Guo Ling Nie was born in Beijing on October 13, 1911, three days after the revolution that overthrew the Manchu (Qing) dynasty. Her grandfather had been an official in the Qing government, based in Wenzhou, though he was from Fujian. In 1905, her father was sent overseas by the Qing government; his interpreter for the trip was the elderly Yan Huiqing, who later became Premier of China. He knew many people in high places, including Sun Yat-sen, and took his daughter with him to visit Sun during his last days in the hospital in Beijing. When the deposed emperor Pu Yi got married, Ling Nie attended the wedding. “The ceremonies were very festive!” she records.
She had five older brothers, who doted on her. As a young child, she possessed a pleasant, cooperative disposition, earning everyone’s affection. She grew up speaking impeccable Mandarin, and began learning Chinese characters at the age of seven, supervised by her father, whose requirements for her study were strict and demanding. Her retentive memory and hard work enabled her to meet his standards and progress in her studies, which soon included the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius.
At the age of nine, with her sister, who was two years older than she, they entered an elementary school, where she quickly excelled and progressed rapidly. Her education was interrupted several times, the first occasioned by her visit to Wenzhou to celebrate her grandmother’s eightieth birthday. Her grandmother read Buddhist scriptures to her in the evenings and explained them to her. Returning to Beijing, she continued her education through high school, then attended a nursing school; her father would not allow her to go on to university.
Through a matchmaker, she was introduced to Zhang Lisheng (Litsen Chang), whose mother did not like her because she was an official’s daughter who would (she imagined) be spoiled and lazy. But Zhang observed that she helped the servants with chores on the four occasions when he came to dinner at her home. Though he had been introduced to a number of highly educated women from prominent families, “He thought nothing of them. Those who were highly educated wanted to dominate him. He wanted me, an unlearned woman, so he could lead the home.” (From Death to Life, 26).
Not long after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in January, 1928, Ling Nie was informed that her marriage to Zhang would take place in a hotel on March 16th. Her mother, who had not been consulted, was angry, but she and her daughter had to accept the decision, so Ling Nie sailed from Wenzhou to Shanghai for the ceremony, which was presided over by Cai Yuanpei, chancellor of Peking University. Their early years of marriage were not especially happy. She writes, “Litsen was very disappointed, because I loved to play mahjong, smoke, dance and drink.” (Ibid., 27). When he realized that everyone else in her family was like her, he was even more upset… I knew that I was wrong, but it was not easy to change my character! Litsen was a real gentleman, he had no bad habits at all. He loved to write every day.” (Ibid., 27-28)
Her first son, Changji (Ch’ang-chi), was born after a very difficult labor, and was in poor health until he was ten years old. Three years later, another son, Changde (Ch’ang-te), was born. When Litsen followed his boss in the government to Guangdong, she took her two boys to Hong Kong, then back to Shanghai. The next few years saw her and her children often fleeing the Japanese soldiers or trying to find shelter from Japanese bombs. Her brief narrative is replete with hair-raising stories of close calls with capture or death, and devastation of their home and hiding places resulting from the brutal Japanese onslaught. They fled to the mountains; hid in caves and bomb shelters; desperately boarded boats; crouched behind a tree on a rainy night while bombs fell around them; and rode army trucks in a frantic attempt to reach her husband in Chongqing.
In that wartime capital they lived in a small house, which Ling Nie managed. Soon she was pregnant again. She became so depressed that she wanted to have an abortion, but her doctor kept delaying the procedure until forty days had passed and he would no longer be able to perform the surgery. “How could I describe my suffering! Every morning I was sick. It was wartime; at a moment’s notice we had to vacate to the bomb shelter. There was never a moment of peace; we lived in fear and suspense day and night.” (Ibid., 31) Later, she gave birth to twin girls. They were the “first set of twins born in the national Government” (in Chongqing), so President Chiang Kai-shek held a party to celebrate. He also named the girls Chonghua (Ch’ung-hua ) and Qinghua (Ch’ing-hua ). She hired a wet nurse to help her feed the babies until they were sixteen months old. (The twins shared a common name-“hua”, meaning “China”; as they were born in Chongqing, so they were named Chong and Qing, plus Hua).
