Tribute to a Beautiful Soul

By November 16, 2009Uncategorized

Since I was a little boy, I found reading biographies and autobiographies to be very inspiring. One of THE most inspiring books I have ever read was written by a women named Nien Cheng. Her autobiography, Life and Death in Shanghai, is a book I recommend nearly everywhere I speak. While many people saw her book as an expose about the politics of Mao’s Communist regime, I saw a story about the incredible health of the human spirit; someone who went through hell and kept going… Briefly, her is her story: At the age of 56 Nien was placed in solitary confinement in the No 1 Detention House in Shanghai for 6 1/2 years, accused of being a spy: Her crime; she spoke English. She was released when President Nixon arrived in China, as a token gesture for human rights. You can read more about her life in her best selling book, Life and Death in Shanghai. I first heard Nien speak at a lecture in Washington D.C. in 1990 where I was teaching on the faculty of The American University. I was forever moved. I invited her to come to my stress management class that semester and speak to my students about her horrible ordeal… and she accepted. “In China, we have no word for stress,” she said. “We call it opportunity.” Nien and I became immediate friends, so much so, that years later she even bought me a wedding present. Over the years we called, wrote and emailed hundreds of times, and I visited her every time I went to D.C. Nien Cheng was a remarkable soul and my life is all the richer for our friendship. I will miss her greatly. I have told her story (and stories of our get-togethers) in my books and wherever I go, and now with her passing, at the age of 94, I feel compelled to pay tribute once again to a beautiful soul. Without a doubt, Nien Cheng is the epitome of grace under pressure.

• Stress Tip for the Day:
Do yourself a favor and read Nien Cheng’s book, Life and Death in Shanghai. It will make any stressful event in your life (or all of them) look like a bed a roses. I often say that Nien’s book is the female version of Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning.

• Links Worth Noting:
Here is a link to the TIME magazine obituary paying tribute to her as well as a release from the Washington Post:,9171,1938744,00.html

• Photo of the Day:
Not long ago, Nien sent me this photograph to use for my textbook (Managing Stress) and slide shows (Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward). She said to me as she gave me this photo, “I don’t know why I have lived so long. I think it’s because I practice t’ai chi.” I smiled, but I knew it was much more than that.

• Quote for the Day:
One of Nien Cheng’s favorite quotes:
“Human Beings are like tea bags. You don’t know your strength until you’re put in hot water.” — Often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt

Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. is an internationally renowned expert in the fields of stress management, mind-body-spirit healing and stress and human spirituality. He is the author of over 10 books including the bestsellers, Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water, Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward, The Art of Calm, Quiet Mind, Fearless Heart and Managing Stress (6E). He can be reached through his

© Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D.

Brian Luke Seaward

Author Brian Luke Seaward

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • scott513 says:

    God Bless this beautiful brave soul whose struggle against evil in a time of darkness brought a shining light to clarify right and wrong

  • Bela Johnson says:

    I just read this book, found in a thrift shop. I’ve read Jung Chang’s accounts of Maoist China, but Cheng speaks from the heart in a way that compelled me to read until done. I googled her name to see if she was still living, and found your blog. Nice review, I like your reference to her work being the female version of Frankl – I agree. May Cheng’s words live on … amazing woman.

  • Anonymous says:

    you are previliged to have known her and talked to her. i only know her and her only book after she passed away. the book should be turned into a film. an amazing human being.

  • Anonymous says:

    In 2008/ 2009 I lived and worked in Shanghai. My Mom came to visit me at Christmas time and bought Nien Cheng’s book while she was there. In March of 2009 my Mom tragically passed away in Canada while I was in Shanghai. ‘Life and Death in Shanghai’ was in the back seat of the car at the time of my Mom’s death. Upon returning to Shanghai to finish my contract, I read her book and amazingly discovered that where I was living was in the heart of her story. I went to her old home, the Detention House, and the area where she lived after being released (my journey to these places can be found at!/album.php?aid=191935&id=510520978). Following the opportunities to see those places and be in the spaces that she lived, I wrote her a letter from Shanghai, which was sent to her Washington home, expressing how much of her strength would have, undoubtedly, helped my Mom in her last few hours. My Mom endured a tragic and devastating death, but endured with dignity just as Nien Cheng fought for her survival. Nien Cheng was a real life ‘Wonder Woman’ of her time and she left us with a legacy of hope, courage, and truth. I sincerely hope that she’s now able to rejoice, once again, with her husband and daughter.

  • Anonymous says:

    I just finished reading Nien Cheng’s book. I am almost speechless. What she endured says so much about the human spirit. A friend lent me the book, because my husband and I have just returned from 3 weeks in Shanghai, visiting our son who is working there. Now I feel I must go back with this new knowledge of Nien Cheng’s legacy reverberating in my mind. I want to see Shanghai, and China…..through her eyes. May she and Meiping rest in peace.

  • Anonymous says:

    her crime was not that she spoke English, that’s absurd

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