhabited by people who are related to each other. So even the party official may be a relative—he will just pretend he doesn’t notice.
The most extraordinary thing is that after the Cultural Revolution a lot of Red Guards and Communist party members turned to the Christian religion.
And why is that? Had they seen the emptiness of the Communist philosophy?
Yes. Also, the Red Guards felt guilty.
And were they in turn persecuted for converting?
No. When Deng Xiaoping came into power he immediately restored the churches and temples that the Red Guards had destroyed.
And if Deng Xiaoping is rebuilding the churches, is that for his own purposes? Is he maintaining power by allowing the privilege of worship?
I think he feels no harm in people having religion. Because he is not such a die-hard, orthodox Marxist. I wonder if, deep in his heart, maybe he doesn’t believe in it anymore.
Some Christian commentators believe that if China’s trends toward modernization and reform continue, Christianity may have the opportunity to become one of the leading spiritual forces in Chinese society. Do you think that’s a realistic hope?
The Communist party members won’t allow it.
Do you think the Chinese people as a whole are open to the gospel?
They have experienced what life was like without faith and belief; they are more thirsty for it. I think they are more ready to accept Christian thought than ever before.
The Communists, by criticizing Confucius, broke down traditional belief, which was a blockage that prevented Chinese people from accepting Christianity.
What about the Islamic presence in China?
We have quite a few Muslims in China. They get special treatment because the Communists want to court the Arabs. I think their religion is too fanatical; the Chinese don’t like to be too fanatical. Chinese are more pragmatic.
But their spirit is now wandering; they find that communism doesn’t satisfy; they are thirsty. They are eager to receive Christian things, because the alternatives are less attractive.
Speaking as a Chinese, I think communism is too materialistic. It doesn’t satisfy real spiritual longings. We all have that. We are born with it. We are looking for spiritual satisfaction because we are human beings. Just to have material satisfaction is not enough.
Making Peace With The Past
Nien Cheng’s life today is a busy one. She begins each morning with Chinese exercises in the green gardens of her condominium complex; her days are filled with speaking engagements, interviews, correspondence, reading, and time with friends. Sometimes her life in China seems remote.
Yet pain in one’s past does not merely dissipate of its own accord or deaden with the passage of time. It must be met with purpose and discipline. The same godly determination that carried Nien Cheng through the destruction of her Shanghai home, imprisonment, torture, and the death of her daughter is today the means by which she can make peace with both her past and her present.
Throughout the years of my imprisonment, I had turned to God often and felt His presence. In the drab surroundings of the gray cell, I had known magic moments of transcendence that I had not experienced in the ease and comfort of my normal life. My belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and goodness had been restored and I had renewed courage to fight on. My faith had sustained me in these darkest hours of my life and broughtme safely through privation, sickness, and torture. At the same time, my suffering had strengthened my faith and made me realize that God was always there. It was up to me to come to Him.
Under the watchful eyes of the guards, I could not pray openly in the daytime. The only way I could be certain of being left alone with my prayers was to bend my head over a volume of Mao Zedong’s books while I prayed to God from my tormented heart. As I spoke of my daughter, I relived the precious years from the time of her birth in Canberra, Australia, in 1942 until our forcible separation on the night of September 27, 1966, when I was taken to the struggle meeting and arrested. I felt again and again the joy she had given me at each stage of her growth and knew I was fortunate to have received from God this very special blessing of a daughter. Day after day I prayed. More and more I remembered the days of her living, and less and less I dwelled on the tragedy of her dying.
Gradually peace came to me, and with it a measure of acceptance. But there was something more. While I could no longer cling tenaciously to the hope that I would see her alive and well on the day I walked out of the No. 1 Detention House, I knew there was much I still had to do both before and after my release. My battle was by no means over. It was up to me to find out what had happened to my daughter and, if I could, right the wrong that had been done to her. My life would be bleak without Meiping. But I had to fight on.
Horrible things happened to you. Yet your book has no bitterness in it.
No, I am not bitter.
And you write that Christians are commanded to love their enemies, to forgive. That is a very difficult process.
To forgive the man who killed my daughter is very difficult. Some days, even now, I can’t forgive him. I get all in tears—and then maybe the next day, I get over it. I’m not altogether forgiving yet.
But I don’t feel any grudge against the Red Guards. They were just teenagers. They didn’t really know any better. You see I have scars, here on my wrists, very bad scars. This is where I was handcuffed. Yet I can forgive.
Particularly about my things—it doesn’t matter. What are things, anyway? We come into the world with nothing, and when we die we shall leave everything behind. I am an old lady; I am quite comfortable. So it’s okay. Actually, God has been very kind to me—very loving and merciful. To be able to live in freedom in the last period of my life—I’m very grateful for it.
God has his hand upon you; he is using you very much now, I think, for his purposes.
Do you think so?
You are a very strong testimony of his grace and strength to come through such adversity and not be filled with bitterness—to be peaceful, to have your humor, to be contributing to others.
I get a lot of letters from young people who say that after reading my book they feel they must value their freedom and democracy more. This is so good.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to China?
I don’t want to. There are too many places there that remind me of my daughter. The other night a Chinese girl, a student at American University, came to see me. She was not a bit like my daughter. My daughter was tall. This girl was petite. But I could not sleep at all that night. I kept thinking, If my daughter were alive, what would she be doing? Would she come to America? Would she be married? Would she have children?
No, I can’t go back. If I go back I will see all of the old things, the old friends again, and we will talk about her …
In your book, you describe how when you were in prison, they brought you your daughter’s clothes and her teacup, and then you knew she was gone.
Yes, that was the worst moment. And yet it was through prayer that I began to resolve all that.
Of course, she is with me all the time, in my heart. There is not a moment that passes that I don’t think of her. That’s true.
I’ve got her ashes here. When she was cremated the ashes were put in a box at the crematorium. After I was released from prison, I got my old servant to go and get the box for me. So I had it in my apartment in Shanghai.
But when I was leaving, I was allowed only one suitcase, one carry-on bag, and 20 U.S. dollars. I was at the customs shed for nearly half an hour. Two men searched my suitcase, my bag, even the hems of my clothing, as if I was smuggling something. I had debated whether I should take the ashes. But I didn’t dare. I had asked for a visitor’s visa; and they would have thought, ah, she is never coming back, since she is taking her daughter’s ashes.
But then a young man I knew in China was able to go to Hong Kong. He took my daughter’s ashes, broke the box and put them in a plastic bag, and brought them out for me.
The next thing I must do is dispose of the ashes. I’m old. I’m 73. I’m healthy, but when you reach this age, anything can happen. So I’d like to get it all done. It’s important.
After I become a U.S. citizen, I will go visit my sister in Hawaii. We will hire a boat and get a pastor to go out with us. And I will scatter her ashes into the Pacific Ocean—because the waters of the Pacific touch both China and America. Then it will be done.
I live a full and busy life. Only sometimes I feel a haunting sadness. At dusk, when the day is fading away and my physical energy is at a low ebb, I may find myself depressed and nostalgic. But next morning I invariably wake up with renewed optimism to welcome the day as another God-given opportunity for enlightenment and experience.
Ellen Santilli Vaughn is editorial director for Prison Fellowship Ministries in Reston, Virginia. She collaborated with Charles Colson on his latest book, Kingdoms in Conflict.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more