Jennifer Lin, Shanghai Faithful. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 317 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index. ISBN978-1-4422-5693-4 (cloth).
“This masterful biography is a loving and skillfully written portrait of the Lin family, spanning five generations. The author also provides an authentic survey of the historical events that overtook the family members during these decades. I recommend this book highly for both the novice and the ‘old China hand.’” Daniel Bays
“Jennifer Lin has written a dramatic, wide-ranging history of modern China, focusing on the lives of her grandfather and his brother-in-law, Watchman Nee, to explain how Western Christianity became a Chinese religion.” Terry Lautz
“Shanghai Faithful is an extraordinary book based on thorough research and an intensely personal question for understanding. . . It provides a unique window into the complicated and often painful history of Protestant Christianity in modern China.” Ryan Dunch
These comments from the back cover could be amplified by quotations from other China experts on the inside front page, who use words like, “a captivating, poignant story”; “an extraordinary story. . . Lin’s research is meticulous.” “This engrossing book . . . “ “A riveting tale.”
Rarely do I begin a review with others’ commendatory remarks, but this time I thought I could do no better than they in expressing the beauty and power of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Jennifer Lin is an award-winning journalist and former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Among other assignments, she served as the paper’s Asia bureau chief, based in China. Her father is Chinese, and her mother Italian. After hearing about her relatives in China from her father, she and two sisters traveled with him to Shanghai in 1979 to meet the China branch of her family. What she discovered there set in motion a decades-long search for the truth of what happened during the “silent years,” when all the news from them was, “We are well as usual. Do not worry about us.”
The reality was far different, of course. These (mostly) faithful Christians had suffered more than she – or we – could imagine, and had (mostly) survived. Lin wanted to know the facts and their meaning. She dug into archives, read old letters, immersed herself in the history, travelled back to China to visit the scenes about which she would write, and then applied her journalist’s skills, which are first-rate, to give us a chronicle of tragedy and triumph that will, I expect and hope, be read for generations to come.
Shanghai Faithful traces the lives of five generations of Christians in the Lin family. At the same time, the author sets their story within the context of the growth of Christianity in China, which cannot be understood apart from the larger framework of the political, social, and religious events of the past two hundred years. Jennifer Lin has woven a tapestry that artfully combines all these threads, resulting in a book, as reviewers have said, that tells the story both of Protestant Chinese Christianity and of modern Chinese history.
The story starts with a poor fisherman, Lin Yongbiao. While his neighbors scoffed at the strange message of the even stranger missionaries who occasionally visited his rural village in Fujian Province, Lin “came back again and again whenever a Christian preacher came to town.” (17) In 1871, when murderous hostility broke out against the “foreign devils” who brought “foreign poison,” Lin, who had by now identified himself as a Christian, took his wife and his young son to the provincial capital, Fuzhou. He had heard that the missionaries there need helpers. Maybe they could help him, too.
He soon found a job as a cook with the Anglican missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). They lived in foreign-style buildings built on Black Stone Hill, overlooking the city, where many temples had attracted worshipers for centuries. As elsewhere in China, the local priests and literati resented the presence and teaching of these foreigners, whose doctrine challenged the established order. In a foretaste of much of the rest of the book, anti-foreign feeling led to a riot, destruction of the mission premises by fire, a trial in which the LMS missionary insisted on his treaty rights, loss of the property, and relocation to another place.
Hoping for a better future for his son, Lin Dao’an – another theme we shall see again – Old Lin enrolled him in the missionary school. The lad’s intelligence and diligence caught the attention of the Reverend Birdwood van Someren Taylor, who ran the CMS hospital in the walled city of Funing. The author describes the energy and tact of Taylor, who gained respect and a hearing for his gospel through medicine, while his wife exemplified kindness and love as she moved among the people. All around the hospital, “the tenets of Christian faith were on display.” (35) Rich and poor received the same treatment. Chinese catechists taught basic truths of the Bible while patients waited for treatment or recovered.
Taylor trained his students with as much rigor as his teachers had shown in far-off Edinburgh. Along with English, science, and medicine, the young men also learned to play tennis!
In 1893, Lin Dao’an married Zhan Aimei, the daughter of poor parents who had enrolled her in a mission school as a means of survival during a terrible famine. Education for girls introduced them to a wider world, the Christian faith, and skills that would enable them to be good wives for Christian catechists and church members. Aimei proved to be a good student, receiving further training in Fuzhou and then returning to Funing to teach in her former school. She gave birth to their first son, Lin Pu-chi, on Christmas Day, 1894.
Lin Dao’an had worked with Taylor for five years, helping him open and run a new hospital in the southern city of Xinghua, but he later returned to Fuzhou as the head Chinese assistant of another missionary physician, Dr. Thomas Rennie. When he heard that an Irish member of the CMS was opening a new school, St. Mark’s Anglo-Chinese school, to train Chinese boys in English, he promptly took Lin Pu-chi to be one of the first class. The CMS had resisted using English as a medium of instruction, but relented in 1907 when they began losing students to the Americans, who taught their classes in English rather than Chinese.
