January 28, 1915|
|Died||November 2, 2009
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Nationality||Chinese (American Citizen)|
|Notable works||Life and Death in Shanghai|
Nien Cheng or Zheng Nian (January 28, 1915 – November 2, 2009) is the pen name of Yao Nien-Yuan (Chinese: 姚念媛; pinyin: Yáo Niànyuán). She was a Chinese author who recounted her harrowing experiences of the Cultural Revolution in her memoir Life and Death in Shanghai.
Cheng was born in Beijing. In 1966, she became a target of attack by Red Guards as the widow of the former manager of a foreign firm in Shanghai, Shell. Maoist revolutionaries used this fact to claim that Cheng was a British spy in order to strike at Communist Party moderates for allowing the firm to operate in China after 1949.
Her book documents her account of her imprisonment. Cheng endured six-and-a-half years of squalid and inhumane conditions in prison, while refusing to give any false confession. Cheng used Mao's teachings successfully against her interrogators, frequently turning the tide of the struggle sessions against the interrogators. In 1973 Cheng was eventually paroled on the basis that her attitude had shown improvement. However, Cheng resisted leaving prison without receiving acknowledgment from her captors that she had been unjustly imprisoned.
Upon release Cheng was relocated from her spacious home to two bedrooms on the second floor of a two-story building. Cheng continued her life under constant surveillance, including spying by the family on the first floor. When released from jail, Cheng was told that her daughter, Meiping Cheng (Chinese: 郑梅萍; pinyin: Zhèng Méipíng), a film actress, had committed suicide. After Cheng conducted a discreet investigation, she found that this scenario was impossible, and came to believe that Meiping had been murdered by Maoists after she refused to denounce her mother. The alleged killer of Meiping, a rebel worker named Hu Yongnian, was arrested and given a suspended death sentence by Shanghai authorities in 1980, but subsequently paroled in 1995.
Cheng lived in China until 1980, when the political climate warmed enough for her to apply for a visa to the United States to visit family. She never returned, as she was still a constant target of surveillance by those who wished her ill, first emigrating to Canada, and later to Washington, D.C., where she wrote the autobiography.
Nien Cheng was a longtime friend of Nelson T. Johnson, the U.S. Ambassador to China and his wife Jane Augusta Washington Thornton Beck Johnson. After moving to Washington, D.C., Cheng traveled extensively and was a frequent speaker on the lecture circuit. She was also a close friend of the Dutch Wife of the Consul General in Hong Kong, Baroness Van Aerssen (Suzanne Hiltermann-Souloumiac). Nien and Suzanne exchanged several letters on Life and Death in Shanghai. Canadian singer Corey Hart recorded an instrumental song based on her memoir in his 1990 album Bang!