By Luciana Leitão
History books usually describe the Cultural Revolution as a socio-political movement that took place in the People’s Republic of China from 1966 to 1976. Set into motion by former leader of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, it paralysed the country politically, having a huge impact in its economy and society.
What books and other more informative sources fail to grasp is the amount of torture, death and suffering involved; these only come up, in all its force, once in a while, when you read about them in autobiographical (or even fictional) books, through the powerful testimonies of those who suffered first hand – or, in second hand, through their families.
On one of my trips to Shanghai, I managed to ask around suggestions on books written by authors from the region. Everybody kept recommending Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng. I did not regret the option.
“The past is forever with me and I remember it all. I now move back in time and space to a hot summer’s night in July, 1966, to the study of my old home in Shanghai,” she says, at the beginning of the book. You immediately know – if you had not guessed already from the theme of the book – that a life-turning event is about to happen.
After the death of her husband, Nien Cheng continued to work as a senior partner for foreign company Shell in Shanghai. With several westerners as friends, she was the perfect target for the regime – as a result, she was accused of being a spy for the foreign imperialists.
The book tells the story of her arrest during the days of the Cultural Revolution, along with her imprisonment for six years, the torture, release and persecution, and her efforts to leave the country.
But, contrarily to what usually happens with these types of testimonies, this book surprised me, because it tells a story of how the mind can stay strong throughout a terrible ordeal. She suffered, but you don’t feel she is a victim. And, instead of submitting to the pressure being made by the regime, she refused to provide a false confession. She was tortured, but she kept strong.
That is why this is not a depressing story; instead, it is a story of courage. Nien Cheng never submitted to her own sadness. Besides, she managed to be, throughout her testimony, incredibly objective – well, as objective as one can be, considering the circumstances –, reporting the facts as she thinks they happened.
On a side note, let me tell you it is good to see such a book in Mainland China’s bookstores. In the country of censorship, where people are still not able to openly criticize Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward policies, how can there be such a book? Such an open, emotional and, at the same time, very rational true testimony, of the horror Nien Cheng herself went through? I am glad there is, though.