Jeanette Li was born in 1899 in Tak Hing (Dexing), South China. Her father, a devout Buddhist, hoped for a son to carry on the family name, but when the “disappointing” news of his daughter’s birth was brought to him, he resolved to bring her up as he would a son, since she was his only child. Although it was unheard of at the time, she was sent to a local private school at the age of five and learned to read.
From an early age she doubted the ancient superstitions and old folk tales she was brought up around, as well as her father’s Buddhism, sensing that there was more to life than could be explained by these ideas. She would often question her father about the various rites and sacrifices he performed in the temples, and said, “Even before we had heard of the true God and salvation through Jesus Christ, my mother and I had doubts about the idols and spirits my father worshipped. This truly was God’s grace to us.” Sadly, her father died when she was only six years old, leaving her mother to rear her and her sister alone.
Conversion and Education
Since her mother had to work in order to repay the debts her father left at his death, Jeanette lived with another family for some of the year. When she was seven, she became ill with a high fever. Her mother was about to take her to a Chinese doctor, but a relative urged her to take Jeanette to a nearby mission hospital. Her mother initially refused because of rumors that the foreign doctors plucked out children’s eyes, but her relative insisted, and carried Jeanette off to the hospital. It was in this mission hospital that Jeanette first heard the gospel from the doctors there, and received Jesus as her Savior. As she learned to pray, her grief at her father’s death was eased and God gave her his peace, removing her feelings of loneliness. Looking back on the hard circumstances of her early life, Jeanette wrote, “As I now know, all these sad experiences were God’s grace to me. He used sickness and death to break up the home in which I had been lovingly nestled. But He did not cast me off and forsake me. As the eagle He ‘spread forth His wings, caught me up in his wings,’ and carried me even to His own Home to become his child, and obtain such blessing and peace and joy as this world cannot give.”
After she had recovered, the doctor of the mission hospital urged her mother to allow her to stay on at a nearby Christian girls’ school. Remembering her father’s desire that Jeanette should be educated, her mother agreed. While the separation was hard for both of them, her mother visited often and came to church services held at the school. She eventually got a job at the nearby School for Women to be near Jeanette, and was baptized into the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1908. Even though Jeanette had become a believer, since she was so young the pastor of the local church wanted her to wait to be baptized until she was a more mature Christian. After much examination and deliberation by the elders, she was finally baptized in 1909 at the age of ten.
In 1911 and 1912 China was at war, and some foreign missionaries left China, leaving Jeanette without a school and her mother without a job. They tried to return to their clan’s ancestral home, but their relatives refused to recognise them as members of the Wan clan since as Christians they no longer worshiped their ancestors or burned incense to them, and would not let them in the house. The reluctantly allowed Jeanette and her mother to live there after intervention by the village elders, but the two faced persecution for their new faith. By 1912 the war was over and missionaries had returned to open the schools again, and Jeanette continued her education in reading and math.
Betrothal and Marriage
As was customary, Jeanette’s marriage at the age of sixteen was an arranged one, and the details of it were kept from her while they were being finalized. She begged her mother to be allowed to finish high school first but her mother was adamant. For the sake of her family’s good name and so as not to dishonor the Lord, she was willing to sacrifice her own desires, and married Lei Wing Kwan in 1915.
Unfortunately their marriage was not a happy one. Jeanette had a son, Min Ch’iu (Timothy), in 1919, but the next year her husband went to study in Canton, leaving her to support herself, her son, and her mother-in-law. She and her husband grew apart, with Jeanette teaching at the Oi Lei Girls’ School and her husband teaching in Taai Po. She had her second child, a daughter named Man Shi, in 1922, but the child died after eighteen days. She and her husband gradually became estranged after he entered the army, and it was not feasible for his family to join him. They wrote each other occasionally, but soon he married another woman, and Jeanette was left to bring up her son alone.
Due to overcrowding at the Oi Lei Girls’ School, Jeanette opened a similar school for girls in her home town and taught an impressive number of girls. In 1923 she resigned as a teacher there in order to attend the Normal School in Canton, which would prepare her for further teaching. That year at a conference she felt led to serve the Lord in missionary work and after some internal struggle promised to obey His leading once she had graduated. Despite the financial difficulties of being in school and at the same time supporting her son and sick mother, Jeanette graduated three years later in 1926. She longed for further education and investigated the possibility of attending the Government College in Nanking, but the college required either membership in the Nationalist Party or sponsorship by another member. Upon learning that the National Party was hostile to Christianity she tore up her registration papers, saying “I could never renounce Christianity in order to become a member of the Nationalist Party, even for the sake of an education and a government job.” Despite turning down this opportunity, she got a job at a government school on the recommendation of a friend, and began teaching there in 1928. She hoped to share her faith with her unbelieving colleagues at this school, but did not realize that they were slowly drawing her away from time spent with the Lord and at church. In the summer of 1928 she went to Canton to take a three-month course at the government School of Physical Education. During this whole time she was studying diligently, but neglecting attending church, reading the Bible and praying. She thought her rigorous study was a good excuse for this, but realized later how immensely spiritually damaging it was. After spending some months in a state of distress and depression, she was convicted by the Bible’s admonition to return to her first love (Revelation 2:4-5) and repented for straying from the Lord. This brought her immense peace and comfort, as she rededicated herself to God’s service.
