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Discussing Life And Death In Shanghai & Social Justice

Life And Death In Shanghai is an autobiography by Nien Cheng. It was published in 1987 and yet seems more relevant than ever. Nien Cheng was a woman who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. She spent 6 years in prison under suspicion of being a spy for a foreign government. This is a banned book in China. The book vividly describes the appalling conditions that prisoners lived in. Beyond that, it gives insight into the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Nien Cheng is able to describe things in a way that captures the horror and injustice of the time. It is a chilling reminder of what humanity is capable of and a testament to human resilience. What Nien Cheng faced was nothing short of torture. A torture that never ended until she left China.

Nien Cheng wrote Life And Death In Shanghai in English and her words are deliberate. She manages to convey the unfairness of the situation in a way that made me squirm while I read. It has quickly climbed to the top of my list of favourite books. I feel as though it has a lot of relevance in today’s world. There are many unsettling comparisons to be had with modern day Social Justice Warriors. As soon as I put the book down my mind was on how eerily similar the things the Red Guards said are to feminist rhetoric. It is something I wanted to discuss and hope I can encourage you to read this book. I frankly believe it belongs on every high schooler’s syllabus since it is filled with information.

GG Reads Life And Death In Shanghai

Expanding My Outlook On China

I’ve lived in China for over a year now. It is easy to passively take each day as it comes without noticing things. Life And Death In Shanghai made me think about aspects of Chinese culture I overlooked. It’s very hard to describe, but I feel like the book gave me an insight into the Chinese mindset. The fearfulness to stand up to authority or the reluctance to criticise the government. Things that definitely seem foreign to me as someone who grew up in the West. I feel like mocking Enda Kenny is a national pass time in Ireland. Perhaps many of these aspects spring from this moment in history or were at least renewed by it. This is especially true for the corruption the Xi Jinping wants to fight. The cultural revolution was the moment when it dug in deep.

It is obvious why this is a banned book in China. The book does not cast a good light on China at all. Still, it seems remiss to ban it. Despite everything Nien Cheng went through, her love for her country is clear. Even after 6 years of torture and imprisonment, she is still sad to leave China. I don’t think that is mindless nationalism. China is still a fantastic place in spite of everything in its past and present. The book definitely added to my frame of reference regarding China.

Life And Death In Shanghai & Modern Day Social Justice

Nien Cheng Author of Life And Death In Shanghai and Meiping

Nien Cheng (Right) with her daughter Meiping (Left) 1964 –Archived Source

It would be an understatement to say I’m not a fan of Modern Day Feminism. Yet, I don’t think I am imagining the similarities I noticed while reading this book. Again and again while reading Life And Death In Shanghai, the resemblance struck me. Little things like when the Red Guards talk about the concept of ‘privilege’ in the same way feminists do to me. The only difference is the Red Guard didn’t use skin colour as their criteria for ‘privilege’. Items such as affirmative action appear in the story as well. The government introduces it to uplift the common folk. Yet it ends up as just another rod to beat intellectuals with. If I surmised the Cultural Revolution I’d say it was an excuse for lazy children to lash out at the well off.

There was a moment in the book where Nien Cheng’s daughter faces discrimination. Due to her ‘Privilege’, she must score a significantly higher percentage (20% more) in tests just to pass. Whereas other children need only to be barely literate.  Nien Cheng can’t do anything to fight against the unfairness despite being angry. To her credit, the daughter takes everything in her stride. She even tries to justify it by saying the other children have less free time than her. It’s a sad moment in the book because the daughter is sweet and innocent and doesn’t deserve this hate.

The Attitude Of The Red Guards And Social Justice Warriors

Red Guard Life and Death and Shanghai

The purpose of the Red Guards was to overthrow the “right-wingers who follow the capitalist road” –Archived Source

The attitude of the Red Guard throughout the book is awful. Whenever Nien Cheng comes in contact with them in the book I am reminded of today’s campuses. There are moments when the guards even say they are fighting for social justice. The Red Guard were all kids and teenagers easy to influence and rally. They never for a moment believed they were in the wrong. The Red Guard break into Nien Cheng’s house to steal and destroy her stuff. They maintain their self-righteous attitude because she is a member of the ‘Capitalist Class’. The Red Guard spit the words ‘Capitalist Class’ the same way feminist say ‘White Male’.

