Shanghai Faithful

Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family

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Jennifer Lin
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , February
     332 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What does it mean to be Chinese and Christian? Why would some Chinese choose to adopt a foreign religion on seemingly incompatible soil? How did the Chinese live their faith in a time of transformation and upheaval?

Chinese Christian history is usually associated with Western missionary history, marked by significant historical events, and the biographies of famous missionaries. Nevertheless, one should not overlook or underestimate one integral part: how Chinese Christians responded to and lived their adopted religion.

Jennifer Lin’s family saga—Shanghai Faithful—of five generations, about love and betrayal, persecution and reconciliation, is a heart-wrenching narrative seeking to answer the above questions. A veteran journalist from Philadelphia, Lin interviewed her extended family in China for almost four decades, researched archives across three continents, and incorporated the relevant primary and secondary resources into her work. The result is a book that offers a unique lens to witness the rise and fall of Christianity in China over the last two centuries.

Lin begins with the first generation—the fisherman Lin Yongbiao from a village in Fujian. The uneducated Old Lin, who knows little Confucian, eeks out a marginal living in the late nineteenth century. As a “rice Christian,” he embraced this foreign religion for his salvation. Seeking a better living for his newborn son, and fear of the potential threat from village folks, Old Lin moved to the Christian enclave in the provincial capital and became a cook for the mission around 1871. Thus, the second generation—Lin Daoan grew up in the missionary world and received medical training by British missionaries, adding the title of Dr. to his name.

In Lin’s riveting story, the third generation Lin Pu-chi (1894-1973)—Lin’s grandfather—was born in an era when the Chinese realized that China lagged behind the West in modernization. Coming of age in the Anglican Trinity College and the prestigious St. John’s University, Lin Pu-chi was determined to pursue the best Western education, and serve the Chinese Church as had his father before him, to ensure a Chinese presence in the Church. His Ivy League ministry education in the US was cut short by an arranged marriage to the daughter of another good Christian family—a traditional act of Confucian obedience.

The major part of Lin’s book highlights two Christian leaders of the Chinese Church, Lin Pu-chi, and his brother-in-law Watchman Nee (1903-1972). Lin focuses on the theology of both men: one aims to indigenize the Church from scratch, while the other tries to reform the Anglican mission from the inside. Lin Pui-chi argues that a Church on its own—integrated with the best parts of Western culture—will give rise to a new China (166). He also declared that “Christianity is not a foreign faith, it’s what the great Chinese sages taught” (106). Watchman Nee was the most charismatic and influential Chinese theologian, establishing the “Little Flock” Assembly, and propagating the Three-Self movement: self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. His assembly both eradicated denominational affiliations and severed connections with foreign missions.

Lin makes the point that anti-Christian persecutions arose intermittently, but none worse than those between 1960 and the late 1970s. The communists denounced the Christians as complicit with Western imperialism, reviving this old charge. Even Watchman Nee, whose assembly had no connections with foreign missions, and whose Three-Self movement paved the way for the official Three-Self Patriotic movement, was not exempted. Nee was seen as a threat to the communist regime and died in prison, a martyr for his faith.

Lin depicts the excruciating ordeals of the family during the Cultural Revolution: humiliation, betrayal by fellow Christians, arrest, detention, house ransacking, physical abuse, and the deprivation of an education for the fifth generation. Worse still, for her association with Watchman Nee, the grandmother—Ni Guizhen—was relentlessly humiliated and abused. Lin marvels that never, not for a moment, did the family recant their faith, and none sought to commit suicide—an act that was part-and-parcel for large numbers of victims.

Lin contrasts her family with that of the Shanghai family, the one in America leading respected and successful lives as good Christians, and the other living in despair and fear. When China ended the Cultural Revolution, the Lin family chooses to leave their homeland in search of a place to freely practice their faith.

The book ends on a positive note with the revival of Christianity in China. Political movements may come and go, but the legacies of Lin Pu-chi—and particularly that of Watchman Nee—will not to perish but remains “at the grass roots, the influence of Watchman Nee on the current generation of Christians remained strong” (271). The goal that both men raised is still unaccomplished: the sinicization of Christianity in China.

Lin’s book helps explain what shaped the mentality of Chinese Christians. When churches reopened in 1980s, the Lin family chose to continue to practice their faith at home—out of fear. This may explain why the Chinese Academy took on the leading role in the study of Christianity while the Church lags behind today. Though the number of Christians is rising, there still seems to be a shadow of uncertainty.

The book answers the question I raised at the onset: to be Chinese and Christian is to be caught in the middle—between Confucianism and Christianity, between patriotism and ostracization. To be a Chinese Christian may begin as an existential choice in joining a marginal group, but eventually it becomes the Chinese quest for the “mystery of man’s spirit and soul” (272).

Anyone interested in modern Chinese (Christian) history, society, and culture and seeks to grasp what shaped the Chinese mentality in general must read this family odyssey. For Lin, her family lineage and her “distance” from China, makes her the ideal author to present a precise and valuable addition to the study of Chinese Christian theology in twentieth century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Yu Fu is a lecturer of English at Zhejiang University City College in China.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Lin is an award-wining journalist and former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In a distinguished thirty-year career, she served as the paper’s New York financial correspondent, Washington foreign affairs reporter, and Asia bureau chief, based in China.



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