Exploring the History of Christianity in China through Shanghai Faithful

Hank Hanegraaff: You have tuned in to a special edition of the Bible Answer Man broadcast. A special edition in which I am going to be talking with the author of the book Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family. It is a book written by Jennifer Lin, who is an award-winning journalist and former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is a story of persecution. It is a history of the development of Christianity in China. It is an account of what will most certainly be, if not already, the largest Christian country in the world. Dr. Yang, a Purdue sociologist, has projected that if current trends progress, at even a modest growth rate, China could have as many as — this is an enormous number — 225 million Christians by 2025. Compare that to the US, which is on a sharp downward trend, with respect to Christianity. The story revolves around two key characters. One is Jennifer Lin’s grandfather, and the other is Watchman Nee. We will talk more about that in a few moments. This is a book in many ways about a church that was born in the cauldron of persecution. I could not help but think as I was reading through this book of the words of Jesus Christ: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10–12 NIV).

The author of Shanghai Faithful joins me on the broadcast right now; good to have you with us.

Jennifer Lin: Hello, Hank. Thank you for having me on your show.

Hank: This is one of the most impressive books I have read in a long time. First of all, you are an incredible writer, but this is really the history not only of the world’s largest Christian country — if not now, but in the near future — but it is the history seen through the lens of your family.

Jennifer: Yes, Hank. This is the family memoir, and it has been a long journey, the reporting and writing of this book. But, really, it tells the story of five generations of my family, the Lin family, and through their story, I think readers will learn a lot of the history of Christianity in China. Not only how it took root 150 years ago but also what is happening today in China.

Hank: You know, that has been one of the things that captivated me. I have been to China many, many times in the last ten years, and reading your book filled in so many details for me. I am very, very glad you wrote it, but talk about your passion or, better said, your obsession to write this book.

Jennifer: Hank, my father, who will turn ninety in a week, has called this book project my obsession, and he is right. I can actually pin-point the moment it started. It was the morning of June 18, 1979. It was my first morning of my first trip to China.

A little bit of a backstory: my father immigrated from China in 1949. He came to the United States. He is a doctor, and he ended up practicing in Philadelphia. He married my mother, who is an Italian nurse from Camden, New Jersey. But, I grew up in Philadelphia, but I did not live in Chinatown, so I did not really have a deep connection to my Chinese roots.

In 1979, my father took us back to China. The United States had just renewed relations with China in 1978, and it was easy for families like ours to travel. So, we went to Shanghai, and we actually stayed in the home that he grew up in. The first hours of the reunion were very happy. It was all sweetness and smiles. We met at the airport, we drove to his home, the International Settlement, and you know these aunts and uncles and cousins whom I only knew by name suddenly came to life. I went to sleep that first night being very uplifted and happy for my father.

Then the first morning, Hank, it was one of those moments that I will just never forget. My father came down the stairs, it was just after dawn, and I was on the porch just looking out at the alleyway, taking in China (I was only twenty years old at the time), and when I turned around, I saw this look that was a mixture of fear and sadness on my father’s face. He said to me, “This is so depressing.” Apparently, the night before, he had stayed up all night, and an uncle, the younger brother of Watchman Nee, had pulled him aside and said to him, “Do you have any idea what has happened to us since you’ve been gone?” The truth was, we were pretty clueless. I mean we knew that the family probably had a hard time, but we did not know until then was just how bad it was.

For my grandparents in particular, life was very hard during the years of the Cultural Revolution, and this was from 1966 to 1976. During that time, churches were closed, people were not allowed to go to church, and my grandfather, who was an Anglican priest, Lin Pu-Chi, was accused of being an American spy. My grandmother, though, had it the worst, and the reason was she was the sister of Watchman Nee. He was a counterrevolutionary, and he was imprisoned, and she was really tormented and abused by everyone around her.

In terms of my own journey, we went back to Philadelphia after this family reunion, and my father, although he was very disturbed by what he had learned during this trip, he kind of put it in a box and put it away. He could not undo the past, so he just moved on. But for me, I was a budding reporter. I was at Duquesne University, I was studying journalism, and I wanted to be a reporter. I just could not let go. I just had to know what happened to them and why. So I started researching the family history. It really began then, and it has been a lifelong process. I thought at first I would just be trying to find out what happened to them during the Cultural Revolution, but really with every answer, I had two more questions. I kept getting pushed further and further into the past where I ended up finding out about the very first convert in the family. I went back five generations to find out the family story. That is how it began.

