Note: I wrote this letter early Monday before my face and real name were linked on Twitter. The most disturbing part about the past days’ firestorm has nothing to do with me.
What’s most grieving is this: my attackers do not know my ongoing travel schedule, ministry connections, or work. So, these Christians are completely unaware or indifferent to the potential risk they could put on Chinese brothers and sisters. No degree of anger toward me warrants risking possible harm to already persecuted brothers and sisters.
Despite their actions, I’m posting this letter, because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always sought to speak with candor and compassion, and not with anger or grief.
My work is not about me; it never has. We serve the One who is Lord over the world. And so, I want to love his people, whether Mainland Chinese, Asian Americans, or various people who’ve slandered me online. This good news should affect how we interact with one another.
The time has come for me to change my pseudonym. Times and circumstances have changed.
While it’s been an open secret that I’m Caucasian or Anglo (i.e., an English-speaking white person of European descent), I’ve learned that a significant number of people still were not aware of this fact. I speak publicly at conferences regularly. In that sense, I’ve not hidden at all.
Still, some people online have slandered me for having my pseudonym without knowing me or my circumstances. So,
I first will state my thinking in picking “Jackson Wu” as a pen name. Then, I will explain my plan moving forward.
This letter answers 4 questions:
(1) Where did the name come from?
(2) Why did you choose a Chinese name?
(3) Why not say you’re white?
(4) What do you plan to do now?
The Origins of the Pseudonym
For nearly 2 decades, my family and I served in China, a tight security environment where the government has persecuted Christians for generations. My primary security concern was never myself but rather those with whom we ministered.
I’ve known and met believers who’ve lost their jobs, been kicked out of their homes, faced beatings, etc. all because they follow Christ. Persecution is a real thing. The Chinese government aggressively works to counter the Chinese house church. This context is important for understanding the seriousness of ministering in China. It’s all the more true because of the people I worked with. Serving with an underground seminary, I worked with top city and network leaders, communicating only in Mandarin. The Chinese government labored especially hard to find and suppress such work.
The government routinely errs in thinking that American missionaries work for the US government. So, they are especially keen on identifying American missionaries, which then compromises the work of our Chinese partners. For their security, I have used several names depending on the context. My Chinese partners know how this cat-and-mouse game works with the Chinese government. Having more names makes it more difficult to track a person. I chose one of them as a pen name (“Jackson Wu”).
When I began using Jackson Wu for publishing purposes, I had no idea I would have a writing career, a blog, or speak in various settings around the world. A professor liked my paper and asked if I’d publish it in a journal. Since I worked as a professor in an underground seminary, using a pseudonym was essential.
Why a Chinese Name?
Why a Chinese name?
Let me begin by stating that all my thinking concerning the pseudonym centered on the people of Mainland China. For people who don’t know, Mainland Chinese culture is very different from Asian-American culture. Not only was “cultural appropriation” not a conversation in America at the time, but it’s still not a point of concern among Chinese believers on the mainland.
Back to my point… why a Chinese name? First of all, in Mainland Chinese culture, many consider it honoring to take on a Chinese name. I have heard several Chinese brothers and sisters express how much I must love China because I use a Chinese name.
Second, people who know me know that I’m collaborative in my processing. My dissertation required significant research on mainland Chinese culture and theology. For the first several years of research and publishing, my writing on Chinese culture and theology was directly and profoundly shaped by countless Chinese brothers and sisters. I had long conversations with them and received invaluable feedback. There is no Jackson Wu without the investment and insight of these dear brothers and sisters.
Therefore, when it came time to choose a pseudonym, it almost felt like a lie or deceptive not to have a Mandarin name that reflected their contribution and our deep collaboration. Keep in mind–– Chinese house church pastors have had little or no voice when it comes to global theological dialogue. I would not perpetuate the sort of injustice that steals their insight without honoring them in a way that Mainland Chinese feel is honoring.
At the time, there was absolutely no advantage to having a Chinese name; in fact, the opposite was true. One of the issues I opined about was that theologians and biblical scholars did not take Asian thinkers seriously and I wanted people to hear from them. At that point in time, my decision was seen as a disadvantage for publishing. Using a Chinese name at that time put me at a definite disadvantage because of a subtle but widespread prejudice against writers who were thought to be non-Western.
Shortly after completing my dissertation, I created a blog, mainly because my wife thought I needed an outlet to process my thoughts. Soon, Enoch Wan (a Chinese man living in North America who knows I’m a white missionary) invited me to publish a series of articles on honor, shame, and contextualization. Little did I know that my dissertation and articles would resonate so well with people. In other words, I was just trying to do a good job of ministering in China. Becoming “Jackson Wu” was not part of some master plan to deceive the world for my profit.
Along the way, I’ve been candid about Jackson Wu being a pseudonym. In fact, we added the following note in the front of Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes:
“Why not say you’re white?”
Someone might ask, “Why not say you’re white?” My priority has always been to make it difficult for Chinese authorities to locate me and thus endanger our house church brothers and sisters. Over the past 15 years, government oversight has intensified, and its technological savvy improved. Therefore, being less specific about my skin color at least made it a bit more difficult to be tracked with ease or efficiency. I don’t apologize for doing whatever I can to protect these brothers and sisters.
