Eyes Toward Heaven
Sometimes a person has so much confidence, grace, and poise, that it comes through in even something as static as a photograph. Nien Cheng (Kneen Chen) was just such a person. Some of the other adjectives used to describe her in older magazine articles, on various blogs and in the comments section of an interview with her that is posted on YouTube are; gentle, courageous, elegant, intelligent, indomitable, dignified, incredible, charming, and so on… Looking in her peaceful eyes, it is hard to believe she was a survivor of, and witness to, the myriad horrors brought about during the Cultural Revolution in China. A revolution know to claim the lives of untold millions.
Born Yao Nien-Yuan in 1915 Beijing, China to a fairly well-to-do family, Nien Cheng was not a pampered child despite her family having man-servants, maids, a cook, a gardener, and all manner of help at their disposal. Nien’s father insisted that she and her younger brother walk to school instead of being driven in one of the cars. She later said in an interview that this attitude of her father’s toughened her up and made it possible for her to endure many of the hardships which she encountered later in life.
In June of 1966, Mao Zedong gave his blessing to the Red Guards, a teacher-led group of armed youth instructed to enforce Maoist ideology (Mao Zedong Thought) all throughout China. The media proclaimed the mission of the Red Guards was to rid the country of the the four olds; old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ways of thinking. “Old,” was not clearly defined, and was a term left to the bearer’s interpretation as the Red Guards were released on Shanghai. They methodically visited each house to exact confessions, extort funds, destroy antiques, and intimidate people. Anything short of murder was allowed by the teachers who led them, for killing someone could eliminate the possibility of obtaining vital information for the Party.
At that time, no one could have possibly known that the list of difficulties which Nien would face in her life would number many, and none of them were as simple as having to walk to school instead of getting a chauffeured ride. By 1966 she was widowed, her husband having died in 1957 of colon cancer, the mother of an energetic college student of 24, and an assistant manager at Shell in Shanghai.
The Red Guards came to Cheng’s house on August 30 1966 while Meiping (Mayping), her daughter, was still at school. They all wore red arm bands as identifiers. Except for the teacher, they were all under 20 years old. One youngster towered above her diminutive form with anger in his eyes, feet apart, shoulders braced and declared, “We have come to take revolutionary action against you.”
Cheng asserted that it was illegal, against the Chinese constitution, to enter her house without a warrant. Pushing her aside, they disregarded her claim and in a flurry of adolescent, unfettered zeal, the group of Red Guards tore her house apart, cut up her clothes, smashed up some of her precious porcelain figurines, stole many of her valuables, and burnt her books.
Cheng was put under house arrest until September, when she was sent to prison as an enemy of the state. The allegations against Nien Cheng which got her put into solitary confinement at the Number One Detention House in Shanghai was a combination of having been educated at the London School of economics, being a widow of a Chiang Kai- Shek official, and working as an assistant manager of Shell, a major American corporation, which proved she was a spy against China. The espionage accusation kept her in prison for six and half years. The Maoist attitude which governed all of China’s population was to get rid of the higher class, get rid of the old, and to do everything Mao’s way. From agriculture to cooking, Mao was the do all and end all of everything any citizen of China undertook. The prisons were full of people who either actually did not conform or whose neighbor’s confessed that they did not conform. Nien Cheng was not alone in being singled out for the lifestyle she lived.
The authorities wanted Cheng to confess so they could use her declaration to attack Zhou enlai.(Cho Enlye) by accusing him of facilitating the spying on the Chinese by Shell because he was involved in the original agreement between the Shell Corporation and China in 1950. Mao wanted to get rid of some of the Chinese leaders, those less Maoist, and having them arrested for treason was how he planned to accomplish it. All the Number One Chinese of foreign banks and businesses were locked up in the men’s prison, because they arrested every single senior Chinese in every foreign company and forced them to confess. None of them did because they all knew it was a political process used to aid Mao in getting rid of the mild factions of the Communist Party leaders, those who realized that Mao’s policy was not working.
Being wrongfully charged as a spy and held in solitary confinement where she suffered isolation wore on her soul, but reciting the 23rd Psalm was a balm that softened the chafe. At one point she had to accomplish all her daily duties, including personal hygiene and eating, with her hands cuffed behind her back for three weeks straight. The cuffs carved deep wounds into her wrists that would scar her for a lifetime. In prison, the food so lacked nutrition and was so sparse, she would endure rotting gums which caused her to lose her teeth. She was routinely tortured in attempts to force a confession. What brought her through those years in prison was prayer. Nien Cheng believed in God, that He is just and righteous and had a plan for her, and what faith she must have had to endure the torture, beatings, and starvation level rations. She clung to the Psalms, encouraged by the recitation of, “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil,” and was reassured in prison with a heart ready to heal.
When Cheng was released, she was told her only child, Meiping had passed away. She was told that her daughter had jumped from a nine story building and committed suicide. After Mao’s death in 1976, when people began to speak without as much fear, she discovered Meiping had been beaten to death by a gang trying to gain favor with the Party.
Cheng missed Meiping every day. She felt so much grief she decided to leave Shanghai. She had sisters in both Hawaii and California and that’s where she started the journey on the road to her new life in America where she would further her education, become an American citizen, and eventually the author of the memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai. Writing the book helped her purge the demons lingering behind her eyes and encourage the generations behind her to stand strong in their faith.
MacAskill, Ewen. Nien Cheng and the Flames of Revolution, Washington Post, July, 15 1986