eternal youth: diana mitford and zheng nian, two women who live for their beliefs
When one looks at these two women, what strikes one the most, are their eyes: although laced with wrinkles, they are still unusually clear and shining, even penetrating, hinting at unwavering persistence of an inner belief and unbending courage of living.
Birth and Beauty:
She is Diana Mitford, from a British aristocratic family, one of the six famous and infamous Mitford sisters in 20th century Britain as well as Europe, and the most beautiful one. One of her family friend James Lees-Milne described: "She was the nearest thing to Botticelli's Venus that I have ever seen."
Diana Mitford, 17 June 1910 - 11 August 2003
Sandro Botticelli: the birth of venus, 1483-1485, detail. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
The Mitford sisters: From top left: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah, portrait by William Acton
She is Zheng Nian, (Or Nien Cheng as alternative English translation), born into a wealthy land owning family in China, and her father was a high ranking official in the then Chinese Government. Her original name was Yao nian Yuan, and she changed her surname after marrying her husband, and kept only her mid name to maker her name Zheng Nian.
How beautiful is she? I think when she was young, she looked somewhat like Xia Meng, the most beautiful Chinese movie star of her generation, who was widely called "Chinese Audrey Hepburn".
The two women were born more than 5 thousand miles away from each other, but less than 5 years between them, and belonged to the same generation: one on the tail of La Belle Epoque, another just after the First World War broke out, and essentially of same privileged environment:
Xia Meng, chinese movie actress: 1933-2016
Death and Destiny:
Diana Mitford old age
Zheng Nian old age
Both women died alone, in their own apartment, with no family around, outliving their husbands by many years. Diana in Paris, capital of France, succumbing to the overwhelming summer heat wave, Zheng Nian in Washington, DC, capital of USA, due to kidney exhaustion.
If their birth was defined by the First World War, their destiny was defined by their respective husbands, the men, their beliefs, ideals and the way they had chosen to live.
Love and Longevity:
Both women believed in and followed love.
Diana Mitford first fell in love with the heir to the Brewing fortune Bryan Walter Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne, but restless Diana soon felt out of love with her handsome husband who was too settled for and content with the country life, and when she met Oswald Mosley, a married rising political leader in 1932, she was in love again, this time, deeply, profoundly. She gave up everything - her loving husband, her extreme wealthy life, her reputation and her relationship with her family, to move into a very humble residence in order to be close to Oswald. And she loved him all her life, even when she found he was infidel later in their relationship, she stayed faithful to him, and faithfully in love with him for almost 5 decades until his death in 1980.
Diana Mitford on her wedding day with her husband Bryan Walter Guinness on 30 January 1929
Diana Mitford with her husband Oswald Mosley
Zheng Nian met her husband while studying abroad in London England, a man of humble origin but strong principle, which won her heart, although she could have picked someone who was a better match both socially and economically. She lived happily ever after with him until his early death due to cancer about twenty years after their marriage.
Zheng Nian with her husband Zheng Kangqi and their daughter Meiping
Both Diana and Nian had lived incredibly unusual life, at times privileged, at times challenging, even devastating, but seldom dull and never compromising, and they always faced life with courage, understanding and smile. Perhaps that's one of the major reasons why they have lived until such remarkably ripe age, Diana at 93, Nian 94.
Education and Exile:
Education: Diana's father decided that Diana and all her sisters should be home schooled, which meant Diana had somewhat interesting and imbalanced education background, strong in aesthetics like literature and languages, such as French, but not sufficiently exposed to the world at large, perhaps this plus her upper class bringing, had strong impact on her later orthodox view toward politics.
Zheng Nian's fathe requested to study abroad for her master degree, after she graduated from the best university in China, and she chose Economics, a difficult and unlikely choice for a woman of her background, this helped broaden her view of the world, giving her a more informed and insightful perspective.
Exile: Usually we call people who were born in one country who move to live in another country expats, but in Diana and Nian's cases, they were called exile, because although it was voluntary choice in appearance, it was their only choice: they both left their home country almost as soon as they could get passport and visas, about seven years after being released from prison for different reasons to never go back, and they never did.
In an interview with Diana in 1989, she was asked if she would be returning to England one day, she said lightheartedly: No, I love leaving in France. In her lecture for American National Congress Club in 1987, Zheng Nian was asked by some audience if she would ever go back to China, her answer was: No, because I am old, the long journey tires me."
But with just a little bit further reading between the lines and about their life stories, we would be able to answer for them: they could not bear going back because they want to forget.
Pearl, politics and prison:
Pearl: The two women not only are exceptionally beautiful, they dressed well and wore pearls. They were the last generation of real pearl lady.
Diana Mitford wearing pearl earrings and pearl necklace
Zheng Nian in pearl necklace with her daughter
Diana Mitford wearing pearl earrings
Zheng Nian wearing pearl earrings
Politics: I think neither Diana nor Nian ever want to be involved in politics at all, but they did, directly or indirectly because of the men they loved, and they both paid a terribly high price for that.
Diana's second husband Oswald Mosley, the leader of British Union of Fascists, was considered danger factor and imprisoned by British Government without trial, and Diana followed suit soon afterwards on 29 June 1940, just a few months after she gave birth to her second son with Oswald. They were interned for about 3 years in prison than under house arrest.
22 years later, almost to the day, on 27 June 1966, Zheng Nian was also taken to prison without trial, with only vague accusation of her life style and her western contact. Nian's husband Zheng Kangqi had been high rank diplomat of National Party, the soon opposition party to the main communist party when its leader Mao Zhedong took over mainland China in 1949. They could have left China for Taiwan or other places in the world, but her husband, an idealistic liberal intellectual insisted they stay. So they did, Mr Zheng was employed by British Shell company Ltd. as a top level executive and his wife Nian sort of became his successor after his sudden death a few years later. For about a decade Nian lived the life of privilege and tranquility until suddenly, disaster knocked on her door, when the cultural revolution started.
She stayed six and half years in prison, became a number, was horribly tortured, and lost her only daughter, Meiping, a then movie actress also to the same movement.
Socialite and survivor:
The two of them have lived life of servants, maids, gardeners and chauffeurs, they loved good life, appreciated beautiful objects, whether it's a piece of jade necklace or louis quartorze armoir, they knew how to maneuver among guests as a gracious hostess, but when life forced them into completely different situation, they did not become whiner.
Diana planted wild strawberry in prison, and commented she never was able to cultivate strawberries with such sweetness later in her life; In her prison cell, Zheng nian glued toilet paper to the wall with residue of rice she was given as food to avoid dirt falling off on her mattress.
Warrior and writer:
None of them have planned to be a writer, but both became one, and a very succesful one, by telling their own story, with clear mind, strong memory and total honesty.
Diana Mitford and Zheng Nian are both book and music lovers, in 1989, while interviewed by BBC radio, Diana chose a few pieces of music to be played, and I think perhaps it's a fitting way to say farewell to these two extraordinary women for now with one of her favorite melodies, the aria Casta Diva of Vincenzo Bellini's Opera Norma.
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