This is a wonderful story of determination and mental strength of a 51 year-old woman. A perfect book for International Women’s Day! Accused of being a spy, she survived more than six years of harsh imprisonment by the Red Guards in China. It is a story of adaptability, courage, and bravery.
This is an autobiographical account of Nien Cheng who, after her husband died, became an assistant advisor to the manager of Shell Oil in China. Shell was one of the few companies that stayed on in China after the Communists came to power in 1949. Chinese by birth, Nien Cheng and her husband had been educated in England. Her husband was head of Shell Oil for many years. He died of cancer in 1957. Nien was then asked to assist in the running of Shell in China.
In 1966 The Chinese Cultural Revolution burst onto the streets like the 1938 Nazi Crystal Night. It was a highly organised, political movement, aimed at removing all opposition, all disagreement to Mao Tse-tung. Anyone who showed the slightest opposition to his authority was murdered by the Red Guards. If you have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, then you have a very good idea of The Cultural Revolution in China. The similarities are uncanny.
As the attack on intellectuals, teachers, artists, became more intense Nien Cheng was denounced. Her daughter, a member of the Communist Youth, selected for a position in the National Film School as an actress was allowed to go free.
In the following weeks Nien Cheng was questioned often. It was hinted that Shell had done something wrong, something illegal, but no one knew what or by whom. The ex-staff had to write out criticisms of themselves and Shell, then they were questioned about their actions. Nien had amazing mental strength, despite great psychological pressure, she always maintained neither Shell or herself had taken any action harmful to the Chinese Government.
The Cultural Revolution was a struggle for power between the Maoists and the less radical faction led by Liu Shao-chi and Deng Hsiao-ping. To assist in this power struggle the Red Guards were created, they were mostly teenagers, manipulated by older Maoists. They were formed into roving bands, like Vikings, attacking everyone, and becoming more and more extreme in their views and self-righteousness.
In the beginning the Red Guards’ enemy was the “capitalist class”, so most people felt safe. Before long, it widened to include anyone who was not a Red Guard, and even then, suspicion could come to them for not shouting loudly enough.
Those in professions, like university staff, were required to denounce everyone else within the organisation. If they could not come up with criticism, and lists of betrayers, it meant that they must be protecting enemies of the state. So people made up false stories about other members of their organisation to protect themselves, which led to more and more people being questioned and imprisoned.
It was not long before people were indiscriminately attacked by the Red Guards. Houses were smashed, people dragged through the streets by ropes, beaten, accused of all kinds of sabotage, and then came looting and murder. Maoists congratulated the Red Guard, encouraging them to accuse, destroy, steal, and murder.
The Red Guard was now recruiting everyone they could, schools and universities were closed. If you did not wish to join the Red Guard it meant that you must be against the teachings of Mao Tse-tung. The country was falling into ruin. Farmers became revolutionaries and left for the cities, Red Guards took what they wanted, factories were closed down, law and order decayed. The Red Guards felt important and declined to pay for travel or goods. Food became scarce, banks ran out of money, no one was paid; everyone was the enemy. Schools and universities were shut down. Intellectuals — people who had been to high school — doctors, teachers, skilled people, were sent to the countryside to work as farmers.
The cultural revolution, lasted for about ten years, in which time a million people were murdered by the Red Guards, thousands committed suicide, and hundreds of thousands of people were beaten, interrogated, robbed, tortured, and imprisoned.
As the war against intellectuals, rightists, capitalists, artists, continued in ever widening circles, it came to include children of capitalists. This meant that Nien’s daughter was no longer considered innocent, but was denounced as a class-enemy. Like others, she had to spend her time writing confessions and self-criticisms over and over in an attempt to purge herself of impure political thoughts, even though she was a member of the Communist Youth.
In September Nien Cheng was called to a large meeting, where she was blamed for every bad thing that had ever happened to China. Shell was denounced as a spying company that took exorbitant profits out of China. The audience was encouraged to shout slogans of Mao. She was accused of spying on China for foreign powers. At the end, the enraged crowd spat on her, shook their fists in her face, and screamed insults. The Red Guards demanded that she confess.