The Empress Dowager had abolished the centuries-old classical education system in 1905, unleashing a rush to found new schools that taught Western subjects. The greatest opportunities lay before those who mastered science and other elements of a modern curriculum, but especially to the ones who could acquire fluency in English.
The Rising Churchman
The next chapters trace Lin’s academic career, from Trinity College in Fuzhou, to St. John’s University in Shanghai, one of China's premier colleges and the crown of the Anglican educational mission in China. He excelled at his studies, especially English, but he also applied himself to master the Chinese classics. From St. John’s he sailed to America to study theology at the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He also took classes in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Social Gospel movement was in full stride at the time, so Lin would have been taught theology from a “modernist,” or liberal point of view, with an emphasis upon the human side of Christ and the duty of Christians to participate in society. With a strong confidence in the natural powers of humans, modernists played down the necessity of personal conversion to Christ and a life of holiness, and trumpeted the reforming potential of governments, leaning towards socialist politics.
After returning to China, he married Ni Guizhen, the sister of Watchman Nee, who had founded an independent movement called by outsiders the Little Flock. The narrative now becomes a study in contrasts between the formal Anglicanism of Lin and the informal, but deeply pious, worship of Nee and his followers.
Through careful sleuthing, Jennifer Lin discovered something that Lin had not told any of his family. In 1927, at the height of the Anti-Christian movement, a mob of protesters grabbed Lin, tied him up, dragged him through the city, and demanded that he renounce his Christian faith. “Never,“ he replied. ‘You can kill me if you want.”
After a year as dean of the Anglican cathedral in Fuzhou, Lin worked as headmaster of Trinity College but resigned when he realized that he was not effective in that post. The author attributes this not only to his rather inflexible and distant personality, but also to the rising tide of virulent anti-foreign and anti-Christian agitation among students all across China, which she graphically depicts. Also, Christian colleges, in general, were not meeting their twin purposes of converting students to Christ and training clergy for the church.
He moved to Shanghai to work in St. Peter’s Cathedral, where he also helped to start a branch congregation on the other side of town. After a while, Ni Guizhen stopped playing the piano for her husband’s worship services, and eventually ceased attending altogether, switching to Watchman Nee’s congregation instead. This move would entail great suffering for her.
The Japanese attack on China, including Shanghai, in 1937, changed almost everything for a while. Life under the Japanese was hard, but at least church services could continue. Lin had preached a nationalistic sermon against the Japanese before the war but did not suffer any consequences as a result. After the Japanese interned all foreigners, Lin and other Chinese stepped in to lead the churches. When the war ended, the churches continued to help people who had been displaced, but soon the Communist insurgency engulfed the entire nation.
The author vividly describes the chaotic post-war conditions; the conquest of Shanghai by the Communists; the gradual imposition of strict controls on the churches; the formation of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement; enlistment of all churches in support of the war effort in Korea; the expulsion of all foreign missionaries; the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Watchman Nee; the agony this caused his sister as their home was searched and Ni Guizhen accused of complicity in Watchman Nee’s alleged anti-government activities; and the terrible pressure that led Lin Pu-chi to denounce his bishop and former mentor and friend.
The disastrous “Great Leap Forward” inflicted hardship on everyone, including the Lins, but it was mild compared to what was to come.
Lin’s daughter Martha had married John Sun, the son of a businessman who was also close to Nee. Martha and her husband attended Nee’s church with Lin’s wife. All suffered terribly as a result, as did Martha's children.
We read how, during the murderous madness of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards ransacked their home many times; son Tim endured beatings and confinement; their granddaughter Julia, the musician, had her fingers smashed with a ping-pong paddle by a classmate who had joined Red Guards; her sister Terri, the rebel, denounced Ni Guizhen for all the troubles her association with Nee he had caused the family. They tortured Matha‘s husband John by hanging him by his thumbs.
When Mao ordered the youth to be “sent down to the countryside to be educated by the peasants,” the family were all scattered. Jennifer Lin’s gripping narrative follows them all through very dark decades of isolation, loneliness, vilification, deprivation, illness, and death amidst chaos, betrayal, hatred, and despair.
Watchman Nee’s wife Charity was forced to work as a street sweeper and cruelly tortured by Red Guards, but she never denied her faith. Nee also refused to recant even when they offered him the chance to go home and join his ailing wife. He died in May 1972, of illness. Uner his pillows, the guards found a little piece of paper on which he had written, “I shall die for believing in Christ.”
In 1949, Lin had been able to get two of his sons, Paul and Jim, out of China and on a plane to America. Letters from home to Lin, written mostly by his daughter-in-law, told of their success, comfort, and happiness during the desperate days of their relatives in China. His responses omitted any mention of their trials and troubles, except for occasional references to Ni’s failing health. Otherwise, ti was, “We are all fine here.”
