Jeanette Li and Her Faith in God’s Promises

Jeanette Li and Her Faith in God’s Promises

Jeanette’s birth, in 1899, was a disappointment to her family. As most Chinese parents at that time, You Zhong and his wife Taai So wanted a son to carry on the family name. Since they already had a daughter, a relative suggested the new baby should be left at the foundling house for abandoned children. But You Zhong knew that many children died in foundling houses. He decided to keep his daughter, and gave her a cheerful name, Li Mao Ya (Jamine Bud). Taai So, instead, was afraid of a name that could make the spirits jealous. She called the baby Zhao Ya (Noisy Baby) - a name that stuck within the family. The girl’s name changed a few more times throughout her. Today, she is best known as Jeanette Li.

Becoming Christian in an Hostile Land

Jeanette’s family was poor, but loving, and the girls grew up relatively happy. In 1905, however, You Zhong died of a sudden illness, leaving the family with a large debt and no means to pay it. Deaf to Taai So’s protests, the creditor took her oldest daughter as a payment. Jeanette and her mother were now alone.

            The next year, Jeanette became seriously ill, and a relative took her to the local mission hospital for treatment. Initially, her mother was afraid of foreign doctors, but allowed Jeanette to stay when she realized they took good care of her. Jeanette’s doctor, Dr. Jean G. McBurney, led the young girl to Christ and invited her to enroll in their school. To make things easier, the mission offered Taai So a job.

Taai So was baptized in 1908 into the Reformed Presbyterian Church. As for Jeanette, the elders of the church wanted to wait a while before baptizing her, but she insisted. She was baptized the following year, at the age of ten. She had never believed in the religious superstitions of her country anyhow, and the gospel provided reasonable and comforting answers to her many questions.

            In 1911, due to a strong nationalist movement, the Qing dynasty came to an end and a republic was established. This brought on intense internal conflicts. Foreigners were no longer welcome. The mission closed, leaving the local Christians to fend for themselves.

Jeanette and her mother returned to their ancestral home in Tang Hin (Deqing), only to find that their relatives had taken over the property and refused to let them in. As Christians, Jeanette and her mother were considered a disgrace to their family. But Taai So called the village elders for help, and was able to vindicate her right to her own house. When the missionaries returned in 1912, Jeanette was able to continue her education.

Wife and Teacher

            Jeanette was only fifteen and a half when her mother arranged her marriage with a Christian boy six months younger, Li Yong Guan. Jeanette wanted to wait, but her mother insisted. The marriage was performed by a Presbyterian missionary, Rev. A.I. Robb. From then on, Jeanette became commonly known as Mrs. Li.

As it was customary, Jeanette moved into the home of her husband. There were no feelings of love, nor were they expected. The toughest part of the marriage, for Jeanette, was getting along with her mother-in-law, a domineering woman who disliked her and had no qualms in letting her know.

Since the marriage was not producing children, Li Yong’s mother urged him to get a concubine (a common Chinese custom at that time). But after Jeanette spent the night crying and praying, Li Yong never brought up the subject again. In 1919, four years after their marriage, the couple had a son, Min Ch’iu, also known as Timothy. By then, Li Yong was gone most of the time, first to complete his studies in Canton, then to work as a teacher in Tai Po, Hong Kong.

Since he barely made enough money to support himself, Jeanette began teaching at Oi Lei Hok Tong (a Christian school for girls) in Tak Hing. She gave birth to a daughter named Man Shi, but the baby died after eighteen days. Eventually, Li Yong married another woman.

Realizing that she needed further education, in 1923 Jeanette enrolled in the Normal School in Canton, graduating as teacher three years later. Her aspiration of entering the Government College in Nanking were crushed when the college required membership in the Nationalist Party, which required its members to renounce foreign religions.

Thanks to a friend, she was able to find a job at a government school in Canton. After this, she was offered a position as substitute principal of the Chan Lei School for boys in Tak Hing, and was soon promoted to principal.

Spreading the Gospel in a Dangerous Country

Throughout this time, she felt called to greater involvement in the evangelization of her country. With this purpose in mind, she took a two-year course at Ginling Bible College in Nanjing. From there, she was sent to the Reformed Presbyterian Mission in Tsitsihar (Qiqihar), Manchuria – a place far from her home, where people spoke a different language.

Her work there was fruitful, in spite of the strict supervision of the Japanese forces who had occupied that part of the country. There, she benefited from the teachings and leadership of J. G. Vos, son of the more famous Geerhardus. Her son Timothy joined her there.