Two years later, she was pregnant again. Zhang had been ordered to go to Manchuria to take an important position, but agreed to stay in Chongqing until the new baby was born. By then, the situation had deteriorated so much in Manchuria that Zhang could not go. “So Litsen was spared. He never forgot that this baby saved his life!” (Ibid., 33)
After the Sino-Japanese war, the whole family flew back to Shanghai from Chongqing in 1946. Ling Nie and the children settled down in Shanghai, while Zhang was busy establishing Jiang-Nan University in Wuxi. In 1948, as the Communists were marching southward toward Shanghai, Zhang was asked by Chiang Kai-shek to re-join the government in Chongqing. Ling Nie joined the throng of refugees to Taiwan, , taking the last ship out of Shanghai in late 1948 . When she and the children arrived in Taiwan, a friend of her husband’s found a job for her till Zhang became ill and was sent to Taiwan in 1949, where he entered a hospital to recuperate. His wife visited him and cared for him daily.
Their son recalls: “As you know, my father had given himself a mission for his life to ‘destroy Christianity,’ i.e., to expel Christianity from China. Having failed to do so, he forged an alliance with Buddhist leaders in India to expel Christianity from Asia. So he was invited to lecture on Buddhism in India. Before leaving Taiwan, with his connection with the government, he was able to secure official passports for the whole family, for ease of overseas travels, so he thought it would be. But God used this human folly to intervene in my father’s plan. The Indian consulate refused to grant visas on official passports issued by a government with which it had no longer diplomatic relations, as India had already recognized the newly established Communist government in Beijing. After a few months in Hong Kong, my father took his family to Indonesia, not Jakarta but Semarang, where the cost of living was lower. God intervened one more time, for we rented a house only two blocks from a church where my father had his personal encounter with the God of the Bible. It was an Indonesian church, where my father did not understand a single word, but was convicted by the Holy Spirit. Soon thereafter, he went to find a Chinese church and it was the pastor of that church led my father to a saving knowledge of the Lord. The story continues as follows …”
The pastor of the Chinese church and his wife befriended them and visited often, and Zhang finally believed in Christ, but his wife resisted. “You preachers can never cease talking about God. We don’t understand what that means. Let me ask you: Can your God change Litsen Chang’s temper, heal his stomach ulcer and his hemorrhoid? Then I would go to church.” Despite repeated visits from the pastor’s wife and Mrs. Leland Wang, her “heart was not touched at all … Later I thought, I would just give church a try,” but she didn’t think much of the character of the people she saw there. “So I was angry: how could such people go to church? I was much better than they! So why would I need to go to church? So I stopped going.” (From Death to Life, 36) Eventually, however, she yielded to the kindness of Mrs. Wang, and took herself and her children to church. From the first Sunday, she never stopped attending worship services. She was even asked to lead the women’s fellowship!
To help support the family, she taught in a nearby Christian school, where her standard Mandarin was much appreciated. This was her first contact with Christianity. She was still fond of playing mahjong, however. As she had done earlier in Shanghai, she also started a small business to earn money for the family.
