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?”
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.