Christianity, introduced to the Lisu people at the end of the last century in Burma, spread to China in the early 1920s. Among the one million Lisu in the world, almost 60 percent live in Yunnan, China, concentrated in the Nujiang Canyon (formerly known as Selwin Valley). In spite of the unfavorable political conditions against Christianity since 1949, the Christian population among the Lisu has been growing. For example, in 1997 about 70 percent of the people in Fugong County of Nujiang Prefecture were Christian. This is the highest Christian concentration in China at the county level and the first primarily “Christian county” in China.
Missionaries who went to Nujiang during the 1920s and 1930s were almost all from a fundamentalist background emphasizing a dualistic worldview with strong Puritan teachings. As they encountered the Lisu, they were aware that the Lisu were very religious—spending a huge amount of wealth on sacrifices to appease their gods and spirits in spite of their poverty. The traditional dowry customs made a heavy economic burden for the Lisu who often ended up in debt. There were also many customs—such as rice-wine drinking, smoking, and premarital sex—which the missionaries considered incompatible with Christianity.
We shall briefly explore the social changes brought about by the missionaries that had a bearing on the Lisu Christians and their economic situation. These economic changes were praised by the Chinese government in the 1950s despite their negative attitudes toward religion and the missionaries. The following data are drawn from the official Chinese government reports that preclude any favoritism toward Christianity.
Lisu Marriage Customs before 1950 and Missionary Teaching
Marriage was an expensive event for the Lisu. The groom had to pay the bride several cows for the wedding and was in debt to her family or others for many years. It was not uncommon for a family to have to sell its children into slavery in order to pay the debt. Therefore, marriage became a trade and was arranged by the families instead of being decided by the bride and groom themselves. If the husband wanted a divorce, he could reclaim all he had paid. If the wife initiated a divorce, she had to pay back twice the amount she had received from her husband. Thus, a divorce led to many conflicts. Moreover, the Lisu men were allowed to have concubines, invariably causing complications in the family. Finally, all unmarried teens and adults could sleep in a “Common House” in search of sexual partners; they were allowed to engage in sexual acts freely until they got married.
In 1954, a detailed study was made on the annual expenses of Lisu households. There was a well-to-do family whose son got married. The wedding cost about 38 percent of the entire household’s annual net income. Immediately, the family was in debt and transformed from a well-to-do into a poor household (Research Committee, National Minority Commission of the National People’s Congress 1954:43).
The missionaries regarded these Lisu marriage customs as inappropriate and a hindrance to the spread of the gospel. Therefore, they insisted on the following teachings: Christians had to be monogamous; they were free to marry but could not divorce; premarital sex was prohibited. As many poor young people could not afford to get married, the missionaries insisted that both parties forego the exchange of gifts and the wedding feast was discouraged. Further, any consenting Christian male above the age of 20 and female above the age of 18 could marry in a church free of charge. Christians could not marry non-Christians. These new marriage customs attracted people to the church (Gao and Zhang 1990:2122). Marriage became an institution that could be decided upon by the couple without incurring debt. There would be fewer familial disputes over divorce and concubine issues. It was thought that forced marriages, due to out-of-wedlock pregnancies arising from the Common House, would decline. Finally, the Christian community protected marriage. As a result, many joined the church.
A Christian wedding was economically prudent to the Lisu community because of the austerity of the wedding ceremony and its related obligations. Having no wedding feast was a great help in a poverty region and a great saving on food that might have been wasted. The money that was saved could be used to invest in agricultural production and benefited the newlyweds.
Christian Teachings on Drinking and Smoking
One of the few luxuries in the harsh environment of Nujiang was alcohol consumption. Very often at the end of the first harvest, the Lisu would immediately set up a crude brewery in the field to make rice wine from the new grain. A large quantity of grain was used to make wine and they would then lie in the field drunk for several days. Since the grain produced often was not even enough for basic consumption, frequently these households would run out of food a few months after the harvest and go into debt or live on handouts long before their second harvest. A detailed study in 1956 suggested that an average Lisu household (excluding the Christians) would use 12 to 23 percent of their annual grain production to make wine. In addition, crops were sold for cash in order to purchase extra wine after the harvest season (Chinese Communist Party 1956:7-8). Since drinking was a must and getting drunk was culturally accepted, it would be difficult to ignore its economic significance and social consequences. Furthermore, the Lisu liked to smoke, and smoking also consumed a substantial amount of their disposable income (Central Government Visitation Team 1956:21).
The missionaries made their teachings clear on drinking alcohol and smoking: total abstinence. This was a basic requirement for all Christians, and the Christian community acted as an enforcement agency among its own. The missionaries substituted the habit of smoking with local tea drinking. It also helped those addicted to alcohol to withdraw from their habit. Soon the Christian families saved more money by not wasting their grain on wine making. There were fewer crimes among the Christians due to the lack of alcoholism. In the early 1950s, even the anti-religious Chinese Communist Party cadres admitted that the economic well-being of the Lisu Christians was, in general, better than that of non-Christians due to the teaching of the church on abstinence from alcohol and tobacco (Central Government Visitation Team 1956:21).
