Jennifer Lin is a former Inquirer staff writer and author of "Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family" (to be published by Rowman & Littlefield on Feb. 17), from which the following is excerpted.

I heard the voice of my grandfather, the Rev. Lin Pu-chi, only once. It was a phone call to Shanghai in the spring of 1973. Months earlier, President Richard Nixon had made his historic trip to China. For the first time since fleeing China in 1949, my father, Dr. Paul M. Lin, was allowed to telephone his family, who still lived in his childhood home in the old International Settlement.

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I never spoke to my grandmother, and her brother - a famous Christian preacher with the unusual name of Watchman Nee - was a complete stranger to me.

But all three would dominate my thoughts for many years. It started from the moment of my first trip to China in 1979, when my father took me and two of my sisters to Shanghai to meet the family he left behind.

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 upon 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 50s. 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 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 only been 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 as if 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 as if 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 wood 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 foreigners. My father held court for hours, filling the gap of 30 years and answering a battery of questions.

He 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 him 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 began in 1966. Did my father know that 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 against 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 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. As a 20-year-old college senior, 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?

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