Shanghai Faithful

Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family

nolead begins By Jennifer Lin

Rowman & Littlefield. 332 pp. $36

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This panoramic, true story spans thousands of miles, about 160 years, two continents, and myriad cultural upheavals and human lives.

But Jennifer Lin's Shanghai Faithful would not glow as it does unless it were so well told. A longtime investigative reporter for The Inquirer, Lin decided early in her project - as passionate a "passion project" as you'll ever find - that this would be creative nonfiction. Tell a story that is scrupulously true, but employ all the tools in the storyteller's kit bag to make it come alive ("all the Christians of Funing filled the chapel, which smelled of fresh pine"), bring readers in, make them feel what these lives, in these times, must have felt like to the people who lived them.

So many memoirs and family stories, thousands of self-published ones, have the passion and the facts but not the storyteller's touch, and so they stay inert. But Shanghai Faithful lives, with people you care about, consequences that hurt, real tension and relief. The book wears lightly both Lin's passion and her prodigious research - from her family archives at the ancestral hall in Fujian, China, to long hours of talk with family members, to untold work with obscure documents, photographs, collections, and correspondence.

Lin Yongbiao, the author's great-great-grandfather, converts in the mid-19th century and becomes a cook for a Christian mission. We meet some truly stroppy Irish missionaries, especially the towering figure of W.S. Pakenham-Walsh, a central man in Chinese Christian history who plays a big role in the family's future. We also see the collision of local xenophobia with Western Christian zeal. Lin Dao'an, Lin's great-grandfather, becomes an accomplished doctor and learns English.

But the bedrock and fulcrum of the book is the astounding life, by turns heroic and tragic, of Lin's grandfather Lin Pu-chi, born on Christmas Day 1894. With brilliance and ambition, he comes as a young Episcopal seminarian to Philadelphia in September 1918: "He stepped off the Pennsylvania Railroad car and into the night, just as an invisible assassin was infiltrating the city" - the influenza epidemic that killed more than 12,000 people in this city.

That sense of the astonishing and momentous follows Lin Pu-chi throughout his life. He earns his bachelor's degree in sacred theology from the seminary and a master's in philosophy from Penn - yet returns home, a good Chinese son, when his father commands him by telegram to come accept an arranged marriage.

His wife-to-be, Ni Guizhen, is no less a huge figure. This couple will ride the avalanche of Chinese history together - and suffer terribly. Waves of nationalism, reaction, war, and revolution all break against Chinese people who adopt the foreign faith. Man and wife show amazing courage. When students tie him up and threaten him, shouting, "Christianity is a foreign religion that devours us!" he replies, "Do you know Confucius? Do you know Mencius? Christianity is not a foreign faith. It's what the great sages told us to look forward to."

When they move to Shanghai, Ni Guizhen will be drawn to a different church: the homegrown Shanghai Christian Assembly, led by her brother, a charismatic preacher named Watchman Nee. She prefers his teaching and preaching to that of her husband. Much trouble lies that way.

They get their two oldest sons off to America before the full brunt of the Communist revolution hits. Mobs and Red Guards ransack the family home in Shanghai. Man and wife capitulate to the pressure to perform humiliating public denunciations. She suffers a physical breakdown, and later a violent interrogation. Many members of the family sacrifice self, future, career, even identity, just to survive.

As it must, their story ends not with them but with their children and their children's children. It comes to a close with family and memories in Philadelphia and the suburbs. Jennifer Lin returns to China, to visit House 19, Jiaozhu Road, in Shanghai, to see her Chinese relatives again. And in a signal act of decency, it also ends at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles.

Lin writes that the conviction of believers like her grandparents "cannot be measured by surveys. It cannot be calculated. It must be witnessed." This she does, reminding us that China may someday have more Christians than the United States. One estimate sees 250 million Christians in China by 2025 (perhaps more than in any other country), as against 247 million here as of 2010.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, there is no future without forgiveness. Note that word in the subtitle of this grand book, a word that reminds us, on a huge scale, of what faith can do for people and what people will do for faith.

215-854-4406 @jtimpane