Peoples of China

How Many Unreached Peoples Are There in China?


People-group thinking has gripped the minds of mission-minded churches and Christians for some time now. A growing number of individuals, agencies, and churches have accepted the premise that the fulfillment of the Great Commission requires not only that we take the gospel to every person on earth, but that we also seek to see a church raised up among every people group. Significant effort has been made to identify those people groups without access to the gospel (i.e., unreached people groups), and to see every one of them targeted for evangelism and church planting.

How many unreached people groups are there in China? The answer depends on how one defines a people group. The first chapter of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization publication Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task contains a very helpful discussion of the various ways we might define a people group. It suggests the following as a starting point: “A people group is a significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another. From the viewpoint of evangelization, this is the largest possible group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” [1]

Two definitions of a people group are actually given here. The first focuses on self-perception (“we-they” distinctions); the second on communication barriers. As we apply this definition to the challenge of discipling the peoples of China, we soon realize that we must go quite beyond the 56 official nationality classifications devised by the government of China. Most of the 55 minority nationalities are actually umbrella groups, gathering together hundreds of different people groups.

Under the Miao umbrella, for example, are at least 34 mutually unintelligible languages, each of which has numerous dialects and sub-dialects. There are also significant cultural differences between these groups, resulting in strong “we-they” perceptions and major barriers to communication between the groups. In other words, it is highly unlikely that the gospel will spread from the few Miao groups in which the church has been established to those that are as yet unreached without intentional cross-cultural missionary effort. The same is true for most of the other official groupings in China, including the Han majority.

In The Chinese Mosaic: The Peoples and Provinces of China[2] Leo Moser identifies 12 major sub-cultures of the Han majority, the smallest of which is well over four million people. Eight of the 12 are bound together by heart languages that are quite distinct from Mandarin. And even those who speak one of the four major dialects of Mandarin do so with local variants that complicate the communication process significantly. To what extent do these subcultural differences create barriers to the spread of the gospel? That is difficult to determine. What is clear is that the gospel has spread and the church has grown far more rapidly in some parts of China than in others. To determine the extent to which linguistic and cultural differences have hindered the spread of the gospel in China will require quite a bit more information than we currently have at our disposal. So, the answer to the question of how many unreached people groups there are in China is: we don’t know. The ethnologue lists 205 ethno-linguistic groups in China, some of which could be classified as reached. Paul Hattaway of Asian Minorities Outreach has identified over 400 groups, again, some of whom may be classified as reached. The vast majority of the groups on both lists are officially classified as belonging to one of the 55 minorities, which comprise somewhere around 8% of the population.

What of the other 92%, the Han Chinese? The largest number of Han people groups I have seen on any list is 29.[3] The Joshua Project 2000 list of unreached peoples over 10,000 in size only includes four Han people groups in China! Can we seriously believe that these numbers begin to approach the reality of the number of unreached people groups among a population of nearly 1.3 billion people? I am convinced that the only reason we have identified so few is that the research necessary to determine the true number of people groups among them has not been done.[4]

The Institute of Chinese Studies is currently seeking the resources to launch a major project to search out the as yet hidden unreached peoples among the Han majority of China. We believe that as much as half the population of China—over 600 million people—is effectively denied access to the gospel by significant linguistic or cultural barriers. To reach them will require a massive effort on the part of the church around the world. We invite those who sense God’s call to join us in confronting this great challenge to get in touch with us.

Notes

  1. ^ Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task, Harley Schreck and David Barrett, eds. (Monrovia, CA: MARC. 1987), page 7.
  2. ^ The Chinese Mosaic: The Peoples and Provinces of China, Leo J. Moser (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985).
  3. ^ This list, as well as profiles of most of these groups, will be included in Paul Hattaway’s forthcoming book Precious In His Sight: Unreached Peoples of China, due out later this year from William Carey Library Publishers, Pasadena.
  4. ^ In fairness, it should be noted that the stated purpose of Paul Hattaway’s research is to identify the minority (i.e., non-Han) groups of China. The fact that he “by accident” has identified more people groups among the Han Chinese than anyone else lends credence to the hypothesis that there are a lot more people groups among the Han than any of us suspects.
Image credit: Yunnan - Lijiang - Baisha by Rita Willaert via Flickr.

Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel is vice president of ChinaSource and has been involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for 19 years View Full Bio