Ting Guo reviews Jennifer Lin’s Shanghai Faithful for LA Review of Books
Legendary preacher and religious rebel Watchman Nee 倪柝聲 is often thought of simply as someone who denounced denominationalism as a sin and advocated a radical separation from Western missions. When viewed through the personal lens of his grand-niece Jennifer Lin, he becomes something very different: a fashionable young man who loved racecars, was a world-traveler, and collected Life Magazine and Reader’s Digest.
Jennifer Lin starts her book with a question: how did the Chinese become Christians? She begins with her great great-grandfather, who worked as a cook for a household of Anglican missionaries in Fuzhou, the affluent capital of Fujian province. Following the defeat of the Qing in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, Fuzhou became one of a handful of “treaty ports” where Westerners were given special privileges to trade and prosthelytize. The cook’s son — Lin’s great grandfather — proved particularly bright, and received a modern education that changed his life. He became a doctor, allowing his son, Lin Pu-chi — Lin’s grandfather — to attend St. John’s University in Shanghai. At St. John’s, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China who “stirred the hearts of the Chinese people like no one before” spoke to Lin Pu-chi’s class. “The basis of a democratic country is education,” the revolutionary said. “Give unto others what you have received,” Sun exhorted the students. “Let your light shine.”
It was also at St John’s that Lin Pu-chi realized that he was no longer the smartest one in the room, as his new classmate defeated him in a debate in front of everyone. That classmate was Lin Yutang 林語堂, who would go on to become a Harvard-trained linguist and an acclaimed writer, known for his light-hearted philosophical works in equally fluent English and Chinese. Lin Pu-chi continued his studies at the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia with a full scholarship,, eventually becoming an Anglican pastor in Shanghai. His brother-in-law, Watchman Nee, gained fame as an evangelical preacher. Following the communist victory in 1949, Nee would spend the next twenty years of his life in prison.
As Lian Xi also discusses in Redeemed by Fire, Nee led the fastest growing independent church in China, the Little Flock. Despite being born into a Christian family, Nee was an unbeliever. Then, at the age of seventeen, the rebellious teen decided to submit to Christ and lead a life in ministry. He adopted the English name Watchman — Tuo-sheng in Chinese — referring to his calling to sound out a warning in the dark night. Rather than attending seminary, Nee preached through his publications and charisma.
In Shanghai Faithful, Watchman Nee is the big brother that Jennifer Lin’s grandmother looks up to, who, to her great joy, marries her childhood friend. He was so charismatic that his sister stopped coming to her own husband’s Anglican church and joined the Little Flock instead. Despite dividing the family theologically, they remained close nonetheless. Decades after Watchman Nee’s death, the village where he was from and where he spent his last years remains predominantly Christian.
After being released from prison in 1972, Nee was an old man in his sixties, having missed both his wife’s and his sister’s deaths. Different from earlier hagiographies Nee (which always note the piece of paper that he tucked beneath his pillow in prison which read, “I shall die for believing in Christ.”), Lin’s family memories add a personal and human touch, which makes the tragic end of his life all the more poignant.
Along with Watchman Nee, Pastor Lin was one of a handful of Protestant leaders who were summoned to meet Premier Zhou Enlai in 1951. This meeting was held to examine their ties with Western missionary boards and to create a unified patriotic Protestant front. During their meeting, the eighteen delegates were asked to denunciate Westerns missionaries as the “imperialist agents under the cloak of religion.”
Lin records Pastor Lin’s response, “I have experienced an intense internal struggle, I stand here today with incomparable compunction, indignation, and grief.” And yet, he was forced to denunciate his supervisor at the Anglican-Episcopal Province of China (known in Chinese as the ‘Sheng Kung Hui’ 聖公會) from 1912 to 1949, stating, “I accuse him with the spirit of placing righteousness above private loyalty and explore his deeds as a lackey and accomplice of American imperialism and degenerate and sinner of our church.”
Denunciations aside, the CCP’s agenda to rid of Chinese Christian leaders of ties of to foreign missionaries arguably agreed with the Sheng Kung Hui’s own patriotic objectives, to elect clerics to carry on the work of promoting the Movement to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea as well as the Three Self Reforms Movement. In 1950, led by K.H. Ting (1915-2012), the Anglican Bishop in Shanghai, forty Protestant Christian leaders in China had jointly signed a document entitled “Direction of Endeavor for Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China.” The YMCA in China also provided a convenient launchpad—and the Party evidently had no qualms about using this Christian network to help their Communist revolution break into China’s cities.
But the love for China as a nation took diverged forms between the CCP and the Chinese Christians who initiated the Three Self Patriotic movement. The CCP’s secular radicalism eventually led to a strong anti-Christian and anti-foreign influence agenda, which created a revolutionary atmosphere so powerful that when Jennifer Lin’s grandfather urged his daughter to study English in order to go to the US one day, she replied, “Why bother? There’s no use for English in China.”
The story of how Pastor Lin raised money to send his children to the US before further storms came to the family is particularly moving. Jennifer Lin’s ties to the characters fill the reader with empathy, leaving the reader feeling as if they themselves are standing on the Bund in Shanghai with Pastor Lin, watching his sons sail away, knowing that this would be their last goodbye.
Jennifer Lin is a storyteller. As Milan Kundera writes in The Book of Memory and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Tales like that of the Lin family deserve to be told again and again, because narratives like Shanghai Faithful reinterpret history, providing an alternative to the official account. Even if we remain ultimately unable to reverse the passage of time, it is only by allowing memories and official accounts to coexist that we are able to piece together the larger picture. This is the tenacity of memory. ∎