‘Shanghai Faithful,’ by Jennifer Lin

A faithful retelling

With Shanghai Faithful, 30-year Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter and bureau chief Jennifer Lin tells a meticulously researched and passionate tale of her Chinese forebears and their journey through that country’s tumultuous history. Her book follows an obsession she’s had since 1979; the result is an absorbing tale that stretches back five generations.

Author Jennifer Lin. (Photo by StefanieLin)

When they met at Temple Hospital, Lin’s father, Paul, was a neurosurgeon, and her mother, Sylvia, was a nurse from a rowhouse Italian neighborhood in Camden.

Fath and courage

The family’s story is one of faith and courage, but it also examines the effects changing political climates in China had on the country in general and on Lin’s family in particular. It’s all the more fascinating because the family was part of a distinct and at times threatened Christian minority. Seen in the light of today’s tensions with China, these revelations form an important backstory for those who would better understand this monolithic nation as it evolves into aspects of capitalism while still under a Communist regime.

Shanghai Faithful’s most intense focus is on Lin’s fraternal grandfather, the Reverend Lin Pu-chi, an Anglican minister. Pu-chi studied in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which claimed 12,000 victims out of the city’s 1.7 million, the “Spanish lady’s” highest U.S. death rate.

But before turning to Pu-chi, Lin traces the two generations of Christians before him, beginning with Old Lin, a fisherman who migrated to the city of Fuzhou in the 1860s. As an example of both the China of those times and Jennifer Lin’s prose, here’s a description of dynastic Chinese justice: “Refined men on stools sipped from porcelain cups and nibbled rice cakes, while just at their elbows, a criminal stood in a tight iron cage with only his head free and his feet barely brushing the ground. The man had been charged with kidnapping. His sentence: starvation in full view of the languor and luxury of the teahouse.”

The "rod of iron"

Lin’s deep, painstaking research and vivid style bring scene after scene to life. Her hand is steady and masterful.  

Her great grandfather, Lin Dao’an, a missionary-trained physician, fought against the great opium scourge in China at that time. Lin’s description of the ravages of mass opium addiction, fostered and spread throughout China by the profit-hungry British, is especially graphic and chilling, given that tens of millions of Chinese fell under the spell of the opium pipe’s “rod of iron.”

Jennifer Lin's 'Shanghai Faithful.' (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lin)
Jennifer Lin's 'Shanghai Faithful.' (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lin)

Lin Pu-chi was called back from his Philadelphia studies for an arranged marriage. Still a dutiful son despite his exposure to Western ways, he complied. He was an educator, scholar, and writer as well as a churchman and suffered for his unwavering Christianity, most deeply during the Cultural Revolution. His suffering paled compared to that of his wife, Ni Guizhen, though; Lin’s account of this small, quiet woman’s resolute defiance of a national horror is especially moving.

Cultural Revolution

The author's grandmother’s brother, the charismatic, strikingly named Christian evangelist Watchman Nee, led a “little flock” of 70,000 followers, making him what Lin calls a Chinese Billy Graham figure. Nee took on this name because he considered himself a watchman in the biblical tower.

His preaching was quiet and thoughtful and the gatherings of his followers were not unlike Quaker meetings. Watchman Yee, a cosmopolitan world traveler, was to spend five torturous years in prison during the surreal Cultural Revolution.

Another remarkable family member was Lin’s cousin Terri, who became a so-called “barefoot doctor” during the Cultural Revolution. Given the most rudimentary training, she was sent to a primitive, barren, distant country village to deliver peasant babies for seven long years. Her loneliness, courage, and faith saw her through this seemingly endless crucible.

That tumultuous time tore the Lin family apart both morally and physically, thus Shanghai Faithful’s subtitle: “Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family.” Some of the family succumbed to the Red Guard’s relentless, brutal pressure to denounce relatives, but Christian forgiveness and charity ultimately prevailed.

In the final chapter, called “Faith,” Lin notes that a Chinese sociologist at Purdue University estimates that, by 2025, China will have the world’s largest population of Christians.

Her grandparents would quietly nod in faith and pleasure. 

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