I had never seen my father like this, and it frightened me.
His face was ashen and blank, his eyes puffy and bloodshot from a night without sleep. He stood beside me on the second-floor balcony of his childhood home in old Shanghai in what used to be his parents’ bedroom. It was the first morning of my first full day in China—June 18, 1979—and I listened as he recounted for me what he had learned only hours before from an elderly uncle. His words came out mechanically, as if he were running the information through his brain again, still struggling to grasp the meaning. In that moment on the porch, I began to feel that everything I knew about his family had been a façade carefully constructed to obscure the truth by the relatives I had met for the first time only the night before.
One of those people was no longer there; my grandfather—my dad’s father—had died six years earlier. He had been our window into the house on Jiaozhou Road. Every month, without fail, he wrote to us in Philadelphia with an update on family life. He reported on everyone’s health. He recounted a trip to the mountains, a visit to the zoo, a morning stroll in the park. He quoted a Tang dynasty poet or a verse from St. Paul. He described the bowl of noodles he had for his birthday and the blooming rosebush outside the front door. Sometimes he tucked black-and-white photographs of family members into the folds of the blue airmail letters. With impeccable English, he often ended his notes with reassuring words: “We are all well as usual. Do not worry about us.”
And we didn’t. A world away, I lived in a large, loud household in the suburbs of Philadelphia with four sisters, a brother, our parents, and our Nana from my mother’s Italian side of the family. We had a sprawling house with a pool and a lush lawn that was big enough for pickup softball games. My mother, a nurse, put her career aside to raise her brood and shuttle us in our red Ford station wagon from swim practice to ballet and piano lessons. She was from a rowhouse neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, that was bedrock Italian. In 1952, when Dr. Lin, who worked on the same floor at Temple Hospital as Nurse Spina, pulled up to her stoop for their first date, neighbors craned their necks from windows for a glimpse of “the Chinaman.” Their wedding a year later was the talk of Fourth Street.
With the Vietnam War playing in the background of my childhood, I was indifferent to my Chinese heritage. I wanted nothing more than to look like my best friend, an auburn-haired Irish girl whose four sisters presented a stark contrast to the mongrel look of my four sisters and me. My mother was the face of the family at our Catholic school and church. She provided some links to her husband’s homeland at the dinner table, cooking daily servings of rice in a tin pot he bought when he first arrived from Shanghai. After Mass on Christmas Eve, she served Peking duck along with her traditional beef stroganoff. But my busy father, a neurosurgeon, had neither the time nor interest to properly introduce us to Chinese ways. Every now and then, he would make a comment about his family’s religious life. His father, he told us, had been an Anglican priest who had studied as a young man at a seminary right here in Philadelphia. And he mentioned that another relative—an uncle with the curious name of Watchman Nee—was a Christian leader as popular in his time as the Reverend Billy Graham. That’s all I knew and all I cared to know. My mother had a firm hand on our Catholic upbringing. My Protestant roots in China would remain an exotic curiosity.
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But when I was twenty and a college student, President Carter normalized diplomatic relations with “Red China.” The era of the Cultural Revolution had ended in 1976, and China was beginning to recover from decades of isolation. Beneath all the formal State Department language was this: families like ours would be permitted to visit. Up until then, we could communicate only through letters. Now my father would be able to return home to see the brother and sister who stayed behind. His parents by then were deceased, as was Watchman Nee. Only two of my sisters and I could make the trip; the others were tied up with school or jobs. It would have been awkward for my mother to join us. We planned to stay in my father’s childhood home in the old International Settlement, and the Chinese government permitted that privilege only to “overseas Chinese” and their children, not “foreigners” such as my mother. The bamboo curtain had been pulled back, but not all the way.
We arrived on the tarmac of the Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai on a blazing hot June afternoon. For the relatives who welcomed us, it had been a mere three years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the dark decade when Red Guards attacked anyone with educational status, religious background, and Western ties.
The first moments of the reunion were all sweetness and smiles. In the airport reception area, under the gaze of an avuncular Chairman Mao smiling down on us from a giant mural, my father melted into the embrace of his older sister. A tinier version of him, she had an easy smile and a girlish demeanor for a woman in her fifties. Best for us, she spoke English. Like my father, she had graduated from the medical school of St. John’s University, run by American missionaries, and had recently retired as an obstetrician.
