Mike Cormack on a long history of a family from the Opium Wars to the present day.
Jennifer Lin, Shanghai Faithful (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 332pp.
Domestic biographies are similar to but should not be confused with “intimate biographies”. The latter are usually written by someone with close domestic access to someone famous, and shed light on their most personal details in a way usually denied to biographer. Former lovers, gofers and even drivers work with ghost writers to pen a book almost always dense with clichés and stale formulations. Did you know Freddie Mercury liked Japanese porcelain and had a menagerie of cats? That’s about all you get from the classic intimate biography. Access rarely equals insight.
The domestic biography, on the other hand, studies the life of someone hitherto disregarded and demonstrates their historical significance. The history of anything is always the history of the world as viewed through that particular prism. Sometimes the subject has lived through important events, or particularly encapsulated something of a particular era, but at other times the subject has simply lived what could be called an ordinary life. Generally though, a sense of special significance is essential – otherwise why are we reading? Someone has to be interesting in themselves or somehow exemplify their age.
These points are much at the fore of Shanghai Faithful. This is the story of American journalist Jennifer Lin’s family in China, before (and after) her father moved to Philadelphia. Her great grandfather was an early convert to Christianity in Fujian province, while her grandfather Lin Pu-Chi, who was ordained, and her great-uncle Watchman Nee, who was a street preacher and the brother of Lin Pu-chi’s wife, were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. This story has great potential. The Cultural Revolution remains largely taboo amongst the older generation of Chinese (a Tsinghua history professor recently had his course on it cancelled), and the stories of everyday “political struggles”, persecution and savagery remain bleakly astonishing.
But though this is really the selling point of Shanghai Faithful, it doesn’t focus on that. It’s a domestic biography of five generations of Lin’s family and their dual journey into Christianity and into modern China, up to the present day. It starts with the tale of Old Lin, converted by the missionaries who accompanied the opium traders in the 1860s near Fuzhou. Old Lin had a son Lin Dao’an, who was enrolled into a mission school and trained as a doctor. He married a teacher Zhan Aimei, and their firstborn was Lin Pu-chi, the author’s grandfather. Lin Pu-chi takes a more central role in the narrative, and we trace his seminary education and subsequent move to Philadelphia, where he was ordained. He is then peremptorily summoned home for an arranged marriage, to Ni Guizhen. The couple settle in Fuzhou where Lin Pu-chi becomes pastor of an Anglican church and later a deacon, whilst they raise a family: three sons (Paul, Jim and Tim) and a daughter, Martha. They struggle through the Anti-Japanese War, then after the Civil War Jim and Paul are sent to study medicine in America, in 1949 just before such transplanting became impossible. The younger two siblings stay behind, are assigned menial jobs, marry and have children, living with their parents in a three-storey home in Shanghai’s Luzhou Road, amongst the educated and professional classes, while Lin Pu-chi retires.
In 1966, their peace is shattered by rampaging Red Guards, who smash their way in and loot and destroy all evidence of “a comfortable life and the ‘four olds’ of culture and thought”. With their educated, Christian background and connections to the US, the Lin family are persecuted having been labeled a “black” family. Martha’s daughter’s Julia and Terri are still at school during this period and we now follow their struggles: the artistic Julia’s desire to be a pianist is brutally repressed, with the scientific Terri is sent “down to the countryside” in Yihe, Jilin province, where she initially struggles as a farmer but comes to earn the community’s trust when she studies by lamplight to become a barefoot doctor. Later she returns to Shanghai and is sent to work in a factory producing knitting machines. And once diplomatic relations with the US are established in 1979 and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms bring China back to some kind of normality, the Lin family are re-established and connections are re-made.
The story of these five generations is thus a tale of China from the Opium Wars onwards. But by focusing on their lives as a whole, rather than the parts relevant to the broader history, the reader is forced to endure considerable amounts of triviality. It’s not that their lives are inherently boring. But progress through school, relationships and work lack drama and significance if there is no real conflict, whether personal or external (like a war or revolution). The first third of the book, before the tumults of war, revolution and persecution, is a little slow. Here Lin largely focuses on Lin Pu-chi’s growth and education, with an excruciating level of detail. (Three pages are spent on a speaking contest, two on a short story he wrote).
However, once things start happening, Shanghai Faithful is an engrossing and moving book. Lin repeatedly conveys strong echoes and premonitions in describing the vicious fanaticisms of the raging mobs and zealous students. During the tumults of the 1912 Revolution and the subsequent warlord period, for example, Lin Pu-chi is persecuted, his Christianity being seen as foreign dogma. When he becomes the first Chinese president of Trinity College, he has to fend off a student revolt. Similarly, Watchman Nee’s flock turns against him during the War, when he spends time running a factory rather than preaching – rumors and ostracism follow. Same as it ever was, Lin seems to suggest. We get a sense of China, so populous and so hard to govern, being repeatedly riven by sectarianism, rivalries, rumors and ambition masquerading as zealotry and rectitude. In which case the Cultural Revolution is more of an anthropological and sociological phenomenon than a political one, politics simply being the proximate cause.
Shanghai Faithful is well worth reading for its insights into the horrors of war and revolution, but it is perhaps structurally misconceived: there is no need to follow the five generations as the Christian theme rather dies away with Lin Pu-chi. Had the book focused on his family and the agonies they faced in China’s darkest times, and their re-emergence and reconnection, it would be far more focused and effective.
Mike Cormack is an editor, reviewer and writer who mainly focuses on China, where he lived from 2007-2014. He edited the magazine “Agenda” in Beijing. He is also currently working on a novel examining growing up in northern Scotland.