Friday, November 13, 2009

Nien Cheng - my cherished hero, dead after a long, courageous life

Nien Cheng died on in Washington D.C. on November 2, and the world refused to take notice. I have been feeling a little bitter about that. My instinct is to hurl a few insults at the opinion makers and the navel gazers, but it wouldn't do any good. Nien was a cherished hero, and she was frequently in my thoughts. Though still a newcomer to documentary film, I would like one day to craft a fitting and lasting tribute.

It was actually April Lee of M.S.T.V. in Washington D.C., who informed me by email of Nien Cheng's passing. I am grateful for her kindness. My hero died at home, attended by loyal and loving friends, including Ms. Lee's mother. In an instant I did a Google news search. It was only two days after the death but I was astounded to see how scant was the news of a noteworthy death. I have waited a week for notices to accumulate, hoping to read some fresh anecdotes from her many admirers and friends. Sadly, my wait was in vain and it makes me a bit sour to see how many lazy flacks have gotten paid to plagiarize copy scraped from the web pages of two or three better newspapers.

Nien Cheng - author of LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI Nien Cheng - the eyes of a tiger. Anger and a deep sense of outrage kept her alive through years of torture and close surveillance by the Maoists.

Her birth name was Yao Nien Yuan and she was endowed with beauty, intelligence and a work ethic. She became a graduate of the London School of Economics, where she met her husband to be, Dr. K.C. Cheng. She became a diplomats wife when he was appointed, in 1941, the Second Secretary at the Chinese Legation in Australia. It was in Australia that their only child was born, a daughter they named Meiping. Postwar the Cheng's returned to China and would make careers with Shell Oil. Their fatal mistake, one common to many intellectuals of that era, was to give the Communist Party the benefit of the doubt.

Like her contemporary George Orwell, (another great hero of mine), Nien Cheng early in life had chosen to become a committed socialist. And like Orwell she was destined to receive a brutal education at the hands of "comrades". Orwell was denounced and relentlessly screwed over by ankle biters, but Nien Cheng suffered more. She was tortured in a Shanghai prison - subjected to the most bestial forms of coercive interrogation yet devised, and for more than six years. Her torturers, by the dozen, were never prosecuted, but that's another dossier.

Nien Cheng with her beloved daughter Meiping Nien Cheng with her beloved daughter Meiping, the budding actress who was murdered by Mao's Red Guards in 1967. [Washington Post photos]
After Madame Cheng was released from political prison, two extremely cold fish (members of a "Worker's Propaganda Team") appeared. Introducing themselves as spokesmen for the "Revolutionary Committee of the Shanghai Film Studio" they informed her that her daughter Meiping's name was on "the suicide list" at the studio, one of many actually murdered by Maoist Red Guards. "According to our Great Leader Chairman Mao, committing suicide is an attempt to resist reeducation and reform. It's a crime against Socialism." Much of the remainder of the book details Nien Cheng's tenacious hunt for the truth about her daughter's killers... another courageous blow for truth and justice by a heroic woman who simply could not be defeated by the black beast of authoritarianism.

The first line of Nien Cheng's memoir reads: "The past is forever with me and I remember it all." She has been a hero of mine since the first time I read her memoir - LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI (1986). I hope to read her inspiring book one last time before the clock strikes thirteen. You and I still have "that privilege", but for how long?
[I have shared thoughts on Nien Cheng a few times in the past, including one testy piece here in the blog. If you care to jump back two years, you can read the article here.]
Nien Cheng lived in Ottawa while waiting on the Americans to let her enter on her own terms. That's a story in itself. I see no evidence that any Canadian newspaper bothered to run her Obituary but at least a British paper, THE TELEGRAPH, mentioned the Canadian dimension to her story:

24 comments:

scott513 said...

She was a great lady and should be a hero to us all.

Gail said...