Feminist Red GuardThe Red Guards genuinely believe they come from an oppressed class of people. Similarly to modern day feminists they see privilege as a state of being. They don’t see how the people they attack have earned their lot in life. It must simply be their privilege or the result of them oppressing the working class. When the power does shift and work is redistributed I do think some of them realise they’ve messed up. Nien Cheng is misdiagnosed multiple times due to the fact that doctors have been replaced by farm children. I imagine those kids quickly learned the reason we pay our surgeons more than our city sweeps. Unfortunately, it is the common folk who died as a result of their arrogance. The Red Guards mostly escaped punishment due to the turbulence of the time.

Chillingly Modern Quotes From Life And Death In Shanghai 

Nien Cheng Author Life And Death In Shanghai

This portrait was taken by Mary Noble Ours when she was still alive.


I’ve talked about some of the ways the Red Guard from Life And Death In Shanghai compare to modern day social justice warriors. There were often times a lot less subtle in the book. While reading it I found that some of the quotes I stumbled upon sounded just like feminist rhetoric. To the point where I wouldn’t bat an eye if they came from the mouth of Bell Hookes or Brianna Wu. There are some that to capture Modern Feminism beautifully. Here’s a small selection of ones that stood out to me.

Your Guilty For Being A Certain Type Of Person

“We go by the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao. His words are our criteria. If he says a certain type of person is guilty and you belong to that type, then you are guilty. It’s much simpler than depending on a lawbook,”

I’m sure at one time or another we have all met a feminist trying to change the definition of racism or sexism. This quote made me think about that a lot harder. It makes me think of ‘reverse-racism’ the feminist term for racism against white people. Simply the idea of being an oppressor because you are white/male/straight. It is undeniably similar to how the Red Guard treated the ‘Capitalist Class’. In this case, if we swap Chairman Mao out for ‘feminism’ it’d fit right in on Every Day Feminism.


I decided to search EveryDayFeminism to get a direct feminist perspective on privilege. However, this pop-up seemed too prove to my point

Like the Red Guard, feminists tend to be reading from a different script than the rest of us. Most of us work on the basic “don’t judge people on the colour of their skin etc”. Most Rad-Fems work on a sort of oppression pyramid. It becomes an equation to solve which pig is more equal than the others. Inevitably leading to everyone racing to be the most oppressed.

Talking About The Long Past Like It Is Today

“To him, Tao’s mistakes were made not because he was a greedy man with little self-control but because he had worked for a firm that belonged to a nation guilty of acts of aggression against the Chinese people more than a hundred years ago. He was talking about the Opium War of 1839–42 as if it had taken place only the year before.”

I want to include the complete context because it is slightly different. Yet, here we see the communist party using something long past to justify something. We often see this in feminism when talking about slavery or colonialism. They’re both using it to justify their own hate. For the communist party, it was hatred for capitalism and for Radical Feminism it is hatred of ‘Masculinity’. This quote also reminds me of how feminists say they are not racist/sexist because the people they are prejudiced against are not historically oppressed. It is almost amusing. They’re unable to see that it is that attitude that allowed atrocities like this to happen.

Why I Recommend Reading Life And Death In Shanghai

Life and Death in Shanghai is one of those books that changes your perspective. After reading this book I feel like I have grown as a person in some way. it’s both an enriching and empowering read. This is my absolute favourite non-fiction book right now. Despite every terrible hardship Nien Cheng faces she takes it in her stride. She could be anyone’s role model. The story can be a cautionary tale about Social Justice and communism, but also one of defiance. In many ways, it is bittersweet and above all thought-provoking. I think people from all walks of life will get something out of this book. I also cannot think of a better introduction to recent Chinese history. Nien Cheng is surprisingly fair when telling her story.

I have discussed this book from one angle, but there are so many ways to read it. If I could I’d make it part of ever Higher Level English student’s reading list. My only regret is not reading it sooner.

After Notes

Book Information:

Title: Life And Death In Shanghai

Author: Nien Cheng

Publishers: Grove Press, Penguin Books

ISBN: 9787900000019

If you do end up reading Lie and Death in Shanghai please comment below and tell me what you thought of the book. If you prefer you can join the conversation on r/books.

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