Peoples of China

Why We Must Not Forget the Past

As new Christian workers enter needy areas among the minority nationalities of China, it is tempting for them to think that God’s work is starting with them and that past efforts are of no importance. In 1919, J. Houston Edgar, a missionary with the China Inland Mission (CIM), deplored the fact that he and other Protestant missionaries were not trying hard enough to get the information needed to evangelize Tibet. Why,” he asked, “do we know less about the need and potential strategies than Roman Catholic missionaries did seventy-five years ago?”[1] Events of the past can help to give us direction for the future—to avoid obvious mistakes and to try former strategies that may be duplicated in the present.  Helpful, also, is to understand how the past has created the obstacles of the present.

An example of the latter is found in China’s northwest, which has always posed difficulties for Christian witness because of heavy Islamic influence. Yet, Christian churches were established in the early 20th century by the humanitarian work of the Swedish Missionary Union and the itinerant evangelism conducted by CIM missionaries. Most of this work came to an end in October 1933 when an Eastern Turkestan Republic was established independent from the Chinese central government. This alerted the People’s Republic of China to watch for any ideological activity that might turn the peoples of the area against them. This sensitivity was heightened by the dissolution of the USSR, creating near China independent republics made up of people groups also found in sizeable numbers in China’s Xinjiang Province.

The situation has worsened in the past two months as Chinese leaders believe that some of these rebellious activities may be linked to Central Asian terrorism linked to the Al-Qaeda network. Might it be wise, then, for the current increasing witness in Xinjiang to focus more on humanitarian and educational activities, which pose less of an ideological threat than more overt evangelism? It may also mean that, even as was the case with the Swedish work, the first workers may need to be converts from Central Asia. These, of course, will also face difficulties, but they will not stand out to the same degree as foreigners from North America.

When Protestant missionaries first came to China, they noticed that, in addition to the many Islamic people groups in Xinjiang with varying languages and cultures, there were also the Chinese Muslims, the huihui. These people spoke Chinese, were very similar to the Han Chinese culturally, and could be found scattered throughout China. Many missionaries assumed naively that they could evangelize these people with the same message and strategies that worked with the Han Chinese. They included them in the same evangelistic outreach meetings and told them that they must forsake idolatry, the use of false deities and repent of many other sins common to the Han Chinese—but not to them. Apologetic methods were used which tended to be confrontational and laid all of the difficult theological issues on the table immediately. Christian literature failed to emphasize similarities between Islam and Christianity, which potentially could have served as a bridge to interest Muslims in the Gospel. If there was no immediate response, the conclusion was drawn that they were hardened, unresponsive and without hope.

Eventually, Protestant missionaries saw the value of setting up special committees, such as the Muslim Committee. These discussed ways of leading Muslims to faith in Christ, of inviting leading experts on Islam, such as Samuel Zwemer, to come to China to help form evangelistic strategy and of having special conferences to discuss work among Muslims. With such stimulus, some missionaries tried harder to contextualize their message to Muslims. For example, Montgomery Throop, of the American Lutheran Mission, explored how the Christian faith fulfils and enriches the practical side of the Muslim faith. He spelled out in detail how the Christian witness might relate to the “five pillars of Islam.”[2]

In the past, as missionaries worked among the huihui they viewed them as a homogeneous entity: all Muslims were the same wherever they were found. But increasingly, they became aware of the fact that there were many sectarian differences. Basic doctrine was nearly the same, but cultural and social distinctions existed that could dictate how the Gospel needed to be presented.[3] A wealth of material can be found in mission society minutes, magazines, journals and books on pre-liberation work among Muslims in China. Are those interested in Muslim evangelism in China today aware of this material? More important, are they willing to expend the energy and time to learn from it and apply it to their work? Or, are the insights and strategies that God gave to his servants in the past of no value today?

A major lesson from past ministry among minority nationalities with a folk religion background is the value of people movements. As contrasted with missionary work among the Han Chinese, many of those who worked with the minority nationalities advocated that conversions to Christ were best if they came by families and not merely by individuals. Decisions would be multi-individual, mutually interdependent.

Decisions were personal, but not singly individual. James Fraser, the CIM missionary best known for his work among the Lisu in Yunnan in the 1920s and 1930s, preached in many different contexts in open-air meetings—in tea shops, in Chinese inns, in small chapels—but increasingly his focus was not on individuals, but on the bridge that they might give to their families. The clan system among the Lisu was strong, and unless the village elders approved, it was difficult for even the father in one home to do away with the family altar and sacrifices so crucial in demon worship. A people movement, the term now popular in missiology, did not mean that every family member would make a full commitment to Christ. It did mean that all responsible family members would publicly disavow and leave all aspects of demon worship in an initial step of repentance. This kept the door open for further decisions and meant that everyone was moving from the past toward conversion, rather than turning against one another.

People movements, small and large, were the common way in which many minority nationalities—Miao, Yunnan Yi, Lahu, Lisu and Wa—came to Christ in Mainland China and among many of the minority nationalities of Taiwan. For this to have happened meant that those doing the work had several theological assumptions that are as useful today as then. The one-by-one method of leading a person to faith, so common in North America, was intentionally laid aside in preference for patiently waiting, maybe over an extended period of time, for family and clan members to make a decision.