I was deeply moved to read Life and Death in Shanghai after reading a mention of her death in the New York Times. I only wish I had the chance to read it before her passing and to tell her how much I admire her strength and kindness to others. Her refusal under torture to admit only the truth was remarkable. Few people ever have her courage or grace under torture. After the death of their only child not to give up hope in humanity was amazing. She is a true heroine and great historian of China and its communist history throughout its cultural revolution and beyond. It really helps students of Chinese history and economic development to understand the limitations of letting the poor and illiterate right or wrong take over the leading roles in medicine, industry and economic planning regardless of education or qualifications. Such idealism certainly set back the road to socialism. The elimination of so many brilliant minds not as physically strong as Nien Cheng will always be the terrible stain of blood on China's road to economic success that should not be forgotten as we admire their current surplus balance of payments.
Gail Pean

John said...

i just finished 'life and death in shanghai'. i sensed from the opening lines, "The past is forever with me and I remember it all" that it would be a great read, and it was. she was a rare breed. RIP

carno said...

I first read 'Life and Death in Shanghai'in 1998. I was so moved that I sent Ms. Cheng a note. After recovering from an illness at age 84 she sent me a wonderful letter and enclosed a signed picture. Although she had a terrible ordeal in China with the Maoists and the loss of MeiMei (as Chenma called her) she lived a full life and died a free woman as an American citizen. Never forgotten, always remembered.....

Craig said...

"Life and Death in Shanghai" has a special place in our library and I recommend it to everyone asking for a book to read. I'm currently in my seventh reading of it.

I am so sorry to hear of Nien Cheng's passing. Her courage and strength are still inspriational. We are out there who will carry her memory and share her words. Hopefully her life will continue to shed some light on what can happen in a world of totalitarian zealots.

ask jane said...

I had passed my book Life and Death in Shanghai, to a friend to read who really loves it. As we discussed it today is when I found out about Nien Cheng's passing. It was very sad for me. I loved the book and knew that she would be approachable and hospitable to anyone who wanted to stop for tea. I was moved to write her a letter and she sent a lovely letter back to me which I will cherish forever. I adopted my daughter from China in 2002. I sent her a picture of my daughter. There was a line at the end of the letter where Nien Cheng tells me not to raise my daugther as Chinese. The hurt was still there, but she was a role model for many. I will pray for her soul and am happy she is now with her family.

Faye said...

I read Nien Cheng's "Life and Death in Shanghai" approx 10 years ago. I have her book by my bedside, and from time to time, I re-read parts. She is an amazing woman. I admire her amazing memory, high intelligence and rational mind. I also admire her sense of grace and class. I wish I could be more like her. I only found about her death now (by googling). I would have loved to have met her as she was a heroine in my heart and mind. I am also surprised there is little new of such a heroic and famous person. I remember seeing her on television during the Hong Kong takeover ceremonies. I am in awe that she looked so good and her mind is so sharp. A great lady is how I will remember her.

Faye
Vancouver, BC Canada

Ron Jack said...

Faye... I am sorry to take so long to post your comments. As you see, I haven't had much time to devote to the Blog of late.
I too find it upsetting so little is done to keep her inspiring life story in front of the public. Since the film rights to LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI are owned by a Taiwanese with no intention of filming, the only solution is an independant production which smashes the embargo on Nien Cheng's story. - Ron in B.C.

sarah88 said...

I just finished reading her memoir. What an unbreakable woman. She was true to her faith, always saved face and was incredibly poised... Truly breathtaking! It warms my heart to know that she is reunited with her husband and dear daughter, and is finally at peace.

Thank you for your inspiration!

Lao Yao said...

I read her book in 2009 and manged to talk to her briefly over phone that year. Best book I have read ever, I am thining to name my daughter after her, I am so proud I have the same last name with her.

Jeff Fan said...

When I was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, I wasn't surprised about Winston's surrender at all. To me, it is the common reaction that our instinctive nature will certainly do in order to avoid the further harming. O'Brien is correct that there are many people in the world who do not afraid of death, simply because death to them is an ephemeral pain, but what real horror is the interminably physiological torture.
Nien Cheng did it; she overcame the harm and persisted her position, and never retreated or surrenders. This is the part which impresses me a lot. At this point, there is a necessary to give her my best honor and regard her as my permanent No.1 hero after Orwell. (Who I consider god). By the way, there is a great regret about her departure.

thinking for dummies said...