Prohibition of Sacrificial Offerings to Gods and Spirits
Traditional religious customs dictated that the Lisu regularly offer livestock or crops to various spirits and also on special occasions such as illness and death. For example, a 1953 survey indicated that out of 37 families in Chuangmedi Village of Fugong, 25 made a total of 251 sacrifices during the year averaging ten sacrifices per household. (The other families were probably Christians who made no such sacrifices.) This amounted to more than 11 percent of the total annual village income. Discounting the 12 households that made no sacrifices, the 25 households used at least 15 percent of their gross annual income or crops for such a purpose—a substantial amount of wealth in this poor region. A study of a relatively well-to-do family showed that from 1929 to 1952 they offered 16 goats, 15 chickens, and 29 pigs. Eventually, the head of the household had to sell all the land to pay the debt incurred by these offerings; he became a hired laborer whose well-being was slightly better than a slave (Chinese Communist Party 1956:7).
The Christian teaching on these sacrifices was very clear: no Christian was allowed to make any sacrifices once he or she became a believer. This was not so much for economic reasons but for theological ones: only one God is to be worshiped. Although the missionaries instructed Christians to bring offerings to the church, the amount received did not come near the amount previously offered to other spirits. The side effect of this teaching was obvious—if you became a Christian you saved money because it was less expensive to practice Christianity.
Christian Teachings and Theological Justification
The main concern of the fundamentalist missionaries was to save the lost Lisu souls from eternal damnation for worshiping the wrong god rather than to rescue them from their miserable economic predicament. Their motive was religious, but the consequences of their teachings bore economic benefits. In order to teach the Lisu, the missionaries developed a set of doctrinal teachings including three basic theological teachings and the Lisu Ten Commandments (See box below) (Li, Daoshing 1994:1082-1083):
- One must be devoted to one God. One cannot believe in God and, at the same time, make offerings to other spirits.
- God is holy. Drinking alcohol is an unholy as well as a blasphemous act. This also applies to smoking.
- Christians are civilized; it would be uncivilized and even shameful to accept wedding gifts from either party. Also, it would be uncivilized to waste money on a wedding feast.
Because these doctrinal teachings were in the form of practical guidelines, the Lisu Christians built and based their community on them. Although they sound a bit legalistic, the Lisu Christians found them easy to follow and they helped to shape a unique community. While these teachings were never meant to be a guide for a self-sustainable economic community, one of their most obvious characteristics is the Puritan social ethic—no waste and honest work. As a result, these Christian families would eventually have a better economic situation than their non-Christian neighbors.
Holistic Ministry and Today’s China
The Chinese government, like other restricted-access countries, does not welcome Christian mission work, but it does welcome assistance in economic development. Since Nujiang Prefecture is one of the poorest areas in all of China, the national government is targeting it for its special poverty-eradication program. Thus, the government is more open to outside help.
The Christian community is by far the strongest social unit in Nujiang Prefecture and can serve as a powerful agent to launch any social program. Although the Christian community in Fugong County is generally better off economically than their non-Christian neighbors, they are, as a whole, still living below the poverty line. This may be attributed mainly to the increase in population (fourfold since 1950) due to better government health service since 1950 and to a special birth quota allowance given to national minorities in China. At the same time, there are no funds for capital investment, technological improvement in productivity or exploring alternative means of resource utilization.
The Christian leaders in Fugong and Nujiang are thinking of using Christian training centers and the extensive church network to promote economic development through medical and agricultural projects. Such projects, executed by committed Christians, may lead to the formation of holistic communities throughout Nujiang Prefecture.
The concept of holistic ministry parallels Food for the Hungry International’s (FHI) “Vision of a Community.” As a result of their ministry, FHI wishes to see the people of a community advance toward their God-given potential. This comes through equipping to progress beyond the meeting of their basic physical needs and becoming a growing group of Christians that love God and one another, manifest the fruit of the Spirit and reach out to serve others.
Although Lisu Christian leaders have no formal theological training, their theological methodology seems to be a “from-below approach:” realization of physical needs, reflection upon these needs and pastoral action to fulfill them. At first, they taught only the Bible to their voluntary pastors, but in recent years have realized that the needs of the Christians are physical as well as spiritual. They began to focus their ministry not just on spiritual teaching but also on agricultural, educational, and medical programs. They are now teaching the voluntary pastors to minister to both the spiritual and physical needs of their flocks.
Prior to World War II, the Lisu Christians began sending missionaries to evangelize their neighboring minority peoples such as the Dulongs. The Dulongs are the most remote, the most difficult to access and the most underdeveloped people group in China. It is the only minority group in China that cannot be accessed by road. Yet, among the 4,000 Dulongs in Dulong Valley north of Fugong, at least 800 are now Christians worshiping in seven churches all supported by the Lisu Christians. With further efforts, it may be possible to turn the Dulongs into a holistic Christian community through the Lisu.
Lisu Christians already have a good Christian foundation, a good testimony, a large critical mass (Fugong being a newly Christianized people with perhaps the highest rate of conversion in modern mission history) and sufficient readiness to be challenged.
