“Life and Death in Shanghai,” a religious manuscript
I just finished this story by Cheng Nien, and I’m full of thoughts. It is an excellent book; I liked it. Generally I use to have three books in my bedside table. The first one is “emotion”, the second one is “history” and the third one “fun” because the night is a misterious being and you need different tools to walk across it safely.
“Life and Death in Shanghai” has been ‘history’ for the last month, more than ‘emotion’, but my attention, my passion was always high because Cheng Nien links in a particular way, so Chinese I would say, her personal story with the big picture of the Cultural Revolution, minute intimate details with the breath of history. Nien brings the breath of History into her days. I think that this ability is a gift, and at the same time the result of a hard training, maybe the forced practice that more than six years in prison imposed on her. The book, in fact, relates to a punctual chronicle of more than six years of extreme conditions in a Shanghai jail. Nien Cheng was an English speaker who worked for the Shell British Company in Shanghai, of course because the Chinese government agreed with that. During the Cultural Revolution, all people linked directly or indirectly with Shell were accused of being western spies. As Nien Cheng refused to admit her guilt, to be in any way guilty, and she was locked up in solitary confinement, suffering any sort of punishment.
During the stay, Nien Cheng was forced to read political, revolutionary papers. Through those readings and the interrogatories, the questions of her prison officers and guards, she could understand the evolution of the Revolution, the internal fights, and the degeneration of the system, up to the end. Then there is the revelation of the story of her daughter, beaten to death by over zealous Red Guards.
What impressed me is that it is a book well educated, incredibly educated: there is never a compromise, the search for a shortcut, and the indulgence in self-pity or feelings. It is a path that you are obliged to follow, living the life of Cheng Nien with an unknown (for me) pathos that is not the typical Mediterranean pathos, short, flaming, but an enormous puzzle, each piece banal and fundamental at the same time, each bit a step ahead. My thoughts concern the level of attention and passion that this book requires (the young generations will be able to handle this kind of writing? To deepen the topics, to face History? To investigate, to reflect, and to get the right lessons?), and the asset that a book like ‘”Life and Death in Shanghai” represents. Nowadays it is difficult to see beyond the columns, the extremely short stories, and the scoops. Also for me. The ‘short-term-view’ is a stunning and superficial drug.
You would lose your ability to synthesize, to understand the big pictures, the macro waves. “Life and Death in Shanghai” is a memento not only in terms of historical events: you have to build your life, your identity, not with slogans, not with articles and pieces of disparate things, but with a consistent and systematic effort, day after day. “Life and Death in Shanghai” is another noteworthy brick: there is humbleness and pride, patience and self-confidence in the construction, full details and intensely compelling pictures, a plot, History with ‘h’ in capital, characters and dialogues. And this incredible figure of woman, hard like a stone, incorruptible, able to see a light far away, years far away, capable to be coherent, neat.
“Life and Death in Shanghai” comes from another culture, another language and, for me, it is like a window.
There is a particular element that differentiates this book from others, and it is its religiousness. It is a religious, spiritual book, pervaded by a deep sense of religion, sense of God. “Life and Death in Shanghai” always speaks using a form of religiousness that is in the end the red line of the entire account.
I think that Chinese history has been in the last decades a formidable, terrible ‘laboratory’ for humanity and that everybody must know what happened – it must be a part of our culture. I read “Mao” by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday, and “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” by Jung Chang and I think that these books, together with “Life and Death in Shanghai”, cannot be missed by a reader who is interested in history. The genocides of the twentieth century are so close to the present days, but we are masters in ‘cultural and historical removal’, in forgetting, in thinking that those atrocities – committed by humans against other people – don’t concern our life, our humanity, and our time. We read about Genghis Khan or Tamerlane and we shiver because their ferocity. But we don’t know quite anything about brutality and widespread atrocities of the Red Guards, for example, just to speak about China. What triggers animality, beastliness? I think that one of the faults is ignorance. If I think about the books that are now available in Italy about China, I remember a list of political, embedded books, never driven by truth but the desire to prove a specific thesis. So, which historical lessons can we get from them? For this reason too, for me, “Life and death in Shanghai” has been a tremendous hit, a dramatic window.
The ability of Nien Cheng in terms of writing craft is of keeping high the attention, the tension, using the description of minor events, small things, and using the development of thoughts, of mental, smart speculations – all pervaded by the belief that the human spirit, in the end, would triumph against stupidity and violence.