Ni Guizhen  was the second daughter of the son of a pastor and Lin Heping, a strong-willed woman who ruled her household. Lin Heping was enrolled in the prestigious McTyeire School for Girls in Shanghai , and had early ambitions to study in America, until her dream was shattered when her mother, who feared that if she remained at McTyeire School she would become a “modern woman” and be lost, ordered her to come home and marry. That experience embittered her, but she also sent her daughter, Ni Guizhen, to McTyeire School.
The McTyeire School, run by American Wesleyan missionaries, sought “to offer students a firm grounding in Chinese and English through a liberal arts education; to offer a series of elective classes in Western music; to build a wholesome educational environment which would cultivate young Chinese women of high moral character and mental habits; and to provide students with fundamental knowledge of Christianity.” (Ross, 214).
Ni loved the school, where she encountered “modern” American Christian women, learned to play the piano, played croquet, sang in the school choir, and became a polished speaker and writer of English. Like her mother, she hoped to go to America to study medicine, in imitation of the famous Dr. Xu Jinhong, a woman who had returned to China to practice medicine. Lin Heping became a zealous Christian in 1920 under the influence of Yu Cidu (Dora Yu), an independent female preacher. Her moral transformation made such an impression on her son that he, too, became a Christian. His name was changed to Ni Tuosheng, translated in English as Watchman Nee.
Lin Heping’s own experience of deep disappointment did not keep her from doing the same thing to her daughter. Having arranged a match between Ni Guizhen and Lin Pu-chi, she forced her to leave the McTyeire School and return home to marry someone whom she had never met.
The ceremony, which took place on March 4, 1921, was a double wedding, for Lin Pu-chi’s brother also got married at the same time. Both Ni and Lin wore Western clothing. Guests included members of prominent families from the “Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment” in Shanghai . Neither Ni nor Lin wanted this marriage, but both had bowed to Confucian tradition and submitted to the wishes of their parents. The bride was 19, the groom 26.
Lin was a deacon in the Anglican Church, teaching at Union Theological Seminary in Fuzhou and running the small Ming Do Chapel. In 1924, he was appointed dean of Christ Church Cathedral. Watchman Nee, meanwhile, was building a reputation as an independent Chinese church leader.
As both Ni and Lin played out their traditional Confucian roles, their marriage was “amicable and respectable.” Ni gave birth to a daughter nine months after the wedding. Another daughter died soon after birth. Two sons were born in 1924 and 1925. They lived in a foreign-style house on Nantai Island, a foreign enclave, along with Lin’s widowed mother and his younger brother.
When anti-foreign violence broke out in 1926, though she was expecting another child, Ni showed courage by standing in the way of rampaging rioters seeking to harm foreigners.
In 1927, less than a year later, Lin reluctantly accepted the assignment as President of Trinity College. They moved to a new spacious home that they could enjoy without sharing it with relatives. Ni loved to the piano that came with the house and played it daily. She also taught her eight-year-old daughter Martha, who evinced talent.
Altogether, Ni bore five children, of whom four survived, two daughters and two sons. In 1930, her health necessitated a hysterectomy, which was performed in Shanghai. While there, she re-connected with her old friend Charity, who was now married to Watchman Nee.
Anti-foreign student unrest led to Lin Pu-chi’s resignation from Trinity College. After a year as a teacher in Kaifeng, he accepted an invitation to serve at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Shanghai and to help start a new outreach of St. Peter’s in another part of the city. Ni played piano for the worship services in the branch church
After they moved to Shanghai, Ni spent a lot of time with her brother’s family. Her youngest son Paul was a favorite of Watchman Nee and Charity, and Ni often visited the Nee house. She began to visit the worship services of Nee’s congregation at Hardoon Road. Increasingly, she felt drawn to the informal worship of the Little Flock, with its active participation of ordinary believers and lack of hierarchical leadership. She warmed to the deeply spiritual teaching of Nee, with his simple, biblical preaching style, contrasting it with what she considered to be the cold, formal, and learned sermons of her husband.
Eventually, she stopped going to her husband’s church altogether and aligned herself with Nee in a way that led to fateful consequences. Ni finally decided to attend Nee’s church services instead of her husband’s. She said, “Your sermons have no life to them. You have knowledge, but no passion, no spirit.” (Lin, 134). This action precipitated a crisis in their marriage, for her husband became very angry and began to sleep in another room. Later, Ni started taking Martha with her to the Hardoon Road services. When Nee’s church stopped meeting in the 1940s because of the Japanese occupation, Ni worshiped with Charity and a few other women in their home.
Fleeing the cruel Japanese invasion, thousands of refugees flooded into Shanghai’s International Quarter. Lin Pu-chi preached that Christians should help these people, so Ni did not turn away a bedraggled Russian who came to their door begging food. For several months in 1938, they also sheltered thirty relatives of Lin’s who had come to Shanghai from Fuzhou. The Japanese forced churches and schools to accommodate to their regime, something which Lin Pu-chi, an ardent patriot, refused to do. Instead, he went to work for Ni’s younger brother George, who had founded a chemical company.
Fulfilling her mother’s frustrated dream, Martha graduated from the medical school of St. John’s University. She was married a year later to a man from the Hardoon Road assembly whom Ni had chosen for her.
In a rare show of unity, Ni and her husband attended the spiritual renewal meetings led by Watchman Nee in Guling in the summer of 1948.
