Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday Book Review: Tales from a survivor of China's Red Guards

"To people who have not dealt with such men as the Maoists, my persistent effort to fight back against my persecutors may seem futile and pointless. But the Maoists were essentially bullies."     

Nien Cheng was an amazing woman who survived the sufferings of prison... and then emigrated to America, and settled in the Washington DC area. She died in 2009 in her mid-nineties.

Mrs. Cheng was born in 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. He became a senior diplomat with the Kuomintang. In 1949 Chiang Kai-Shek was forced to retreat with his army to Taiwan.

At that time, Nien says she and her husband were "muddle-headed liberals" -- and decided to stay in mainland China under the Communists. She later deeply regretted not leaving, mainly because of her daughter's young life being snuffed out during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

One of the reasons I picked up her book was because of the growing Red Guard tinge to America's own cultural revolution: "Only stupid bigots have a problem with homosexual marriage. Why are you fascists all tied up in knots about allowing boys into the girls' locker room? It's a new world, so tough luck! Racists who vote for Trump should be beaten."

In late September 1966, Nien Cheng was hauled off to prison. After being strip-searched, the female guard handed back her clothes except for the bra -- "an article of clothing the Maoists considered a sign of decadent Western influence."

Nien said: "One of the most ugly aspects of life in Communist China during the Mao Zedong era was the Party's demand that people inform on each other routinely... Husbands and wives became guarded with each other, and parents were alienated from their children."

[That brings back echoes of Pavlik, the Russian boy in the 1930s who ratted out his father to the government -- and was lionized in Soviet culture as the model of true sonship.]

Another subject Nien describes from personal experience is how the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution elevated ignorant peasants to assume the roles of actual doctors!


From the 'New York Times' review of her book:
One night in August of 1966 the home of Mrs. Nien Cheng in Shanghai was broken into by some 40 young people wearing Red Guard armbands. Mrs. Cheng barred their way and asked for their search warrant. ''The Constitution is abolished,'' they replied. ''We recognize only the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao.'' They then proceeded to vandalize the house, breaking furniture and porcelain, slashing paintings, burning books. Mrs. Cheng tried to save the more irreplaceable of her possessions by pleading that they were part of the great Chinese cultural heritage. ''Shut up!'' she was told. ''They are the useless toys of the feudal emperors and the modern capitalist class and have no significance to us, the proletarian class.'' The destruction went on. 
During the weeks of harassment that followed, Mrs. Cheng did her best to understand what lay behind the mindless destructiveness and cold lack of humanity of her Red Guard persecutors. But in the end she was left feeling that they were ''alien creatures . . . with whom I had no common language.'' This conclusion would have disturbed the Red Guards not at all. As one of her interrogators instructed her, months later, in prison: ''Men are not equal. Men are divided into conflicting classes.'' As a wealthy bourgeois, she had nothing in common with proletarians, certainly not a common humanity. And indeed, as we read the debates between her and her interrogators, the antagonists do seem to be speaking different languages. On her side, speech is full of the twists and turns of argument; on their side, it is an even flow of sophisms and cliches punctuated with quotations from Mao's Little Red Book. 
Nien Cheng spent six and a half years in detention, in a jail originally built by the Kuomintang for its Communist enemies (new regimes always find a use for the prisons their predecessors have built), in solitary confinement, on the sparsest of diets, subjected to relentless interrogation and finally to torture, all with the object of making her confess to spying for the West while employed by Shell Oil in Shanghai. The charge made no sense and was clearly trumped up. Why so much official time and energy was being invested in her case she could not understand; only years later, as the full extent of the intrigue and back-stabbing within the party and the army emerged, did it become clear that her confession was intended to be part of a power play put together by the faction supporting Defense Minister Lin Biao against Premier Zhou Enlai. 
Being innocent, Mrs. Cheng refused to confess. On a human level, the greatest interest of her memoir lies in the account of her resistance to psychological and physical pressures that would have broken most people, resistance that culminates in a magnificent moment when, her hands maimed, her gums septic, hemorrhaging continually from suspected cervical cancer, she is informed that, as a consequence of ''proletarian magnanimity,'' she is free to leave and resume her interrupted life. Trembling with anger, she rejects liberty: she will stay in prison, she says, until the regime apologizes to her and publishes its apology in the Beijing and Shanghai newspapers; and she refuses to yield till she is dragged out into the street. 
Life and Death in Shanghai is an absorbing story of resourcefulness and courage... What happened to Nien Cheng was only an extreme form of what happened to hundreds of thousands of Chinese born on the wrong side of the social and educational tracks. Indeed, Mrs. Cheng might count herself lucky to have escaped with her life (to say nothing of her Hong Kong bank account). Her daughter was not so fortunate. She was taken away in 1967 and later found dead, one of some 10,000 victims of the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai alone. Very likely she had been murdered. For years, however, the story was put out that she had committed suicide after a struggle meeting. ''According to our Great Leader Chairman Mao,'' commented one official disapprovingly to Mrs. Cheng, ''committing suicide is an attempt to resist reeducation and reform. It's a crime against socialism. Those who commit suicide are really counterrevolutionaries.'' 
The last third of Nien Cheng's book is devoted to the period between her release from detention and her departure for the United States in 1980, during which she lived no longer in comfortable bourgeois circumstances but as one of ''the masses.'' Looking around her for the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, she found only cynicism and wariness: wariness about speaking one's mind to even the closest of friends, for fear that the pendulum might swing leftward again; cynicism about the party. Having been instructed from above during the Cultural Revolution that laws are nothing but ''tools of the 'capitalist-roaders' against the people,'' people have lost all respect for the law; whatever one can get away with is right. 
In Mrs. Cheng's view, then, the Cultural Revolution, like the Great Leap Forward of the 1950's, was a disaster, a giant step backward into anarchy and obscurantism...  
What induced the Chinese Communist Party to go along with this destructive assault upon itself, and upon the Chinese intelligentsia? By and large Mrs. Cheng accepts the explanation that the Cultural Revolution began as a stratagem of the warped mind (the ''evil genius'') of Mao, that it spread by exploiting rivalries within the party and that it was used for their own ends by Mao's villainous wife, Jiang Qing, and her cronies. The virulence of the campaign against Shanghai's intellectuals is blamed squarely on Jiang Qing, in particular on her resentment against an artistic establishment that, holding her to be ''a woman of easy virtue and little talent,'' had refused her movie parts when she was younger... 
When Nien Cheng arrived in the United States from China in 1980, immigration officials told her the only way she could qualify for immediate settlement was by applying for political asylum. She refused. ''I told myself, 'Political asylum, that sounds like somebody who is helpless.' So I told them, 'I am not helpless, I am going to go and find somewhere else to live.' '' 
Mrs. Cheng, then 65 years old, headed for Canada, remaining there until she was admitted as a United States immigrant in 1983. Then she loaded her suitcases into a car, drove to Washington and set about buying the two-room condominium near American University that has become her home. 
In America, as in China, independence has been her strong suit. And just as she found a challenge in the solitary miseries of a prison in Shanghai, she has found new opportunities in the United States. ''You know, I feel so fortunate,'' she said in a telephone interview as she prepared to set off on a cross-country tour to promote Life and Death in Shanghai. ''There is so much for me to learn here in America, so much that is fascinating. It is a great honor to me in the evening of my life.''

"Looking back on those years, I believe the main reason I was able to survive the ordeal was that the Maoist Revolutionaries failed to break my fighting spirit."  

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