The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor brought another interruption to the Americans’ stay in the Japanese-occupied territories of China. Once again, the Chinese Christians continued their work alone, and Jeanette opened her home for meetings. But the government watched her carefully and she had to weigh her words. At times, they sent spies to her house to trick them to say or do something that would incriminate her.

Since they couldn’t find anything against her, the government tried to employ her as a spy to find information about a Roman Catholic church in the area. In exchange, she would receive money and protection – two things she greatly needed at that time. Knowing that a flat refusal would be dangerous, Jeanette told the officer that, as a Christian, she couldn’t do anything deceitful, and asked him what he would do in her place. “Would not your conscience ever after reprove and condemn you?”[1] The officer didn’t reply, but left her alone.

The Russian invasion of Manchuria in 1945 marked another time of great upheaval. At that time, Jeanette’s son Timothy had finished his studies at a medical school and was working as an intern at Shenyang Medical Hospital, about 600 miles away. His wife Pei Deng and their son Ch’I Chen were staying with Jeanette but, since communication between cities was almost impossible, Jeanette thought it would be best if the family could reunite. To do so, she traveled with them to Shenyang.

When returning to Qiqihar proved unfeasible, she accepted a call to do evangelistic work at the hospital in Changchun, almost 200 miles northeast of Shenyang. In the meantime, Timothy moved to America to specialize in immunology and bacteriology. The unstable political situation in the country forced Jeanette to move several times – first back to Shenyang, then to Shanghai, and finally to her hometown of Tak Hing.

When, in 1949, the Communist regime forced once again all foreigners out of China, Jeanette took over the orphanage in her town, and managed it through many calamities and trials.

Prison and Brainwashing

            But the “cleansing” started by the Communist regime was not over. After expelling all foreigners, they required all churches to register with the government so they could keep Christians under close scrutiny.

In January 1952, Jeanette was arrested and locked in a prison for seventeen months in awful conditions, sleeping on the floor in a damp cell infested by mosquitoes, with hardly any food and forced to performed hard labor. When she became ill – first with a serious fever, then with hemorrhaging dysentery – she was refused medical treatment.

During one interrogation, she was finally explained the reason for her imprisonment: as a member of a church, she subscribed to imperialism, they said. Apparently, other Chinese Christians had incriminated her. Her protest that the church and imperialism are two different things didn’t help.

The authorities produced as proof the report of a prayer by a missionary in Hong Kong who asked God to bless President Chang Kai Shek, then leader of the Republic of China in Taiwan. Chang Kai Shek had become a Christian and was opposed to the Communist regime. Jeanette was a suspect because she was in Hong Kong at the time of that prayer.

She explained that the missionary was just obeying the Bible, that teaches Christians to pray for those who rule over them. But her explanation didn’t help.

The interrogations continued at all hours of day and night, followed by indoctrination against the Bible. Finally, in May 1953, unable to prove the validity of any of their charges, the authorities had to release her. She left only after they produced a paper saying she was “freed as an innocent citizen and not as a pardoned criminal.”[2]

Sharing Her Story

After this, she moved to Canton, where her daughter-in-law, Pei Deng, lived. By this time, Jeanette’s health was so poor that she wished to die. Eventually, she recovered and resumed her work for the evangelization of Canton. In 1958, she was allowed to travel to Hong Kong, where she cared for children and ministered to refugees.

As she crossed the border, an inspector noticed her Bible and asked her why she insisted on being a Christian when so many had abandoned their faith. “I cannot, as many have done, reject the grace of God for me,” she replied. “I cannot refuse his love to me which is like the love of father and mother.”[3]

Finally, in 1962, she obtained a visa to the United States, where she reunited with her son who was working for the National Cancer Institute (as a pioneer of chemotherapy). She spent the rest of her life in Los Angeles, ministering to the Chinese community, writing her autobiography, and sharing her story with the help of translators.

One of these translators was Rev. Samuel E. Boyle, a missionary to South China who traveled with Jeanette around California. Once, he asked her if she thought the church in China would endure in spite of the anti-Christian indoctrination. Jeanette looked surprised. “The church of Christ is His body,” she said. “He purchased the church with His own blood. He has promised that the gates of hell shall never overcome the church. You ask me if the church of Christ will be destroyed? How could it be, in the light of all these great promises?”[4]

This answer sums up her convictions. She died of a stroke in 1968, while she was working with a translator on an account of her imprisonment.


[1] Jeanette Li, Jeanette Li, A Girl Born Facing Outside, transl. by Rose Huston, Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2014, p. 181

[2] Ibid., 290.

[3] Ibid., 302.

[4] Ibid., xii


Simonetta Carr