Michael Laris -- Chinese author Nien Cheng's graceful end

By Michael Laris
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sitting on the couch in her apartment near the Washington National Cathedral over cookies and orange juice this summer, the Chinese author Nien Cheng said: "I don't want you to write about me. When I die, you can write about it. I will die soon."

CNBC was blaring in the background. Cheng had just finished cleaning up after frying a week's worth of vegetables, she had e-mails to return, and the central fact of her of life had been pared to its seven-word core, prompted by a glance at a beautiful and haunting black-and-white portrait in her tidy study: "That's my daughter. She was 19. Terrible."

In 1966, years after that photograph was taken, Cheng was hauled from her elegant Shanghai home filled with antiquities to the No. 1 Detention House. That was the start of more than six years of shackles, beatings and bouts of pneumonia as one of the 20th century's great spasms of political insanity and violence unfolded in Mao Zedong's China.

Cheng, who died last week, left China and settled in Washington, where she wrote "Life and Death in Shanghai," a best-selling account of stubborn survival. Published in 1987, it was praised as a courageous and sharply drawn portrait of Chinese repression. But it was also a hit that shaped the views of many Americans who knew Mao, as a radio producer in New York once told me, as "the guy with the mole."

Cheng dedicated the book to her daughter, Meiping, and in it describes the moment she finally walked out of the prison and saw a young woman standing by a blue taxi waiting for her.

But it was not her daughter. Meiping had died in 1967, the year after her mother was taken away, but Cheng did not know that. It would take her years to undo the official verdict of suicide, and to uncover her daughter's abduction and death at the hands of brutal political activists competing to outdo one another's fervor in Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

But on this afternoon, more than two decades after Cheng began telling and retelling the worst parts of her life on book tours, at colleges and corporate retreats, and in her living room, a 94-year-old woman was just trying to conserve the energy she needed for a graceful end to her story.

"I'm too old. The book's too old also. Now we just be quiet," Cheng said. She also offered a headline suggestion: "You could say, 'Old Chinese woman's end of life.' "

* * *

There are consequences for spending decades talking about a daughter's death. It both sapped and sustained Cheng.

She felt a "lightening of spirit" after finishing the book, she wrote in the epilogue. It also brought her friends from around the country. "My husband died of cancer. . . . My daughter died, and I was imprisoned for so long. Literally, I had no home. Only when I came to America did I really enjoy life," she told me.

She started a scholarship fund honoring her daughter at Slippery Rock University in western Pennsylvania, where some students are the first in their families to go to college. "It's the most important thing I did," she said. "When I'm nearly finished, I will call them and they will come with a truck and take away all my books."

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