At the airport, our entourage split up into two borrowed vans that picked their way down a bike-choked road. Cousins who had been only faces in photographs came to life with names and personalities. To make it easier for us, they let us refer to them by their Western names. Maozhi was Aunt Martha. Her daughters Tianlin and Zhongling were Terri and Julia. Rice paddies and squat brick buildings gave way to tree-shaded avenues with storefronts that looked like they belonged in Paris of the 1930s. What few cars were on the road were antiques from decades ago. The streetscape, too, flashed by in black and white, with everyone wearing white short-sleeved shirts and dark pants.
The family lived in House 19 on Lane 170 on Jiaozhou Road. It was a narrow, three-story brick house sandwiched among identical dwellings along a common walkway. In another era, British neighbors would have called it a “terraced house.” Entering through a rear door off a damp alley, we climbed a winding staircase to my uncle’s third-story bedroom, which doubled as the family’s catchall living space. It had a musty smell. I felt like I had entered a time capsule. In the stairwell was an old-style wall phone with a separate mouthpiece and receiver. Next to an armchair with a lace antimacassar was a mirrored, wooden armoire from the 1940s. I noticed that the tiny tiled bathroom with a proper Western, sit-down toilet was also the kitchen, equipped with a single gas burner that straddled the width of a claw-footed, cast iron tub. There was no refrigerator. Food was stored in a cabinet in the tight stairwell.
Everyone jammed inside the main room. Neighbors who heard what was going on stood in the doorway, straining to glimpse the foreigners. My father held court for hours, filling the gap of thirty years and answering a battery of questions. His Shanghai dialect was rusty. We relied on Julia’s husband, an English teacher named Victor, to translate for us. Who looks most like your Italian wife? How big is your house? Do you have a car? How many? Scanning the room, I tried to match names with faces. The eldest cousin, Julia, was polite and demure and, we were told, worked as a pianist for a theatrical troupe. Her younger sister, Terri, cradled a newborn and said little.
My father was still talking when I retreated to my aunt’s room a floor below and climbed into her bed, exhausted from our trip but happy to see my father home.
That first morning, blaring patriotic music from a loudspeaker mounted on a pole in the alley woke me. The energetic voice of a young woman roused the neighborhood. I didn’t understand a word, but it was obvious this was our wake-up call, and I got dressed. Outside, bike bells thrummed like cicadas. A stream of cyclists already choked Jiaozhou Road. In the distance, the baritone moan of ships on the Huangpu River joined the morning chorus. Standing on the balcony off the bedroom, I could peer into the lives of families on the other side of the alleyway, or longtang. A woman plopped dumplings into a wok of sizzling oil. An older man in a white undershirt stood on his balcony, swinging his arms like a windmill for exercise.
That was when I heard my father coming down the steps and turned to see him approaching me on the balcony. His words that morning would stay with me forever: “My god, this is so depressing.”
He explained. After my sisters and I had turned in for the night, he stayed up talking to his Uncle George, the younger brother of Watchman Nee. George asked him in a hushed voice, “Do you have any idea what happened to us?”
The uncle proceeded to tell him about the madness of the Cultural Revolution, when good people committed sadistic acts to curry favor with rebels and to protect themselves. My grandmother, his older sister, had it the worst. She was brutalized again and again for not disowning her brother, Watchman Nee, who had been branded an enemy of the people. Many times, her tormentors dragged her from her home, forced her to kneel on the pavement, and pressured her to denounce him.
The constant humiliation and physical torture, this uncle told my father, had hastened her death. But the family’s hardships began long before the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. Did my father know that his father, Lin Pu-chi, had been pushed out of his church work in the 1950s? Did he know that Watchman Nee had been sentenced to prison in 1956 after a trial, public shaming in the press, and the arrest of his “counterrevolutionary clique”?
The answer, sadly, was that my father had been clueless. Of course, we had read about the destructive Cultural Revolution, a decade of anarchy and struggle, when friends betrayed friends and children turned on their parents. And we knew that Watchman Nee had been sentenced in 1956 as a counterrevolutionary. But what we didn’t understand—what I didn’t sense until that trip—was how the political drama of the era had played out within the walls of this very house. We had been assured time and again by my grandfather that everything was fine. “Do not worry,” he wrote to us. “All’s well.” Now as I thought back to the faces that surrounded us the previous night, I wondered: Who were the victims? Who the collaborators?