After the Communist victory in 1949, virtually everything changed for Lin Pu-chi and his family. He no longer held a paying position in the church, but had to rely on gifts from his sons in American to sustain life. Ni Guizhen was suffering from insomnia, aggravated by stress from the new political and religious situation. Watchman Nee had been arrested., and was held for four years.
As his sister, Ni came under suspicion also. Their house was searched by the police in 1955. The next year, she was compelled to confess her “sins” in a large accusation meeting. “In the past, I thought I lived for God and I was faithful and willing to suffer for the Lord… Actually, I offended God and offended people” by remaining aloof from politics and not seeing the new government as God’s will. (Lin 182).
After Nee was convicted in June, 1956, of being a “counter-revolutionary” and of many other alleged crimes, Ni suffered a complete physical and nervous breakdown. Her symptoms included fatigue, anxiety, headaches, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure.”
To make matters worse, as she wrote in her only letter to her son Paul, “I often miss you and Junmin, especially when I am ill. These years I have really understood how deep the feeling could be when a mother misses her sons who are afar. Although I never wrote to you by myself in the past, my silence tells how my heart misses you.” (Lin 186). She told him further that in the past three years her memory, mental comprehension, and eyesight had deteriorated. Now she could not even tolerate sunlight.
For several years, Ni visited her brother Watchman Nee with Charity every two months in prison. Even after almost all of Charity’s friends and relatives had turned against her or simply abandoned her, Ni remained faithful to her friend. When government action closed down the Little Flock meetings, she and Charity would sing Nee’ hymns together in a room in her house with the door closed. To calm her nerves, Ni would knit or read her Bible.
The cruel madness of the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966 to eliminate rivals within the Communist Party, burst into their household for the first time when workers from her son Tim’s factory invaded their home. They ransacked the living quarters and destroyed or took valuable keepsakes. Soon after, men from the office of Martha’s husband arrived. They posted an accusation paper on the door and proceeded to haul off furniture, including the piano.
Then, men from the Public Security Bureau in military uniforms entered the door and began to accuse Ni and her husband separately. They asked about her connections with Nee through a relative in Hong Kong. When her responses didn’t satisfy them, they beat the old woman mercilessly. Eventually, her children and their spouses were taken away, leaving oly Ni and her husband to care for their grandchildren. Charity, now under house arrest, could no longer join her in private worship.
Later, Ni had to attend daily sessions and face accusers, who were former neighbors and even members of the Little Flock who had to act hostile toward her. The Red Guards forced her to kneel as they interrogated her relentlessly, until she said, “I come from a bad family. My son-in-law is a capitalist roader. My brother [Nee] is a revolutionary. My sons are running dogs in America.” (Lin 213)
Finally, under terrible pressure to denounce their grandmother, Ni’s three granddaughters came out against her, declaring, “We will not follow you. We are not on your side.” Terri, the one most affected by propaganda, screamed, “I hate being born into this family. You have done so many wrong things. The church is bad. And Watchman Nee, he is the cause of all our troubles.”(Lin,214). Ni suffered a stroke that night, losing the use of her left hand. She had to wait five years before Terri, disillusioned by the mindless atrocities she witnessed, changed her attitude towards her family.
Frequent visits by Red Guards, who would rail against her relationship to Nee, wore her down. She had heart disease, high cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure, plus insomnia. She lost twenty pounds in one year. Her mind began to slip as well. Not long before, she had had to care for her husband, who was bedridden for months, but now he tended to her needs, feeding her, propping her up in bed so she could read her Bible or eat, reading the Bible to her, and giving her medicines at the proper time.
As the violence intensified, Ni watched in horror while her grandchildren suffered, too. Martha’s daughter Julia especially bore the ire of her envious classmates at the music conservatory, where she excelled as a pianist. In 1968, Terri and Julia joined millions of other youth who “went down to the countryside” to learn from peasants at Mao’s orders. Martha’s husband John suffered greatly, but so did Tim, though to a lesser degree.
Ni eventually lost her mind. When she prayed, it was alone. News of Charity’s death in November, 1971, devastated her. Most of the time, she sat in her bedroom, mumbling over and over, “I’ve done nothing wrong.” She died on December 14, 1971.
Even in death, her association with Nee plagued her. The family were not allowed to make her a proper memorial. Officially labeled a counter-revolutionary in 1969, she was a legal pariah. The mortician would not fix up her face; the family could send no flowers or banners of tribute to her; there was no showing of her body in a public viewing room. No one could express grief, lest they be accused of sympathizing with an enemy of the state. Not until 1979 was the charge of counterrevolutionary rescinded; all the charges made against her were declared “not proper” by the officials in 1986.
Ni and Lin had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in March, 1970. Though angry for a while over her adherence to Watchman Nee and the Little Flock, he came to respect her as a woman of uncompromising faith.
- In this article, Ni Guizhen’s surname is spelled according to Mandarin pinyin, while that of her brother is given in the traditional English form, “Nee.”
- The Chinese name is Zhongxi Nushu [Chinese-Western Girls’ Academy]. It was later consolidated with St. Mary’s School for Girls, and renamed the Shanghai Number Three Girls School.
- This term was coined by Daniel Bays to describe the elites who led the “mainline” Protestant denominations, mission societies, and para-church organizations, like the YMCA.
- Jennifer Lin, Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
- Heidi Ross, “’Cradle of Female Talent’: The McTyeire Home and School for Girls, 1892-1937,” in Daniel H. Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, 209-227.