While her newly-converted husband was lecturing on Eastern philosophy and Chinese religions in a Bible school in Malang, he was encouraged to go to America for theological studies at Gordon Divinity School, near Boston, Massachusetts. She writes, “I was against the idea. First, how can we survive with no steady income? Second, my own health was poor. Third, I did not speak English.” (Ibid., 38) Nevertheless, they sailed for the United States, arriving at Long Beach, California, in March, 1956. They took a train to Boston, where they were warmly welcomed by the dean and faculty of Gordon Divinity School. She remembers their first days there: “They took us to a small dormitory. We were given free lodging in two rooms. Litsen slept on a broken sofa. The twins slept on the upper bunk, Ch’ang-wen, the youngest, slept on a box. I slept on the lower bunk. The bathroom was shared by eleven people.” (Ibid., 39)
She began supporting the family by taking all sorts of odd jobs, such as house work, babysitting, and painting water colors, for during these hard years she also developed artistic skill. Over the years, through the sale of her water colors, some of which won prizes in exhibitions, the living standard of her family began to improve. After Zhang graduated from seminary and began teaching there, they had to find housing off campus. Free lodging was offered by a Christian family, but the lady of the house turned out to be rude and demanding, Ling Nie became sick and wanted to leave, but her landlady would not release her until a doctor certified that she could not continue in that work. She comments, “How could a Christian be so unloving, and treat people so harshly? And we went to the same church. How could we lead people to Christ?” (Ibid., 39) They moved to another house, and soon Ling Nie, who had been trained as a nurse, found a job in a hospital. She remembers, “I have been victimized often. The younger nurses looked down on me, because I was older and could not speak English. The director of the hospital, however, was loving toward me. So the nurses were jealous of me.” (Ibid., 44) Later, she learned English through diligent study and so was able to find work as a private nurse in people’s homes. Patients could be temperamental and hard to deal with, but she persisted, and “witnessed to them about Christ. Quite a few believed in the Lord before they died. To be patient to love others: this was the first trial God gave me. This was my life from 1956 to 1979.” (Ibid., 40)
During these years, she leaned upon God to give her physical strength, learn a bit more English, and pass a driver’s license exam so she could drive to the homes of her patients. In time, God provided enough money through family and others for them to own a home. Zhang had no care for money, and left all management of the house to his wife, who had to work to support the entire family to augment the meager salary her husband received from the seminary (that was because he taught only one course in order to devote himself to writing). Zhang even refused to accept honoraria or travel expenses when he lectured or preached.
While in the United States, Zhang Lisheng wrote several million words expounding and defending biblical Christianity. His writings and preaching influenced countless Chinese and Westerners alike (several books were composed and published in English). There is no doubt that without the sacrificial service of his devoted wife, hardly any of this would have been possible.
When Zhang was invited to lecture at several seminaries in Asia in 1968, they travelled to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and then England, France, and Germany. He was well received in every place, and always refused remuneration. While in Hong Kong, they were visited by Ling Nie’s older sister, who “noticed a definite change” in her life and wanted to know why and how she had been so transformed. Listen to her summary of her testimony: “God is faithful, God loves such sinners as us. We just need to believe in Him to be saved. God knew that I used to love the world. I coveted everything. Now food and clothing no longer were my worries. I just wanted to love and help other people; this was now my love.” (Ibid., 46)
In 1980 she became quite ill and went to Florida to recover her health. Then her husband also came down with sickness, but by then she had recovered enough to take care of him, which she did in the next few years as he entered the hospital several times. “I took care of him day and night non-stop. On June 1, 1991 I fainted and could not get up… I had to rest in bed for half a year. I could not walk.”(Ibid., 43) Since she was unable to help her husband any longer, their eldest son took Zhang into his home.
Here is how she concludes the narrative of her life up to the age of eighty-two:
“I wish to thank God for saving me from darkness to light, from death to life. I thank God for the role I played in supporting my husband’s ministry. I thank God for giving me five children, all unique. God has a plan for each one of them. And I thank God for sparing my life so many times! He certainly had a very special plan for me. Praise His name!”
After a short stay in the hospital, she passed away peacefully on March 16, 2009, which happened to be the 77th anniversary of her wedding.
“Ling-Nie had three sons and two daughters. By order of age, they are: John Key, John David, June, Jean, and John Vincent. There are also grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of her paintings is hung in her living room. There are five peaches in that painting. She always told people, amidst smiling, that it represented her five children. They are beautiful, from the same root, and a testimony to the grace of God.” (Short Biography)
- A Short Biography of Mrs. Ling-Nie Chang (A paraphrased translation of a Chinese eulogy written by Dr. James C.M. Yu)
- “From Death to Life by Chang Kwo Ling Nie,” in Contending for the Faith: The Story of Lit sen and Ling Nie Chang. Chinese for Christ N.Y. Church, Flushing, New York, 1997.
- Private communication from Dr. John K. Chang (章 長 基; Chang Ch’ang-chi; Zhang Changji)