Conversion, from its beginning of repentance to a mature acceptance of Christ, was seen as a process rather than a point. Immature or even incorrect expressions of what it meant to become a Christian were tolerated at the beginning and even for a longer period as the Holy Spirit worked in people’s hearts.

The crucial issue here is our definition of a Christian and our view of conversion. Do we view a Christian as one who has reached a high level of maturity in belief, action and ability to communicate and explain the “ins and outs” of some catechetical system? This approach leads to what Paul Hiebert has called a “bounded set” (as a square or rectangle bounded on four sides) definition. All inside the bounded lines of the set are Christians and all outside are not yet Christians. People will differ widely on what should be the specific characteristics of those inside in terms of belief and action. This approach views conversion as a point. An alternate understanding is what Hiebert calls a “centered set” definition. The center is Jesus. All who have changed the direction of their lives to head away from their past and head toward Jesus are in the process of conversion. Their lives have changed. They may still have a long way to go, but they can be viewed as Christians. This approach enables the facilitators of a people movement to allow its momentum to move forward in bringing many potential converts to this point of change. And, as the author saw among the people movement of the Sediq, one of Taiwan’s original inhabitant groups, leaders were very careful not to separate between people as being “inside” or “outside,” but as people at different stages in their progress toward Jesus, the center.

Once the decision process was initiated the need was seen for a constant day-by-day instruction period rather than the “twice a week meetings on Sundays and Wednesdays.” Music was utilized as a vital part of the growth process since it enabled people to employ familiar folk melodies, repeating endlessly some of the truths they were learning. The daily meetings were not necessarily organized as preaching services—prayer, testimonies and fellowship were basic. Samuel Pollard called the movement among the Miao “sacramental,” since he taught the people how to observe communion in their meetings.

Missionaries best stimulated people movements to Christ when they used important parts of the group’s culture as building blocks in the Gospel presentation. Pollard, for example, among the Flowery Miao took the people’s Festival of Flowers on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and transformed it from a time of sexual orgy into a festival filled with games, races, lantern shows and preaching.

How were some of these early missionaries able to tell when a people movement was ready to develop into what Scripture might call a “harvest?” Only God, the Lord of the harvest, is able to orchestrate the religious, cultural, social and political factors to bring about a people movement. However, as Christian workers take the time to learn the minority languages, to make friends among core leaders—not merely the marginalized who often relate better to outsiders—and to analyze what changes are developing in the society, the potential for a movement to Christ will begin to be evident.

Today we know that China’s minority nationalities number far more than the government documented fifty-five—maybe more than 500. Even though one family of groups may seem unresponsive, there may be one or more of the related sub-groups that is responsive and can therefore be the beginning point of a people movement that will bring it to Christ and influence many of the other groups as well. The Black Yi of Yunnan turned to Christ as a people late in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A possible critical factor was their sinicization and need for a new identity, which they found in the Christian faith. The Shengzha and other Yi peoples of Sichuan (formerly Xikang) were far different. Independent, war-life and feudal, they knew who they were. As their lives and societies were radically changed in the mid-1950s, a harvest time was approaching and has become more apparent in the last decade.

A people movement among adherents of folk religion will develop more easily when the themes of the Christian message fit well with the aspirations, hopes and personality of the people. The Flowery Miao saw in Samuel Pollard and in the Jesus whom he proclaimed a “friend of the oppressed.” One Miao Christian testified, “I did not understand the meaning of the suffering endured by Jesus on the cross. But now we have suffered all forms of cruelty that have punished us.” The announcement that Jesus was King fulfilled aspects of long-held messianic-type expectations. The post-liberation CIM work among the Flowery Miao in Guizhou province seems to have emphasized strongly the traditional culture of the Miao with its heavy emphasis upon the old spirit world, spiritual songs, dancing, visions, dreams and power to heal the sick—and has resulted in a stronger Miao church than is found in other areas.

Wherever there has been a strong response to the Gospel among the minority nationalities, God has raised up an insider who has been the leader in the spread of the faith. The outsiders may have introduced or helped introduce the message, but it was carried forward best by the local people. Again, there are abundant research materials that will enable us to see the characteristics of those whom God raised up in the past and how today’s workers may follow this same path. Leaders such as Fraser (Lisu) and Pollard (Miao), as well as other expatriates who followed them, identified with their people and their problems. They spoke the language well. They were people of prayer. They knew well that their   struggle was not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in high places. In today’s China, it may not be wise for foreigners to seek to play the same kind of role as they did in the past. However, they should avoid the temptation to insulate themselves from the people and carry on their work by proxy through intermediaries. Even as Christ revealed God to mankind, today incarnational models are still needed.

Image credit: Hui bread by Evgeni Zotov, on Flickr


  1. ^ J. Houston Edgar, “The Exploration and Occupation of the Centres on the Tibetan Marches,” Chinese Recorder 50 (September 1919) 607-12.
  2. ^ Montgomery H. Throop, “The Fulfillment of Moslem Ideals in Christianity,” Friends of Moslems 11, (January 1937), 67-69.
  3. ^ See Dru Gladney, Muslim Chinese Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic of China (Harvard University Press) for a treatment of four sect groups among the huihui in China today.
Share to Social Media

Ralph R. Covell

Ralph R. Covell, Ph.D., lived and worked in China from 1946-51 and in Taiwan from 1952-1966. He has been affiliated with Denver Seminary from 1966 to the present serving as professor and academic dean and is the author of five books on China.View Full Bio