Because he belonged to the Anglican church, had supported the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and had denounced his bishop, Lin Pu-chi escaped the vilification and torture inflicted upon his wife. Yet, he had not expressed enthusiastic support for the new government and the Communist Party, so he had no official position in the church and lived on the margins of society. That gave him more time to care for his granddaughters and his wife as her health failed her.
The author returned to China in 2015 with her daughter Cory. To her surprise, she found that religion had revived and that Christianity was flourishing. Yes, crosses had been removed from thousands of churches in Wenzhou, and the government was imposing new restrictions on the public expression of faith by Christians, but that did not seem to stem the rising tide of Christianity.
They went Christ Church Cathedral, where her grandfather had served in Fuzhou. They also visited Brother Lin, of the Little Flock. He had suffered in prison but remained steadfast, and now had a growing congregation that looked to him for spiritual guidance. She found that Watchman Nee’s books were still popular, though not read in seminaries. Even Three-Self theologians admitted, however, that Nee was now considered a treasure for the Chinese church. Indeed, his influence is growing, with perhaps as many as fifteen million people identified with the Little Flock.
After attending a Little Flock house church meeting she understood why Ni Guizhen had left her husband’s church: “It was the intimacy of shared fellowship, the yearning for connection in a turbulent world.”
All the members of the Lin family had left China. “They were pushed by harsh treatment as much as pulled by new opportunities.” Martha, now in her 90s, remains active in a Little Flock congregation in Australia. Terri went to Australia with her mother and then back to China in business. Julia tutors music and leads worship for a church in Chicago.
Along with millions of others, Lin Pu-chi and his wife were rehabilitated in the 1980s. Their son Tim had them cremated and then interred in Glendale, California.
Lin Pu-chi had written in 1932 that the “study of China’s church history was ‘indispensable’ because ‘every society and every nation must use the past as a mirror.’ But he lamented the paucity of books on the Chinese church, adding that “materials that could be used to compile a history were scattered and incomplete. “ (277)
A photo taken in 1956 shows Lin in his Anglican priest’s garb, Bible held high, “uncowed.”
The author concludes: “In very different ways, Lin Pu-chi and Watchman Nee built a religious foundation that would prove to be sturdy enough to support the religious revival in China today. But equally as important was the conviction of believers like my grandparents. It cannot be measured by surveys. It cannot be calculated. It must be witnessed. After all that they had been through, after the physical abuse and mental torment, after the accusations, humiliation, and betrayal, Lin Pu-chi and Ni Guizhen never let go of their beliefs. To the end, the family in Shanghai remained faithful.”
Jennifer Lin has a written a superb book, one that could well serve as an introduction to modern Chinese history and to the history of Protestantism in China. She tracks the contrasting paths of independent Christians like Watchman Nee and other evangelicals, and of those who worked for “mainline” churches. Many of the latter, like Lin Pu-chi, held to a more liberal theology that stressed the social implications of Christianity as expounded by the Social Gospel. Though not Communists, they favored socialism and did not emphasize the kind of personal piety so valued by evangelicals. Indeed, the author thinks that, had it not been for the atrocities committed against members of his own family, Lin might have been intellectually and theologically comfortable with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
This story helps to understand the lingering mistrust and divisions between the unregistered churches and the TSPM even today. It also partly explains why the evangelical congregations, both within the TSPM and the far more numerous groups outside the system, have grown so dramatically in the past few decades. From the beginning of the story to the present, the connection of Christianity with Western missionaries has brought both bane and blessing. Missionaries received blame for the hated opium trade, which they also loathed, and for repeated acts of aggression by Western powers against China. This association provides fuel for government restrictions on Chrisitan activity even now.
On the other hand, the missionaries also contributed modern medicine, scientific education, education for and liberation of women (from footbinding, concubinage, and, to some degree at least, the idea that women are inferior to men). They introduced concepts of government and business that, where applied, have vastly improved the lot of millions. Most of all, they conveyed a message of forgiveness, new life, the love of God as heavenly Father, a new and loving community, and hope of eternal life. Millions are responding to that good news even now.
Jennifer Lin says of herself, “I’m not a scholar, I’m not a theologian. I’m a storyteller.” To which I reply, No, she is a scholar, having done extremely careful and painstaking research in archives, general reading, and oral interviews over several decades. Yes, the theology is a bit thin, especially when she describes the message of the early missionaries and even, to some degree, the preaching of Watchman Nee. She does not clearly communicate the core beliefs of evangelical Christians – the death of Jesus on the Cross for our redemption from sin and God’s wrath, his resurrection, the moral transformation by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit for those who truly repent and trust in Christ.
But she is a marvelous storyteller! Without making anything up - all the conversations and even the inner thoughts of the characters come from written records and eyewitness accounts – she has given us an account that is rich, nuanced, complex, realistic, compelling, and very inspiring.
Shanghai Faithful bears repeated and careful reading.