From the beginning of my work, one of my deepest ambitions has been to spotlight the wonderful and insightful ideas I’ve gleaned from Chinese brothers and sisters so that people would listen to them! I want people to pay attention to non-Western scholars. We don’t have to agree with everything Westerners or non-Westerns say… but we need to engage their work.
This is one reason why I accepted the invitation to join the Asian/Asian-American Theology Steering Committee for the Evangelical Theological Society. They met with me face to face in San Diego, saw I was white, and still chose to invite me. While I don’t have their understanding of Asian-American culture, I do have extensive experience serving the house church in Mainland China. I’m also a specialist in honor and shame, which is a critical issue for Asian contexts (indeed all cultures).
A few years ago, I had to return to the States. As I learned about this new environment (America changed a lot since I last lived here), I grew more aware that my using pseudonym could be misconstrued. So, last year, I offered my resignation from the A/AA steering committee, but it was refused because the chairperson said he thought I still have valuable contributions.
Other Asian Americans have encouraged and endorsed my work as well while knowing that I’m a white male. For example, some who endorsed Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes include:
- Benjamin C. Shin, associate professor of Christian ministry and leadership, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
- Samuel E. Chiang, president and chief executive officer, The Wycliffe Seed Company
- Sam Chan, City Bible Forum, Australia
- I’Ching Thomas, author of Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese
- Zhiqiu Xu, associate professor of theology, coordinator of Chinese seminary studies, Columbia International University
As they attest, many Asian/Asian Americans affirm that my work (despite my being white) contributes to the well-being of the academy and the church. In addition, my most recent book The Cross in Context is endorsed by an Asian American scholar:
- Jerry Hwang, academic dean and associate professor of Old Testament at Singapore Bible College
Identity is complicated. I specifically address these conflicted dynamics in the opening chapter of Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes. Asians and Asian Americans are not monolithic. The experience of my endorsers and A/AA friends is just as valuable and important as the experience of my detractors.
Since coming to the States, my biggest supporters, far and away, are Asian Americans. Knowing I’m white, they continue to invite me to speak at conferences and churches. One reason is that I’m speaking about issues that genuinely concern them. I understand the Mainland Chinese church better than many (not all) of them do. I’ve never presumed to speak on behalf of or from the perspective of Asian Americans. That’s not my place.
(The people who’ve opposed me most over the years are American white people. That’s worth some reflection.)
One final thing worth noting. As I mentioned, I’ve not hidden the fact that I’m not Chinese.
For the time being, I don’t live in East Asia. Reentry has brought a lot of reverse culture shock. In many respects, America is a foreign country to me and my family. More times than you might think, we’ve felt more comfortable hanging out with our Chinese and Afghan refugee friends than with white Americans. Living that long overseas, immersed as we were in the culture… changes a person.
So, I must approach this new season as if I moved anywhere else. I need to contextualize.
I own the fact that I’ve been too patient in changing my pseudonym. For that, I’m sorry.
I’ve desired to encourage the publication of authors from the global church. Now that Asians and Asian Americans are gaining more attention, I don’t want people to confuse me for them. I don’t wish to divert eyes from their books when people are specifically looking for A/AA writers.
I’ve discussed this name change with numerous people over the past 1-2 years. Conversations stop at the same place every time. How do I change my pseudonym while making sure to connect the large body of work I’ve produced?
So, my tentative plan moving forward is this:
1) I’ll change my pseudonym from Jackson Wu to Jackson W. for all publications.
While awkward, it sufficiently links the content I’ve written under my old pseudonym while clearly drawing attention to the fact that it’s a pen name.
Keep this in mind: I won’t be able to change it in many places because doing so is not in my power or publishing regulations prohibit it. Changing certain things online will require time as well for me to figure out how to do them properly. I also have a day job and have 5 children, which means I can’t do everything as quickly as we’d like.
(UPDATE: Since posting this, I have changed most of my social media handles and/or bios to reflect my real name, not Jackson W.)
2) I will add something to my bio on my blog to make clear my ethnicity.
3) I will pin this blog post to my Twitter page for some time in order to make sure that the notification is prominent when people visit my account.
Over the past few days, many on social media have quickly assumed the worst and attack me, while being slow to assume the best of intentions from a brother in Christ. Few on Twitter have shown the kindness and civility to reach out to me personally, seeking to understand what has gone into the name. I’m grateful for 1-2 people in particular who helped me to process these concerns. Once they did (treating me like a human), I quickly saw what I needed and wanted to do.
So many misunderstandings and slander have been spread about me over the past few days. I get that people are angry, but it doesn’t excuse some of the comments that have been made.
Before you attempt to cancel someone, I encourage you to reach out to them personally, treating them as humans, before dehumanizing them online. It’s more persuasive.
Why do I say all that? Well, I know that I won’t please everyone with this letter. That saddens me, but I’m making a good-faith effort to love others well, especially my Asian American brothers and sisters. I plan to be at ETS this year and invite any AA brothers and sisters to connect with me so I can listen.
 In light of recent protests by Americans about my pen name, it is ironic that Mainland friends commended me for using Jackson Wu, thinking it was a smart idea for me to use a Chinese name.