The challenge before us is this: how best can we help the Lisu build a concrete Christian community to promote the cycle of reciprocity; namely, redemption leading to development, and further, development leading to redemption. The Christian community, deeply committed to the concept of holistic ministry, will attempt to accomplish at least three general goals.
- Show the Chinese government that Christians can indeed make a positive contribution toward the socio-economic development of the community and the nation. The Chinese government is hospitable to the Christian organization as long as it registers a measurable socio-economic contribution helping China’s modernization effort.
- Demonstrate that the Christian community can reach out to other people groups not readily accessible to outsiders. Such outreach is holistic in nature and will transform the community both physically and spiritually. In other words, the cycle of reciprocity will lead the Lisu to reach out to the Dulongs by sharing the gospel and helping them to help themselves. In the end, the Dulongs will begin sharing the gospel with their neighboring unreached people groups while helping them to help themselves.
- Allow the Christian community to reap great dividends. Even though China is the largest populated nation in the world (1.3 billion), more than 90 percent of the Chinese are unreached. There are 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China, mostly living in the rural areas. Many mission models have failed to penetrate these peoples so that about half of them have not been reached by the gospel. If the holistic model works among the Lisu and among the Dulongs, eventually it may become a paradigm for many other rural ethnic communities in China. Furthermore, it would be the Chinese Christians, not foreigners, who evangelize the Chinese—a “self-propagating” ecclesial principle that is strongly emphasized by Chinese Christian leaders.
We have seen that the emergence of Fugong into the first Christian county in China has significant implications for our missiological thinking, in general, and for reaching China’s unreached ethnic minorities, in particular. Socialism, the state orthodoxy in China, holds out a rather negative view on religion—a view based primarily on economic assumptions (i.e., religion is bad for social progress and hinders economic development). In light of this, Christians may be able to demonstrate that Christianity offers not only spiritual salvation but also economic liberation—liberating the people from the yoke of poverty by applying Christian principles. The Chinese government officially closed its door to those traditional missionaries who emphasized only the other-worldly message. However, the Chinese authority is open to good-willed agencies that can work as equal partners with the Chinese to alleviate poverty in the rural communities, especially within the national minorities who inhabit the most hostile terrain in China. The Lisu Christians in Fugong are already established as a dynamic community. Can this Christian community, with resources from external Christian development agencies, establish a concrete holistic community that can act as a viable development model in China? Further, can this model be used as a missiological paradigm opening mission frontiers in areas hitherto denied to the traditional mission approach? The story of the Lisu makes us hopeful.
Tetsunao Yamamori is president of Food for the Hungry International and author of Serving with the Urban Poor. KimKwong Chan is Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council and co-author of Protestantism in Contemporary China. This article is adapted from “Missiological Ramifications of the Social Impact of Christianity on the Lisu of China” in Missiology, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Oct. 1998, pp. 403-417. Used with permission.
Bijiang County Government. Bijiang Xianzhi [Bijiang County Gazeteer]. Yunnan, China: Yunnan People’s Press.
Central Government Visitation Team Second Detachment Nujiang Group “The Religious Situation in Nujiang, 1950.” In Yunnan Minzu Qingkuang Huiji [Collection on Minorities Situation in Yunnan, Vol. 1. Yunnan, China: Yunnan People’s Press, 1956 and 1981 (reprint).
Chinese Communist Party, Yunnan Frontier Research Office. “The Basic Situation of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, 1956.” In Lisuzu Shihui Diaocha [Social Survey of the Lisu Tribe]. Yunnan, China: Yunnan People’s Press, 1956.
Covell, Ralph R. The Liberating Gospel in China. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995.
Fu, Abu. “History on the Spreading of Christianity in Fugong.” Nujiang Wenshi Ziliao [Collection of Historical Materials inNujiang] 2:1094-1096, 1994.
Gao, Hanxin, and Heren Zhang. “The Religious Issues in Nujiang.” Nujian Fanzhi (Internal) 4(12) [November]: 20-22, 1990.
Jiang, Ling. “A Brief Introduction to the Minority Groups in China: Lisu Nationality.” Minzu tuanjie [Unity of Nationality] (October ):6, 1995.
Li, Daoshing. “Survey on Christianity in Fugong.” Nujiang Wenshi Ziliao [Collection of Historical Materials in Nujiang] 2:1082-1083, 1994.
Research Committee, National Minority Commission of the National People’s Congress. “The Social Situation of the Lisus, 1986 reprint.” In Lisuzu Shihui Diaocha [Social Survey of the Lisu Tribe]. Yunnan, China: Yunnan People’s Press, 1956 and 1986 (reprint).
Tien, Ju-K’ang. The Peak of Faith: Protestant Mission in Revolutionary China. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1993.
Wickeri, Philip L., and Lois Cole, eds. Christianity and Modernization: A Chinese Debate. Hong Kong: DAGA Press, 1995.
Yesi. Personal Correspondence in February, Gongshan Church, County Seat of Gongshan County, of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province, 1998.