The next year she planned to go to Indonesia to teach at a school there, but after she accepted this position the principal of the Chan Lei School for boys in Tak Hing asked her to consider taking his place while he was on furlough. She had been looking forward to going to Indonesia, leaving behind the sad situation with her husband, and making a fresh start, yet she felt responsible to the church school in which she had become a Christian. After much thought and prayer, and despite reluctance on her part to break her word to the school in Indonesia, Jeanette accepted the position of principal of the Chan Lei School in her home town, feeling obligated to help her own people. She taught there for almost four years. During this time in Tak Hing she once again felt convicted that the Lord wanted her to serve him by evangelizing, and realized that she had been putting off this service for various reasons over the years, enticed by things like education, money, and high position. She repented for this disobedience to God’s call, and in 1930 informed the former principal of the school that she intended to resign from teaching in order to pursue evangelistic work. She wanted to begin immediately, but was rejected because she did not have enough formal Bible school training. She remained principal of the Chan Lei School for another year and a half, and in 1931, despite opposition from her predecessor, who wanted her to stay, she resigned from the school and began a two-year course at Ginling Bible College in Nanjing on a scholarship from the Northern Presbyterian Mission.
After graduating in 1934, Jeanette had hoped to do further study at the Bible college, but she was asked to meet the Reformed Presbyterian Mission’s urgent need for missionaries in Tsitsihar (Qiqihar), Manchuria. In the fall of that year she made the long journey to Manchuria, trusting in God for help with the new language, different culture, and harsher climate of the region that would become her home for the next fourteen years. She was part of a fruitful evangelization ministry despite close scrutiny and opposition from the Japanese, who controlled the region, and saw many people come to Christ. In 1940 she went to the village of Taikang to continue the work of the mission there, beginning a small school for the village’s poorest children as a way to introduce the gospel. In 1941, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, all the mission’s American workers were put under house arrest and later evacuated, leaving few native Chinese evangelists. Spies attended their meetings and followed Jeanette, waiting for any criticism of the Japanese government as an excuse to shut down the mission’s activities. Their church refused to register with the officials and instead held clandestine meetings in Jeanette’s home, although this made people afraid to attend.
God upheld her through great financial and physical difficulty as she carried on the mission’s work in Manchuria until 1946, when she fled to Mukden (Shenyang) after Japan’s surrender ending WWII. There in Southern Manchuria, Jeanette began evangelistic work at Changchun Hospital, feeling that since she heard the gospel as a child in a hospital, she ought to minister to those in the position she had been in. Many hearts were changed during her short time there, but in 1947 she was again forced to flee, and went from Changchun to Mukden. From there she and several other Christian workers travelled to Shanghai, and then to Jeanette’s home city of Tak Hing, from which she had been absent for sixteen years. After joyful reunions with family and friends, she resumed her work for the Lord, evangelising in surrounding towns and later taking charge of the orphanage in Tak Hing when the American missionaries running it were forced to leave. God protected the orphanage through floods, banditry, and political upheaval.
In 1950 the Communists began a campaign to “annihilate” the Christian church and required all churches to register with the government or risk confiscation of their property. Christians were under constant scrutiny, and many were falsely imprisoned. In January 1952 Jeanette was imprisoned by the Communists and remained there for seventeen months, where she was starved, brainwashed, refused medical treatment, and forced to perform hard labor. She witnessed as best she could to her cell mates and the guards with whom she came in contact and tried to remain strong in the hope of Christ, but this was a very trying time for her. They had nothing of which to accuse her, so they questioned and applied mental pressure upon her in order to get her to admit to breaking some law or being a spy of foreign imperialists. She had always taken great care to uphold the law and stay out of any political controversy, so they eventually released her in May of 1953 when the charges against her proved unsubstantiated.
Further Gospel Work
She moved to Canton, in poor health and needing rest, and joined a group of Christians who had banded together to make and sell soap in order to support themselves. In the meantime her son Timothy had moved to the United States, and was able to send her money, allowing her to begin volunteer evangelization work in Canton. This she did for several years, until in 1958 she was allowed to travel to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong she ministered and witnessed to the many refugees who had come there, teaching Bible classes, caring for children, and counselling others. In 1962 her visa to travel to the United States was approved, and she joined her son. She spent the rest of her life in Los Angeles, ministering to the Chinese community there and writing her autobiography until her death in 1968. Jeanette testified, “In every period of my life, I have found God sufficient for my every need, for my help in every weakness.” Her life story is an encouraging example of God’s faithfulness and provision for his saints no matter how hard their circumstances.
- Li, Jeanette. Jeanette Li: The Autobiography of a Chinese Christian. Translated by Rose A. Huston. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971.