to read today that Nien Chang, the author of Life and Death in Shanghai, had died.
I only met Nien Chang once, and briefly at that, but it is a meeting I have remembered all my life. I was a reporter in Ithaca, New York, working for the Syracuse Newspapers, and I had free reign to write about almost anything I wanted.
I spent a lot of time writing about events at Cornell University because the school brought in so many interesting speakers, had such distinguished scientists, and a plethora of fabulous authors.
Chan’s memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, was a critical and commercial success when it was released in1987. I read it and was deeply moved by the deprivations she suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution. Chang was imprisoned and her daughter was murdered by the state.
So when I heard Chang was coming to speak at Cornell, I made sure to arrange an interview with her. We met in a spartan classroom on campus. I came in and she was already seated at a table. She was petite, with gray hair, and wore a dress with a Chinese collar.
What struck me immediately – and what I still remember almost 22 years later – was her calm. Chang had been beaten, brutalized, and bullied by the Chinese authorities, yet she seemed to hold no rancor. She had no bitterness. She had forgiven her captors and tormentors. She was at peace with them.
I was astounded by this. I had never met someone so accepting. Her calm spread over me like a balm and I found myself with a new kind of peace. Chang was the most profound person I had ever met in my life, and I have never forgotten her.
It seems others feel like I do. James Fallows of The Atlantic has penned an ode to her.
Here is her MySpace page.
The beautiful portrait (above) of Nien Chang was taken by Mary Noble Ours.