The Chinese practice of killing a daughter in order to have a son did not come in with Communism’s one child policy. Before the revolution, poor families who could not afford to raise a girl abandoned their female babies at foundling homes, where most of them died. Jeanette Li was nearly one of those. A “girl born facing the outside,” her life is a story of grace overcoming impossible obstacles.
You have probably never heard of her. Most westerners—even many Chinese Christians—have not. This is partly because she was a member of a small, uninfluential denomination, and partly because her story has been out of print for many years.
Crown & Covenant publications has started off this year well with a rerelease of Li’s autobiography. Her life reads almost more like a spy novel than a Christian woman’s autobiography. Set in China’s turbulent 20th century, Jeanette Li lived through a short childhood, clear conversion, loveless marriage, war, suspicious officials, brainwashing, natural disasters, sacrificial mission work, imprisonment, dangerous travel, and (spoiler alert!) time in America. Li’s creativity, strength, and love for Jesus fill the book. “Although this is Jeanette Li’s autobiography,” says the foreword, “it really is not about her. Rather, it is about the incredibly all-glorious, all-powerful, all-wise, and gracious God that she served” (vii). This work is important on several levels.
First, this book offers readers a role model for women. Humanly speaking, Li had every reason to be bitter towards God and others. She was poor; her husband abandoned her; she lived through violent times, facing many physical obstacles to her work. Relationships and their obligations pulled her in different directions. Li remained strong, finding her strength the same way that Christ did: in doing the Father’s will. The Word, not emotion or situation, guided Li. We need women like Jeanette Li for us, our daughters, and every woman who professes faith in Christ. She shows us how God can use feminine strength and determination in circumstances that would otherwise crush. Li also models a Christian woman’s care for other women, as she nursed her mother-in-law through illnesses, advocated strongly for girls’ education, and worked kindly with other female missionaries.
Second, the book reveals God’s incredible providence. From the circumstances around her birth to the ones around her death, Jeannette Li’s life gives us a glimpse into God’s intricate design for His people. As Li recounts her life, seeing it make sense backwards, there is great encouragement for us to trust God’s wise care for our lives, and the lives of those we love. God knows what He is about, whether on a national level for the Chinese church, or a personal level for one of His frail people. The obstacles in Li’s life were not accidents, and they were not there to stop her. Instead, they repeatedly show God’s sufficiency and control.
Third, this book teaches us part of Chinese church history. China has ambitions, plans, and an economy that is changing the world. It also has an uncontrollable Christian presence. That presence is not new, and China’s Christian heroes and heroines have already done much to shape a country that is shaping the 21st century. The Chinese church that now seems poised to engulf the country, transforming out the Communism that America could not change. The more we understand about what is happening there, the more we see God’s plan of history unfolding in love for blood-bought souls. If we want to understand what is happening in China and why, people like Jeanette Li can help us.
If you only buy one biography this year, please make it Jeanette Li. You won’t regret the time you spend with her. You will not agree with every theological position that Li took, just as I did not. Western readers might also find themselves challenged by a cultural fence: it can be challenging to read an autobiography by an eastern author who assumes things that we find strange, or works through issues that we think are obvious. Readers unfamiliar with Chinese geography may want a map nearby. Despite these minor obstacles, the book will help readers understand God’s work and character better. My hope is that Li’s story reaches far more people with Christ than she was able to in her time on Earth.
The autobiography (paperback, 303 pages) is available here. It has been updated and edited, with new Chinese spelling and several new photographs of Li and her work. There is also a new foreword, brief biography of the translator, Rose Huston, and a summary of China’s 20th century history.