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Jennifer Lin delves deep into family’s turbulent past

Mary Pickels
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Author Jennifer Lin 'Shanghai Faithful, Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
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In 1979, Jennifer Lin (left) gives her Shanghai cousins a Duquesne T-shirt. Her cousins are Wendy Lin (Lin Yu) and Karl Lin (Lin Kai).

Jennifer Lin stood on a balcony of her father’s family home on her first trip to China, marveling at the scene below her.

It was 1979, and she was about to begin her senior year in college.

Moments later, her father spoke to Lin, his voice anguished.

“My God, this is so depressing,” he says in her new book, “Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family.”

“The first few moments of our reunion we were very happy and telling stories,” Lin says.

The expression on her father’s face the next morning was frightening.

“I knew he had learned something the night before,” Lin says.

For decades, communication between the family members in China and the U.S. was limited to monthly letters from Lin’s paternal grandfather, Lin Pu-chi, a priest educated at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fearful of alarming his family, he concluded each letter with, “Do not worry. All’s well.”

They learned in their 1979 visit that all had not been well.

Much of the suffering, mental and physical, that extended family members endured because of their Christian faith was unknown to Lin or her father, Paul Lin, until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter announced that China and America would renew diplomatic relations.

Thirty years earlier, worried about the advancing People’s Liberation Army, Lin Pu-chi worked desperately to evacuate his sons, Jim and Paul, to America, where they became physicians.

His hastily written advice to his sons before sending them thousands of miles from home: “Go to church. Watch your health. Worship God. Help people.”

Published in February by Rowman & Littlefield, Lin’s family memoir details five generations across 150 years.

Over 30-plus years, Lin, 58, a Philadelphia native, Duquesne University graduate and accomplished journalist, pieced together the story of her family’s early life in Shanghai.

On April 11, days before the Christian observation of Easter, Lin will speak at St. Vincent College’s Luparello Lecture Hall.

Her appearance is at the invitation of Tina Johnson, associate professor of history and director of Chinese studies at the Unity campus, who is writing a book on women’s health in China.

Lin’s great-uncle, Watchman Nee, a priest with a large following, was sentenced in 1956 as a counterrevolutionary and died in a labor camp.

“He is considered one of the most influential Chinese Christians of the 20th century,” Lin says.

The home of her grandparents, Lin Pu-chi and Ni Guizhen, was regularly ransacked during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, their valuables and those of 150,000 other Shanghai households confiscated by Red Guard units and rebel workers.

Family members were accused of spying for America.

Some were tortured and held captive.

Lin’s biography explores her family’s efforts to spread Christianity, as earlier generations had embraced the faith foreign missionaries brought to their shore.

“My grandfather was third-generation Christian. It was part of his spiritual DNA,” Lin says.

Lin grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, her surgeon father often working and her American mother raising her and her siblings in her own Catholic faith.

She also has a Latrobe connection. Her Italian maternal grandmother, whose last name was Mignogna, grew up in the city.

From 1996-99, Lin and her husband, Bill Stieg, along with their two children, lived in China, where she was based as a foreign correspondent in Asia for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

She reported on Hong Kong during the city’s 1997 handover (ending British colonial rule), Jakarta during the fall of President Suharto, and Taiwan during tension with China.

“But of all the news and issues I covered, the assignment that captivated me the most was the one right in front of me, the story of my Chinese family,” she says in her book.

While living abroad, she began spending more time with relatives, visiting family gravesites and gauging the legacy of Watchman Nee.

Her grandfather left a paper trail — essays, articles, sermons, letters and photographs — Lin followed in telling her family’s story of struggles and faith.

Her archival research took her to England, Yale Divinity School, back and forth to China and to the Princeton Theological Seminary. There she found a book written by a missionary who had worked with her grandfather, and learned of an incident Lin Pu-chi kept secret from his family.

In 1927, a crowd of young anti-Christian protesters attacked him, looping a rope around his neck and dragging him to a platform, demanding that he renounce his faith. He refused, Lin writes, and tried to reason with his captors and explain his Christianity, before being released.

“The missionary quoted from a letter my grandfather wrote to him, describing the attack and what went through his head at the time. … I had in his words what he was thinking,” she says.

Lin says her grandfather’s silence may have been comparable to soldiers sometimes declining to share their experiences during war. Her family grew more forthcoming in recent years.

“The Cultural Revolution had only ended in 1976. The family was still shell-shocked (in 1979). … I had the benefit of time on my side,” Lin says.

Her journalism tools evolved from note taking and recording to email and Skype as she conducted ongoing interviews with relatives, some now living around the globe.

“Basically, I just kind of wore them down over the decades. Connie Chung described me as ‘dogged.’ That’s the highest compliment you could give a reporter,” Lin says.

Her research includes an estimate from the Pew Research Center that China’s Christian population is close to 67 million, or 5 percent of its population.

The number of Christians could reach 225 million by 2025, Lin writes, citing projections of a Purdue University sociologist.

In concluding her book, Lin states that her grandfather and great uncle built a religious foundation strong enough to support their homeland’s current religious revival.

And despite accusations, humiliation, and betrayal, Lin writes, her grandparents’ faith never wavered.

“I think they would be heartened. … I think they would just be amazed,” she says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected].

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