Life and Death in Shanghai

Life and Death in Shanghai

November 9, 2009

Life and Death in Shanghai


Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Cheng died on November 2.  She’s been one of my heroes, ever since my son Tim introduced me to her work some 15 years ago.  Cheng spent almost seven years in one of Mao’s prisons for the crimes of having worked for Shell, studied abroad, and for speaking fluent English.

Nien Cheng
Nien Cheng

While she was in prison, her only child was murdered by the Red Guards for refusing to denounce Cheng.  She survived horrifying conditions with wit and anger, and, according to her memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, poetry.  She had memorized a great deal of classical Chinese poetry during her youth and it came to her rescue in prison.

The easy way in which Mao stirred the youth of China  into a violent mob is not unique or isolated.  The Fascists did this with ease and effectiveness in Italy, home of Dante and Verdi, and the National Socialists were equally effective in the land of Beethoven and Goethe.  A recent Italian novel set in this period,  The Jewish Husband, is more heart-stopping than any horror or serial killer novel.  We read a lot of fiction and history about Germany, but very little about Italy’s approach to race–this novel, brief, powerful, beautifully and urgently written, helps fill that gap.

I am uneasy, even frightened, by the way Republicans in Congress and radicals in the talk-show world are stirring up mob passions.  On November 7, Congressional Republicans organized an event in Washington to show opposition to health care reform.  They used images of Dachau and Auschwitz as part of their action.  As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post,

“the best of [Rep.] Bachmann’s recruits were a few rows into the crowd, holding aloft a pair of 5-by-8-foot banners proclaiming “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.” Both banners showed close-up photographs of Holocaust victims, many of them children. Immediately in front of this colorful scenery, various House Republicans signed autographs and shook hands with the demonstrators. Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.)…recently said the health-care bill is more dangerous than terrorists…”Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) exulted as he stood in front of the Dachau banner.”

I know you come to my blog because I’m a fiction writer, not because I’m a political commentator.  And I know my novels are  criticized in the blogosphere for being too political, a charge that worries me.  But–we are living in a time of upheaval and, in my opinion, danger, and I think it would be irresponsible of me not to reflect on the times, either here, or in my fiction.

As always, I welcome your reaction.


Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.