During our two-week stay, my father tried to draw more details from his siblings but failed at every turn. No one wanted to talk; George alone revealed the truth, but even then only fragments. Fear kept their voices in a tight vise. They had been targeted once before; no one could assure them it wouldn’t happen again. My father didn’t press it. Instead, he vacillated between enjoying the here and now and brooding over disturbing scenes from the past that played out in his mind. It was as if an uninvited guest kept showing up as we went sightseeing from the Bund in Shanghai to the Forbidden City in Beijing. One moment, we would be sitting around a big table, laughing, enjoying a banquet, and listening to stories from long ago. The next moment, my father would drift off, anguished over thoughts of his mother in pain and his inability to help her.
When we returned to Philadelphia, my father seemed to take what he had learned, place it in a box, and put it somewhere far away. Maybe it was his temperament and training as a brain surgeon: assess, intervene, cure. Next patient. There was no way he could undo the past, so he would not dwell on it. He moved on. My reaction was different. Maybe it had something to do with the way I was wired. I was emerging as the reporter I wanted to be, and I couldn’t let go. I had read the last page of a mystery and needed to read all the preceding chapters. I wanted to know: What happened to them and why?
For the next three decades, I worked for a newspaper in Philadelphia. As a reporter, I learned how to talk to people and to peel back layers on complex issues. I parachuted into breaking news events all over the world—from Lower Manhattan after 9/11 to protests in the streets of Jakarta. Investigative work taught me how to drill into a topic like a miner until I reached the core of truth. But of all the subjects I took on, of all the events I covered, there was the story I could not shake, the one right in front me, the story of my family in China.
My grandfather and Watchman Nee both devoted their lives to nurturing the growth of Christianity in China. My grandmother was so devout that she clung to her Christian beliefs even in the face of unspeakable torment. All of them paid dearly for their choices. But the story of the family didn’t begin there. My grandparents and Watchman Nee were third-generation Christians. Who came before them? What were their experiences? And why, in a culture steeped in the teachings of Confucianism and Daoism, did they embrace the ideas of “foreign ghosts” from a world away?
The questions that disturbed me after that first morning in Shanghai in 1979 only led to more, pushing me deeper into the past. Over the passage of many years, I returned to my relatives, coaxing them gently to tell me what they knew. I pored through the records, letters, and memoirs of missionaries and learned that Lin Pu-chi’s troubles did not start in 1966 with the closing of churches or even in 1950, when the new Communist regime began to exert its control over all religions. My grandfather felt the harsh sting of China’s innate distrust of foreign influences from his earliest days as a young minister in Fuzhou.
Lin Pu-chi had been born into his faith, but what about those who came before him? In missionary archives in England, I unearthed records about his father—my great-grandfather—who had been trained as a doctor by a British missionary and worked with him in a small hospital, treating opium addicts. But he was not the first convert—that man came a generation earlier and was a simple fisherman from a bayside village on the coast of Fujian. At the Lin Ancestral Hall in the town of Erdu, my branch of the Lin clan kept genealogical records in a thick book called a jiapu. There, I found fragments of information about the fisherman’s life.
As I mined the past, I returned again and again to a thick folder with every airmail letter from my grandfather, composed in flawless English, starting on May 12, 1953, a month before my parents’ wedding. My Italian mother had saved each letter, written in neat handwriting on pale blue airmail stationery. I have deconstructed every sentence, trying to discern what he was trying to tell us—or not.
After three decades, I can finally fill in what he had left out.
I came to understand that the journey of our family over five generations was the very story of the rise of Christianity in China, a saga of hardship and hope, of pain and perseverance that started when a fisherman from Fujian heard the ideas of strangers and did not turn away.
On June 17, 1979, at the Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai, Martha Sun welcomed her younger brother Paul to Shanghai. They had not seen each other for thirty years.
Courtesy of Jennifer Lin.
From Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family, by Jennifer Lin. Copyright © 2017 Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.