Remaining calm she told them that Shell was in China because they had been invited by the Premier Chou En-lai. She tried to explain things, but it was hopeless, the crowd ready to lynch her. The smiling officials, said they would now extend mercy and give her a chance to confess, rather than kill her.
At 51 years of age, she was handcuffed and taken to prison, placed in solitary confinement. She had previously decided that she would not make any false confessions. She was placed in her cell, a bucket for the toilet, cobwebs on the ceiling, the walls yellow and mouldy. There was a wooden bed, dust thick everywhere, mosquitoes, the cell damp and cold.
She came to realise that the only laws that applied were from the teachings in Mao’s Little Red Book. She decided to study the book so she could quote from it when necessary. Although life was harsh in prison, what hurt her the most was missing her grown-up daughter, who she knew was being interrogated, accused of some crime or other.
After two months, she had her first interrogation, full of defiance, she argued with her interrogator, who told her she must write out a full confession, an autobiography of crimes she had committed. People she had worked with, or knew socially, were accused of being spies that had collaborated with her.
But within a week there was another revolution, the first of many occurring within the country. It seemed anyone could put on an armband, collect a group together, proclaim they were the true Maoists, march into the streets, take over factories, and issue orders.
Winters were cold; inside the cell it was zero degrees Celsius, the winds were persistent and strong enough to penetrate the loose window. Her clothes and food were poor, but she managed to stay alive. After sixteen months of harsh detention she developed a continuous cough and was taken to a hospital, she spent a week there recovering from pneumonia. Sent back to prison she never fully recovered because of the cold, the poor watery food, the lack of sunshine and fresh air. Mentally, she found it difficult to think clearly. Her interrogator had been moved on, and the new one, simply screamed political insults at her, not asking her questions. She realised the purpose was to impress his seniors, not to gather information.
After two-and-a-half years locked away, the interrogations became more regular, there were always threats of being shot for spying. Some days she was questioned from morning to evening, standing up, without even a drink of water. She was required to write out her self-confessions over and over, then sent to “struggle meetings” which were a longer version of the Two Minute Hate meetings described in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The remarkable thing about Nien Cheng was despite all the pressure, the exhaustion, the rough treatment, the pain, the illness, and the claim that if she confessed they would go easy on her, she never confessed. Instead she repeatedly told them she was innocent, and someone had made a mistake. She told them she had full faith in the Chinese leadership, and knew that she would be released when they examined her case properly.
The truth is they didn’t know what to do with her. They wanted her confession to incriminate other officials, they didn’t care about her, it was part of an elaborate political plan. When she was accused of being a spy, she told them that if they had proof they should stop wasting time and shoot her. Because she was continually reading Mao’s books she was able to quote his words to them. She was politically and historically educated and could argue any point with them. She knew they had no evidence, just false confessions obtained under extreme duress.
Physically she was deteriorating, she had extreme menstrual bleeding, and heavy bleeding from her gums, making it difficult to chew bread crusts. In the cold of prison, her joints ached with pain. She was sent to a hospital for brief stays when she developed pneumonia, or bleeding.
Interrogators came and went, often becoming angry at her steadfastness, her political shrewdness, but they never got what they wanted from her, a confession of wrong-doing, or a denouncement of someone else.
In 1970 things became more serious, they now increased the pressure on her. It started with physically pushing, face slapping, throwing her against a concrete wall, while five interrogators screamed insults. When she did not confess, they put special handcuffs on her. Her hands were behind her back, and they were so tight the circulation in her hands was cut off. They told her they would take the handcuffs off when she confessed, if it took a month, then she would have to wear them till then. If she never confessed, then she would die with the handcuffs on.