Does anyone know where she is buried, and where she lived during her residence in Washington,DC? I would like to pay her homage by visiting either of those places.

Wink said...

I just finished reading her book "Life & Death in Shanghai" Penguin Books 1988.
Everyone needs to read this book! What a remarkable Lady, to have survived the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards of Mao Zedong. A women of faith who would not confess to something she did not do!

Wink said...

I just finished reading her book "Life & Death in Shanghai. Penguin 1988 What a remarkable lady to have survived imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution, by Mao Zedong's Red Guard.
Everyone should read this book!

Richard Thomas said...

I just finished her book. So amazing. She is a real inspiration. I never read anything like it---except maybe "Wild Swans".

Ronald J. Jack said...

Hello Richard - I'm always pleased to hear from people who share my admiration for her. Nien Cheng's courage is alive in the hearts of millions of Chinese... I recently spoke to a university student who plans to get a Law degree here in Vancouver and then return to China to work in the field of Human Rights. He studied LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI from cover to cover. BTW I recently acquired period photographs of the prison where Nien Cheng was subjected to the torture described in the memoir, and I may write another Blog about her this Summer.. Ron

Brad said...

I too am a great fan of this amazing woman. I have read her biography several times over the years. I had wanted to try to meet her and tell her personally what an inspiration she had been to me. I just read about her death when I went to see if I could possibly find an address where I could have written to her. I am deeply sad to learn of her passing. I would love to talk with others who have been as influenced as I have by her life.

Brad said...

I too am a great fan of this amazing woman. I have read her biography several times over the years. I had wanted to try to meet her and tell her personally what an inspiration she had been to me. I just read about her death when I went to see if I could possibly find an address where I could have written to her. I am deeply sad to learn of her passing. I would love to talk with others who have been as influenced as I have by her life.

Salim Saw said...

I just finished reading the book.And I went over it two times trying to remember the story. Nien was a strong ,remarkable lady.She was the epitome of a good Chinese Wife and Mother.My regret is to know her too late. Am hoping to learn more of her through the net.

Ronald Jack said...

Thanks for that Salim. I still hold out some hope that a one of the better Hong Kong or Taiwanese film directors will bring her life to the screen. No Chinese producer will touch this story... yet!

Interesting to watch the recent Chinese government demonstrations, playing up the "Rape of Nanking".

Far, far more interesting to me (as an historian) are the miserable fate 100,000+ residents of Shanghai who were executed by the Reds after Shanghai fell. No monuments to all those shot in the back of the head by Mao's executioners, issued with the Soviet 7.62 Tokarev pistols. [Read Kauffer and Faligot THE CHINESE SECRET SERVICE] Of course no film version of "the Rape of Shanghai" is possible either, until we have regime change in Beijing. Take care.

spinlily said...

I have had Nien Cheng's book in a special place on my bookshelf for many years. I came here today after talking to my 11 year old granddaughter about the value of memorizing poetry. I told her about Nien Cheng, and she wanted to see her picture and find out what happened to her.

Thank you for this excellent tribute.

spinlily said...

I have had Nien Cheng's book in a special place on my bookshelf for many years. I came here today after talking to my 11 year old granddaughter about the value of memorizing poetry. I told her about Nien Cheng, and she wanted to see her picture and find out what happened to her.

Thank you for this excellent tribute.

Ronald Jack said...

Good morning. I'm gratified that caring people
are still looking up up Nien Cheng on the Net
and discussing her. My deepest belief is that as long as folks are discussing you or your life, you are not really "dead".

JPK said...

I was reminded of Life and Death in Shanghai tonight when my daughter texted that she had just read a great book that I just HAD to read, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. Amused, I answered that I had read that, and others by Ms. Ten Boom, years ago. Then I remembered Life and Death...I had bought it when I heard Nien Cheng speak at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Easley SC in 1988. It was an honor and a great privilege to hear parts of her story from her own lips, and a thrill to meet her and talk with her afterwards. I found my book---personally autographed! :)---and plan to share it with my daughter, after I reread it! She was 5 when I met Nien Cheng. Thanks for your thoughts about her.