Hank: We are talking to Jennifer Lin. She is an award-winning journalist, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the book that she has written, Shanghai Faithful, truly, I could not put this book down. Now, I have a deep and abiding interest in China, but seeing what has gone on in China, talking about the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and so much more, through the eyes of Jennifer Lin’s family has been absolutely revolutionary for me.

Jennifer, that makes me think of an ultimate question. Why would the average American or the average American Christian be interested in this particular story? Maybe better yet, why should they be?

Jennifer: Well, you know, Hank, the story is set in China, but really it is a story with universal themes. One of the themes is just the faith of a family. I think Americans might be interested in knowing that. I think there is also kind of a curiosity about China. You know, Hank, there are many books that have been written over the years, over the century really, by missionaries who went to China, and they told their stories. British missionaries, American missionaries, libraries are filled with books by missionaries. What I try to do in my book is really to tell the story from the other perspective, from the people they were encountering in China, the Chinese themselves. I think anyone who would be interested in China or interested in the missionary experience would be also I think intrigued with the story of family because, again, the Christian roots of my family go back five generations. The first convert was a fisherman in the Fujian province who went to work then for the Anglican missionaries in the city of Fozhou as a cook. He was a simple cook. That really was the start.

Hank: I think in some way this is the story of how Christianity gains a foothold in a culture steeped in the teachings of Confucianism. When you think about two of the most exemplary people that came out of China; you immediately think of Confucius, and then you think of Watchman Nee. I mean Watchman Nee, though he was imprisoned in 1956, originally arrested in 1952, and he died in prison, the branch grew over the wall, and made a real impact and continues to make an impact around the world.

Jennifer: Yes. You know after the Opium War, and that was like 1852, China was forced to open up port to foreigners and so the traders came into China and then the missionaries. The missionaries, the Jesuits, had been in China for hundreds of years, the Catholics, but in terms of the Protestant missionaries, waves of them came into China after 1850. The foreigners introduced Christianity to the Chinese, but really the point I am trying to make in my book, Hank, is that it was Chinese Christians like Watchman Nee, like my grandfather the Reverend Lin Pu-Chi, who had really created a foundation of Christianity.

After 1949, things became really difficult. As I said before, churches closed in 1966, and they only reopened in 1979. At the time, I was in China, as I mentioned on that family reunion in 1979, and there was a news account in the paper in the English language, China Daily, saying churches would reopen. I remember talking to my cousin about it, who was my age, and saying, “Wow, I wonder what’s going to happen?” This cousin said, “Oh, nothing’s going to happen, it’ll only be the old people because for young people, you know, we grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and we saw how churches were closed, and no one is going to be interested.” He and I were very wrong in our projection, because now Christianity is flourishing but the reason is because of the Chinese Christians themselves who really helped to build a foundation for the Christian church.

Hank: Tell me about your grandfather. I almost feel like I could pick him out in a crowd after reading the book.

Jennifer: I am so glad to hear that. He became the central character really. Hank, he was an intellectual. He went to St. John’s University, which was run by the Episcopal missionaries in Shanghai, and then from there he went to the United States to go to graduate school. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. He studied philosophy. He also was sent by the Episcopal Church to Philadelphia to the seminary. The missionaries knew that they needed to cultivate Chinese clerics, so they encouraged men like my grandfather to go to the United States or to go to seminary.

Interesting story, my grandfather really wanted to help make China strong again. This was after 1911 and the fall of the Qing Dynasty. He wanted to get an American education. He really wanted to get his doctorate in philosophy, but it was two years into his stay in the United States and all of a sudden, he got a letter from home from his father saying you need to come home because I found a woman for you to marry. It was an arranged marriage. He was facing this dilemma. He wanted to be a modern man. He wanted to grab everything he could get in the United States, but at the same time, he was brought up in a Confucius culture, and he was very much the dutiful son. He was torn between goals and desires. At the end of the day, he was the dutiful son and he went home. He cut short his time in the United States, and he went back to Fozhou and married by grandmother, who was only nineteen years old, and she was the older sister of Watchman Nee.

So my grandfather then became very active in the Anglican Church. He was an editor. He edited The Chinese Churchmen, which was a Chinese language magazine that went out across China, and he was a very deep intellectual man, who also like you, Hank, had a deep interest in the teachings of Confucius. He really felt Christianity as complementary, in fact. He was a very empowering figure.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

This blog is adapted from the May 12, 2017, Bible Answer Man broadcast.

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