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 ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.