Watchman Nee is one of the better-known Chinese Christians in the West due to several of his books. This biographical sketch does not focus on his well-known ministry but instead provides some information about his family.
Watchman Nee and Charity Zhang Pinhui (张品蕙姊妹) were childhood playmates. Zhang Ruzhou, Charity’s father, became a Christian before the Boxer Uprising while training at the Imperial Medical College in Tianjin. The family moved to Fujian, where Charity was born in 1902. Her father was a good friend and distant relative of Watchman’s father, Ni Wengxiu. The Zhang and Ni children were playmates, but when Charity was still a young girl, her father moved the family to Shanghai.
The Zhangs prospered in Shanghai, and Charity grew to be a beautiful, intelligent, and vibrant young woman. While she was earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Beijing’s prestigious Yenching University, Watchman both fell in love with her and gave his life to Christ. Charity, not then a Christian, mocked his new zeal for the Lord, and he came to realize that her worldliness would pull him away from his Savior. Watchman struggled with his feelings for two years, and finally one day in 1924, after meditating on Psalm 73:25, he gave Charity up to the Lord. He wrote a poem, “Boundless Love,” which became No. 128 in the Little Flock Hymn Book:
Thy love, broad, high, deep, endless, is truly without measure,
For only so could such a sinner as I be thus abundantly blessed.
My Lord paid a cruel price to buy me back and make me His.
I can but carry His cross with gladness and follow Him steadfastly to the end.
All else I relinquish since Christ is now my goal.
Come life, come death, what can it matter? Why should I look back with regret?
Satan, the world, the flesh, seek if possible to confound me.
O Lord, empower Thy weakling lest I disgrace Thy name.
After several years passed, Charity’s sister contacted Watchman with the news that Charity had become a Christian and was living in Shanghai, where his ministry was then based. He soon wrote his mother asking her to come to Shanghai and make the wedding arrangements. His mother took Charity to another city for a series of gospel meetings, and after they shared a hotel room for a week, she approved the match. On October 19, 1934, the wedding took place in Hangzhou. Watchman developed a successful and sometimes controversial ministry as founder of the Local Assemblies (or Little Flock). Later in life, however, he regretted that he had traveled so much and spent so little time with Charity. Charity supported Watchman’s ministry, translating some messages into English for wider distribution. She was known for her faithfulness and kind-heartedness and was sometimes called the fragrant myrrh in his life.
Watchman was arrested on April 10, 1952, allegedly on charges related to his involvement in a pharmaceutical business. He and Charity did not see each other until after he was tried and sentenced in 1956 to 15 years in prison. She was arrested just before his trial, but was released the following year due to heart disease and severe hypertension. After her release, she was allowed to visit him once a month. Watchman should have been released in 1967, but the Cultural Revolution intervened, and he was transferred to a labor camp in distant Anhui Province. Charity was once again denounced and tortured. In 1971, she suffered a stroke but was denied medical treatment as a counter-revolutionary, dying peacefully on November 7. Watchman died in Anhui the following year, and when Charity’s sister went to the labor camp, she was shown a note that he ended with these words: “I shall die believing in Christ.” The two who had lived apart for so long were finally reunited in the presence of their Lord.