This is the book that I loved before I remembered that I loved books. When I was little, I was always curled up somewhere with my nose stuck in a book. Favorites like C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler were devoured — read until they literally fell apart. Yet I read them still, picking up one bedraggled page or section at a time and revisiting the characters and stories that I held so dear. Somehow along the way, though, those days became fewer and farther between, until reading became just a thing that I used to do, and eventually, (once I started college) just a thing that I had to do. Ironically, it was exactly this — the fulfillment of a course requirement — that led me to discover what is now one of my favorite books of all time: Life and Death in Shanghai.
Life and Death in Shanghai is the autobiographical account of one remarkable woman’s harrowing experiences as a prisoner during China’s Cultural Revolution. Simply told yet beautifully haunting, Yao Nien-Yuan (under the pseudonym Nien Cheng) paints a vivid portrait of her life in China during the reign of Communist dictator Mao Zedong. Yao tells of the physical and mental torture she endured, the loss of her family, the loss of her possessions, and very nearly, the loss of her life. Somehow, despite all the tragedy and suffering, the story she tells is not a song of self-pity, but rather a tale of resiliency that remains profoundly relevant to this day.
It has been over 20 years since I first read this book, yet this undeniable masterpiece stays with me still. Every time I read it is like the first time, offering new insights and an even deeper understanding of this extraordinary woman and this complex era in Chinese history. If you read but one non-fiction piece this year, I urge you to make it the unforgettable Life and Death in Shanghai.
Until next time, happy reading!
Little Book Reviews