Chu Hao-jan was born in Xinyang, Henan in 1883. That he happened to be born in Henan was not to be taken for granted. His father had been a scholar-farmer in Hubei, where he had had no contact with Christianity. At a critical point in his life his father had a most exceptional experience. He had a recurrent dream of a white-robed, white bearded man who suggested that he go north. His father asked, “What do I get by going north?” The figure then wrote on the palm of his hand the Chinese character for “blessing”. Because he had had this same dream three times he finally decided to do as bidden, moving with his wife and the children already born to them north to Xinyang, where he became a prosperous merchant in the weaving business.
When moving to Xinyang he had settled in a house next door to a missionary, Daniel Nelson, Sr. He soon became acquainted with Nelson, who shared the Gospel with him. In spite of strong opposition from his sons and the prevalent atmosphere of anti-missionary sentiment, he believed the Gospel almost as soon as he heard it. His great concern then became to persuade his family to believe. As the Chu family, one by one came to faith, they wondered what effect their conversion to a foreign religion might have on their business. In fact the business continued to grow, and in time had a hundred employees, who were encouraged to attend church on Sundays.
While still a small child Chu Hao-jan received a good Confucian-style education, which involved memorizing many of the Chinese classical books. This prepared him well for a position as a small officer under a magistrate in the Qing Dynasty government, which enabled him to read, travel a great deal, and become well-informed on current events.
Although for some time he resisted his father’s urging to become a Christian, he as well as his siblings finally came to faith in Christ. In 1903, at twenty years of,” that is, the market towns in the countryside. This he was very glad to do. Together they led in the formation of little stable groups of believers, out of which small congregations were born.
Not far from Xinyang was the small town of Xintian, where another missionary, Anna Martinson was working. She had employed a young woman named Wang Hsueh-tao to be the teacher of the school which she had established. Miss Wang had been given a good education—an exception in those days—and came from a Christian family. Acting as a go-between, Mrs. Martinson introduced Chu Hao-jan to this young teacher and in 1909 they were married. She had a calm and stabilizing manner and proved courageous and resourceful in face of severe difficulties. Through the years she would share in her husband’s vocation.
Increasingly impressed with this young man, Nelson arranged for Chu to enter the newly established Lutheran Theological Seminary located in Shekou, Hubei. In 1916 Chu gave the valedictory address as a member of the first graduating class of the seminary. He then returned to Xinyang to serve as an evangelist, besides taking part in numerous larger evangelistic meetings in other parts of the mission field. In 1917 he was ordained to be assistant pastor in Xinyang, the first Chinese Lutheran pastor in the province of Henan. His major responsibility was the chapel inside the city wall.
During these years in Xinyang, Chu Hao-jan was instrumental in developing the whole parish of southern Henan, not only working with his congregation but helping to establish schools and an orphanage for refugee children, where they received vocational training. Xinyang still lacked a hospital, however, so, when the gentry offered to build a hospital and subsidize it if the Mission would provide an American doctor and leading nurses, Chu played a leading role. Widely accepted as a middleman between foreigners and civic leaders, he worked with these secular local leaders to organize jointly with the mission a union hospital.
In many ways, Chu Hao-jan had always been very active in community affairs to improve social conditions. For example, he was elected president of the Red Cross, was a leader in the Chamber of Commerce, and encouraged some of the small businessmen to organize home-family businesses, such as raising silk worms. In all his contacts he was highly respected. He kept abreast of political developments and had friends even within the higher echelons of the military. It was not surprising, therefore, that military generals consulted with him and that the local magistrates and some in even higher office came to him with their own political questions. He became at times the go-between as well as a spokesman for the local interests in dealing with the military powers as they came and went. Several times, as his son Daniel reports, he even negotiated peace between opposing military forces.
During the mid-1920s Xinyang came under siege in a long battle between two warlords. It was a stray bullet from this battle that killed Nelson in 1926. Some months later Chu Hao-jan was able to negotiate with a secret peasant army, the Red Spears, and protect the city from their threat. A Peace Protection Association was formed in which Chu played a leading role.
However, during the late 1920s when widespread antagonism to westerners, and especially missionaries, was a major part of the stormy political scene, he was captured as an “anti-revolutionary”, imprisoned and put through severe torture. A primary purpose of the revolutionaries was to destroy all the traditional authorities and leadership and to eliminate the influence of the church. They demanded that Chu Hao-jan renounce Christianity and that he admit to being a foreign agent. In spite of persecution, his faith did not weaken, but only grew in strength.
Following his release, arranged by some of his powerful contacts from the past, he was advised to go to Shanghai. There he spent most of his time doing pioneer work in establishing a Lutheran church. Following several years in Shanghai, he returned to Henan. His work at this time included teaching in a Bible school.
In 1932 he became the first Chinese to be elected as president of the Lutheran Church of China, a position which he held for two terms until 1938. In this position he traveled widely throughout China. The issues he sought to address as president included the general lack of educational preparation of the leadership within the church and the absence of a common goal in the minds of his colleagues. His primary concern was to establish an indigenous Lutheran Church in China with willing and able people to carry on the work of Christian outreach, and to establish mission projects without foreign assistance.
During the Sino-Japanese War, Chu went to Chongqing where he helped to organize a Lutheran Church among the many refugees and to reorganize the seminary there. He became a prime figure in the gathering of all the Lutherans in Chongqing, for that city had become the central place of refuge for Lutherans fleeing from Henan as well as others from throughout occupied China.
In 1945, while serving a congregation in Chongqing, he was elected president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in exile, which soon returned to its home in Shekou, Hubei, following World War II. He remained president until 1948, when he retired and moved to Shanghai.
The next year he was able to make a trip to the United States. During this visit he was granted the degree of Doctor of Divinity by St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
After the Communist victory in 1949, there was very little chance for Christian ministry in Shanghai and indeed throughout China. Chu himself had some limited freedom, but church activities were reduced to almost nothing. However, the large Chu family (which included five girls and four boys) met for prayer, hymn singing, with others joining them sometimes. Fortunately Chu Hao-jan was spared the process of re-education.
Chu Hao-jan passed away in Shanghai In 1962. Seven years later his wife also died. Chu Haojan was a man of rare ability both as an executive and as a preacher, a great leader among his own people, especially for the cause of Christ’s mission.
- Interview with Daniel Chu, son of Chu Hao-jan, prepared by the Midwest China Oral History and Archives Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1980.
- “Bridging Two Worlds: The Life of Pastor Chu Hao-jan” in Spotlight on China, vol. 40, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 2-3.