Quotes from Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Cheng ·  560 pages

Rating: (9.4K votes)


“It's alwasy best to look ahead and not backwards. Possessions are not important. Think of those beautiful porcelain pieces I had. Before they came to me, they had all passed through the hands of many people, surviving wars and natural disasters. I got them only because someone else lost them. While I had them, I enjoyed them; now some other people will enhjoy them. Life itself is transitory. Possesions are not important.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Justice? What is justice? It's a mere word. It's an abstract word with no universal meaning. To different classes of people, justice means different things.
~149”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Large portraits of Mao on wooden boards several feet high stood at main street corners. Painted to make the old man look extremely youthful, healthy, and fat (a sign of well-being in China), these pictures provided a mocking contrast to the thin, pale-faced pedestrians walking listlessly below them. Pg. 193”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Bad experience is more bearable when you are not the only sufferer.
~pg 95”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“I supposed the Red Guards had enjoyed themselves. Is it not true that we all possess some destructive tendencies in our nature? The veneer of civilization is very thin. Underneath lurks the animal in each of us. If I were young and had had a working class background, if I had been brought up to worship Mao and taught to believe him infalliable, would I not have behaved exactly as the Red Guards had done?
~79”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai



“My own outlook and my values had been formed long ago. I did not believe in dividing people into rigid classes, and I did not believe in class struggle as a means to promote progress. I believed that to rebuild after so many years of war, China needed a peaceful enviroment and the unity of all sections of society, not perpetual revolution.
~150-151”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“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 and denounce each other during political campaigns. This practice had a profoundly destructive effect on human relationships. Husbands and wives became guarded with each other, and parents were alienated from their children. The practice inhibited all forms of human contact, so that people no longer wanted to have friends. It also encouraged secretiveness and hypocrisy. To protect himself, a man had to keep his thoughts to himself. When he was compelled to speak, often lying was the only way to protect himself and his family.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Since the very beginning of the Communist regime, I had carefully studied books on Marxism and pronouncements by Chinese Communist Party leaders. It seemed to me that socialism in China was still very much an experiment nad had no fixed course of development for the country had yet been decided upon. This, I thought, was why the government's policy was always changing, like a pendulum swinging from left to right and back again. When things went to extremes and problems emerged. Beijing would take corrective measures. Then these very corrective measures went too far and had to be corrected. The real difficulty was, of course, that a state-controlled economy only stifled productivitiy, and economic planning from Beiging ignored local conditions and killed incentive.
When a policy changed from above, the standards of values changed with it. What was right yesterday became wrong today, and visa versa. Thsus the words and actions of a Communist Party official at the lower level were valid for a limited time only... The Cultural Revolution seemed to me to be a swing to the left. Sooner or later, when it had gone too far, corrective measures would be taken. The people would have a few months or a few years of respite until the next political campaign. Mao Zedong believed that political campaigns were the motivating force for progress. So I thought the Proletarian Cultural Revolution was just one of an endless series of upheavals the Chinese people must learn to put up with.
~13”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“In fact, after living in Communist China for so many years, I realized that one of the advantages enjoyed by a democratic government that allows freedom of speech is that the government knows exactly who supports it and who is against it, while a totalitarian government knows nothing of what the people really think.
~pg 55”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“But after living in Communist China for the past seventeen years, I knew that such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class. They would have the power to control the people’s lives and bend the people’s will. Because they controlled the production and distribution of goods and services in the name of the state, they would also enjoy material luxuries beyond the reach of the common people. In Communist China, details of the private lives of the leaders were guarded as state secrets. But every Chinese knew that the Party leaders lived in spacious mansions with many servants, obtained their provisions from special shops where luxury goods were made available to their household at nominal prices, and send their children in chauffeur-driven cars to exclusive schools to be taught by specially selected teachers. Even though every Chinese knew how these leaders lived, no one dared to talk about it. If we had to pass by a special shop for the military or high officials, we carefully looked the other way to avoid giving the impression we knew it was there. Pg. 90”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai



“As I gazed at Mao’s face wearing what was intended as a benign expression but was in fact a smirk of self-satisfaction, I wondered how one single person could have caused the extent of misery that was prevailing in China. There must be something lacking in our own character, I thought, that had made it possible for his evil genius to dominate. Pg. 259”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“As I stood in the room looking at it for the last time, I felt again the cold metal of the handcuffs on my wrists and remembered the physical suffering and mental anguish I had endured while fighting with all the willpower and intellect God had given me for that rare and elusive thing in a Communist country called justice. Pg. 351”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“But it also had many large posters with messages of a more peaceful nature. These extolled the country’s economic achievement since the Cultural Revolution, which was supposed to have liberated the forces of production and increased productivity. Of course, the Cultural Revolution had done just the opposite. Official lies like this, habitually indulged in and frequently displayed by the authorities, served no purpose except to create the impression that truth was unimportant. Pg. 400”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“For so many years, the official propaganda machinery had denounced humanitarianism as sentimental trash and advocated human relations based entirely on class allegiance. But my personal experience had shown me that most of the Chinese people remained kind, sensitive, and compassionate even though the cruel reality of the system under which they had to live compelled them to lie and pretend. Pg. 409”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“He raised his arm to strike me. At that very moment, [my daughter] Meiping's cat, Fluffy, came through the kitchen door, jumped on the man's leg from behind, and sank his teeth into the flesh of the man's calf.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai



“I was silently reciting to myself the 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord is my shepherd; I shal not want . . .' [. . .] The man with the tinted spectacles and the man from the police department were looking at me thoughtfully. They mistook my silence as a sign of weakening. I knew I had to show courage. In fact, I felt much better for having recited the words of the psalm. I had not been so free of fear the whole evening as I was in that moment standing beside the black jeep, a symbol of repression. I lifted my head and said in a loud and firm voice, 'I'm not guilty! I have nothing to confess.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“While I listened to the words of homage to Mao, I remembered Mao’s awesome power, like a blanket over China threatening to smother whomever he chose. Pg. 218”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Pilfering was common in Communist China’s state-owned enterprises, as the Party secretaries were slack in guarding properties that belonged to the government and poorly paid workers felt it fair compensation for their low pay. The practice was so widespread that it was an open secret. The workers joked about it and called it "Communism," which in Chinese translation means "sharing property." Pg. 390”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“From the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party, the greatest casualties of the Cultural Revolution were the Party’s prestige and its ability to govern. Pg. 539”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“Since good intentions and sympathy for others often led people into trouble, the Chinese people had invented a new proverb that said, 'The more you do, the more trouble you have; the less you do, the less trouble you have. If you do nothing whatever, you will become a model citizen.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai



“ultimate in respectability: not only received back into the ranks of the people but also”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“[Mr. Hu said:] There always comes a time when a man almost reaches the end of his endurance and is tempted to write down something, however untrue, to satisfy his inquisitors and to free himself from intolerable pressure. But one mustn't do it. [. . .] Once one starts confessing, they will demand more and more admissions of guilt, however false, and exert increasing pressure to get what they want. In the end, one will get into a tangle of untruths from which one can no longer extract oneself.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“The poet Tao Yuan-ming (A.D. 376 - 427) used the lotus to represent a man of honor in a famous poem, saying that the lotus rose out of mud but remained unstained. [. . .] Perhaps the poet was too idealistic, I thought as I listened to the laughter of the Red Guards overhead. They seemed to be blissfully happy in their work of destruction because they were sure they were doing something to satisfy their God, Mao Zedong.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“I love China! I love my country even though it is not always good ro right,' my daughter proclaimed in a firm voice. Her words brought tears to my eyes. I also had a deep and abiding love for the land of my ancestors even though, because of my class status, I had become an outcast.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“I must not only keep alive, but I must be as strong as granite, so that no matter how much I was knocked about, I could remain unbroken.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai



“It was strange to realize that after this night I would never see it again as it was. The room had never looked so beautiful as it did at that moment.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“I saw another young man coming down the stairs from the third floor with my blanc de chine Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, in his hand. [. . .] He swung the arm holding the Guanyin carelessly in the air and declared, 'This is a figure of Buddhist superstition. I'm going to throw it in the trash.' The Guanyin was a perfect specimen and a genuine product of the Dehua kiln in Fujian province. It was the work of the famous 17th century Ming sculptor Chen Wei and bore his seal on the back. The beauty of the creamy-white figure was beyond description. The serene expression of the face was so skillfully captured that it seemed to be alive. The folds of the robe flowed so naturally that one forgot it was cared out of hard biscuit. The glaze was so rich and creamy that the whole figure looked as if it were soft to the touch. [. . .] By this time, I no longer thought of them as my own possessions. I did not care to whom they belonged after tonight as long as they were saved from destruction.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


“During the Japanese invasion, she lost everything when the Japanese soldiers burned her area of Nantao City. She borrowed money to open a fruit stall after the war. [. . .] Now they say she as a capitalist because she had a private business of her own. Our home is being looted because she is now living with us since her children are not in Shanghai.' The young man was full of indignation and almost in tears. The incident was a terrible blow to a self-righteous and proud Red Guard who was the third generation of a working-class family. It was also an eye-opener for me. Apparently, I decided, there were capitalists and capitalists, and none were more equal than others. If owners of fruits stalls were included in the category [of capitalists], the Red Guards in Shanghai had a big job to do. More Red Guards joined us to hear the young man's story. I noticed that a couple of them slipped away quietly afterwards, no doubt going home to investigate.”
― Nien Cheng, quote from Life and Death in Shanghai


About the author

Nien Cheng
Born place: in Peking (Beijing), China
Born date January 28, 1915
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