By Patricia Sullivan
Tuesday, November 3, 2009 9:14 PM
Nien Cheng, 94, whose memoir "Life and Death in Shanghai" was widely praised as one of the most riveting accounts of the Cultural Revolution, died Nov. 2 of cardiovascular and renal disease at her home in Washington.
At a time when China's Communist leader Mao Zedong was trying to purge political rivals and reassert his authority, Mrs. Cheng, the wealthy widow of an oil company executive, was one of untold numbers of professionals who were evicted from their homes by the Red Guard. She was arrested in August 1966 and falsely accused of being a spy.
Mrs. Cheng endured 6 1/2 years of solitary confinement and torture in prison, refusing to confess or bow to the will of her interrogators. Upon her release, she discovered that her only child was dead, purportedly of suicide, but actually beaten to death by Red Guards.
In simple, exquisite detail, Mrs. Cheng's 1987 book describes the maddeningly circular reasoning of those caught up in the revolution. Her interrogations were contests of will, with Mrs. Cheng refusing to confess or responding with quotes from Mao's "Little Red Book."
Her captors responded with beatings. So tightly handcuffed that she feared losing her hands and confined in a frigid cell too small for her to lie down, Mrs. Cheng lost her teeth, caught pneumonia and had hemorrhages. She defused the misery by laughing at her accusers.
"Far from depressing, it is almost exhilarating to witness her mind do battle," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times review of her book. "Even in English, the keenness of her thought and expression is such that it constitutes some form of martial art, enabling her time and again to absorb the force of her interrogators' logic and turn it to her own advantage."
Readers were mesmerized by the story, pushing the book to the top of the bestseller list. The timing was right; totalitarianism and communism were under attack worldwide. During a visit to Germany, President Ronald Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall as the Cold War began to show signs of thawing.
Her book "exalts the triumph of the human spirit over mindless inhumanity," author Stanley Karnow wrote in The Washington Post. "Thus her narrative deserves to rank with the foremost prison diaries of our time."
After she was released from prison, Mrs. Cheng found herself still under suspicion. She was forced to share her home with other families and was wrenched from a comfortable life into the grinding poverty of the masses.
By 1980, she had managed to leave China for Canada. Three years later she moved to Washington, using money her husband had left her in overseas bank accounts. In 1987, she was a guest at a White House state dinner, where she chatted with the president. Her book was excerpted at length in Time magazine. She became a U.S. citizen in 1988.
"There were many Chinese who fought back and many who suffered much more. Some of them have never recovered," she said. "But my privilege has been to write about it, and that's only been possible because I could leave."
Mrs. Cheng was born Jan. 28, 1915, in Beijing, the daughter of a naval vice minister who belonged to a wealthy family of land owners. In 1935 she went to study at the London School of Economics, where she met her future husband, Kang-chi Cheng.
The couple returned to China before 1940, and Mr. Cheng joined the ministry of foreign affairs for the Kuomintang, the ruling party at the time. The couple were sent to Australia to establish an embassy and then were transferred to the ministry in Shanghai until Communists came to power in 1949.
With the approval of the government, Mrs. Cheng's husband became general manager of Shell Oil in Shanghai. He died of cancer in 1957, and she joined the oil company as an adviser. Her daughter, Meiping, was an aspiring actress. The Communist regime left professionals like her alone until 1966, when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution.
Increasingly concerned about the Red Guards parading down her street, she wasn't surprised when "suddenly the doorbell began to ring incessantly. At the same time, there was a furious pounding of many fists on my front gate, accompanied by hysterical voices shouting slogans," she wrote.
The 30 to 40 high school-age students were let in. They ransacked her home, insulted her and derided her defense of ancient Chinese porcelain cups they were smashing. A month later, she was taken to a meeting at which she was denounced and held in a detention center for political prisoners.
After her years in custody, she was told March 27, 1973, that she was being released because of an "improvement in her way of thinking and an attitude of repentance." She refused to accept that statement and vowed to remain in detention until prison officials officially declared her innocent and published an apology in Shanghai and Beijing.
"The No. 1 Detention House isn't an old people's home. You can't stay here all your life," the interrogator told her. "I have never seen a prisoner refusing to leave the detention house before. You must be out of your mind."
Mrs. Cheng was forced out of the prison and learned about the death of her daughter. It took a long time, but she eventually realized that her captors were trying force her to confess to being a spy so that they could indict Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, as the chief of a foreign espionage network. Zhou Enlai had permitted Shell to function in China.
Mrs. Cheng had two sisters in Southern California when she immigrated; they have died. She leaves no immediate survivors, and friends said she never got over the death of her daughter. They said Mrs. Cheng blamed herself for not forcing the young woman to leave China as conditions worsened.
After arriving in Washington, Mrs. Cheng lectured about China and took classes at American University's Institute for Learning in Retirement. She was an elegant dresser and practiced tai chi, and she became a popular speaker in China. When China took over the government of Hong Kong, she appeared in print and on TV news shows to warn the overly optimistic about the history of Chinese government.
She made what was supposed to be a private visit to Hong Kong in 1990. When she agreed to sign copies of her book, readers lined up by the hundreds at the small basement bookstore sponsoring the event, clutching black-market English versions or surreptitious Chinese translations.
Tour guides denied the existence of the No. 1 Detention House, but when a visitor gave her tour guide a copy of the book, he drove her by the building.