Then they put her in a totally black cell, with no window, thick dust everywhere. During the first night her hands became hugely swollen and she began to worry that they would be permanently damaged, or have to be amputated. In the morning they took her back to the interrogation.
Confess! Confess! But she said nothing. She was returned to her own cell, still wearing the handcuffs behind her back. To drink water she had to pick the cup up in her teeth, and lift it slowly. Going to the toilet was awkward and painful. And all the time her swollen hands gave her great pain. Eating was difficult, she had to try and dig the rice from a small tin with a plastic spoon held by her teeth.
As days passed, her hands became pus-infected and bled. She grew weaker and weaker, unable to get to the prison door to receive food. Eventually, she collapsed on the floor. The guards came and after yelling at her for pretending, removed the handcuffs. They wanted a confession, but if she died they would not get it.
One day in October 1971 the guard came to her cell and demanded she hand over her book of Mao’s quotations. When it was returned, the preface had been torn out. It had been written by Lin Pao, lavishing praise on Mao. Now it seemed that Lin Pao was in disgrace, everything he did was now explained as a betrayal of the Chinese revolution. Pages of history had to be removed. Does this sound familiar? Yes, that was the same job that Winston Smith performed in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, re-writing history after a political figure had been uncovered as a spy, a revisionist, or a traitor.
It was soon after this that it was announced that President Richard Nixon was coming to China to meet with Mao Tse-tung. This was controversial, since the United States had always been presented as the worst opponent of China in the world. Now they were to be brothers.
After Nixon visited China in 1972, she was interrogated again, and asked to write out her personal life story, including her family, her friends, her associates. Theses interrogations lasted months, but now there was no more shouting or arguments. The interrogators had a milder attitude, after all there could be another revolution on the way.
In March 1973, she was told her to pack her things. In the interrogation room she was told that she was to be released, but first they would read out her case conclusion. It stated that she had divulged information to a foreigner, and that she had defended the traitor Lin Pao. However, because she was politically backward and ignorant, they decided to give her a chance to realise her mistakes. After six and a half years of political education in the detention centre, and because they were magnanimous, they were refraining from pressing charges against her.
Hearing this she became furious at the hypocrisy. She told them she could not accept the conclusion and would remain in her cell until a proper conclusion was reached. It should contain a declaration that she was innocent of any crime, and an apology for wrongful arrest. Furthermore the apology must be published in newspapers in Shanghai and Peking.
They had never heard the like of it before; they had to forcibly remove her from the prison. When she left the prison, she was hoping to see her daughter, but it was her god-daughter that met her and took her to a house. The god-daughter told her that her daughter had committed suicide shortly after Nien had been arrested. During the long six-and-a half years of imprisonment, it had been the thought of her daughter that kept her alive, now she learnt that she had been dead all that time.
After her release she began having nightmares where she saw the bashed, tortured, and blood-splattered body of her daughter. She thought she needed to investigate the circumstances of her death, since she was not convinced it was suicide. Nien had been told that her daughter jumped from the 9th floor of the Shanghai Athletics Association building. When she went there to see it, she noticed that there were bars on the windows. Speaking to a tenant, she discovered that the year of her death, the building had been surrounded by scaffolding.
In 1978, 12 years after her arrest, she was officially rehabilitated and declared a victim of wrongful arrest and persecution. Eventually a man was arrested for the murder of her daughter, but sentenced to a suspended death sentence, meaning he was set free after two years imprisonment.
Although Nien Cheng had been released, the Public Security Bureau had people spy on her, report what she did, where she went, who she talked with. They sent agents who tried to trick her into condemning officials, but she was always careful about what she said. This aspect of her life went on until 1980, when she was finally granted a permit to go to the USA to visit her sisters. Of course she never returned to China. She lived in Canada for a while, but found it too cold for her arthritis. Eventually she settled in the US.
This autobiography is fascinating in its battle between an individual and the state. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the political background of modern China. There is much more to the story than this outline. For me, it was a wonderful story of courage and determination outlasting hate, fear, and lies.