Recently, a team of writers from the journal Territory traveled to the remote Nujiang Valley in Yunnan Province to interview veteran missionaries and pastors who are now in their 70s to 100s. These “old soldiers” in Nujiang are from ethnic minority groups that were reached by foreign missionaries in the early 20th century. This article records inspiring stories of gospel warriors who carried the faith to very remote areas despite harsh physical and political landscapes.
Old Soldiers Never Die; They Simply Fade Away
Recording the Previous Generations Who Fought for the Gospel in the Nujiang Valley
Preacher A-Di. Age: 101
This trip to Nujiang to seek out elderly preachers wasn’t something I planned in advance. Originally, I only wanted to drive over and visit the Nujiang region in passing, because I’d read about the China Inland Mission (CIM) missionary James Outram Fraser and wanted to gain some understanding, feeling deeply moved by the book. I wanted to know more about today’s Lisu ethnic minority.
In April of this year, I set out from Beijing and reached Tengchong County, Yunnan Province, driving on and off for almost one month. Tengchong is the place where J. O. Fraser was first stationed as a missionary. After arriving in Tengchong, I heard from a brother who lived there that they had planned an activity: visiting some elderly preachers and helping them in some practical way. After receiving the phone call that day, I sped off to Nujiang. On the third of May I arrived at Liuku in Nujiang and joined in the visit.
Out of the 25 people we planned to visit, the youngest was 70 years old, and the oldest 106. This was a group of “old soldiers” who had striven for the gospel their whole lives; a group of “old soldiers” whose flesh and hearts were slowly failing. They had been in the gospel battle, the most bitterly desperate and drawn-out battle: the battle for people’s souls which began right back in the Garden of Eden.
This group of “old soldiers” had heard the gospel when they were young. From then on, they had trekked through towering mountains and precipitous ridges, relying on ziplines to fly across the Nujiang river, in order to save, one by one, the lost souls in this “war.” Over several decades of suffering and persecution, there were people in their midst who had been thrown into prison for more than twenty years. They were without names in the world, weak and old, and poor. Most of their homes were shacks built in the shelter of hillside towers. They didn’t even have spaces for pillows on which to rest their heads. Yet they are counted as extremely rich, because their treasure is stored up in heaven.
Old John, Age 106
Few rivers are named after personal emotions, except the Nujiang—which is not named the “Furious River” for nothing. The Nujiang surges down from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, raging between the high, black Gongshan mountains and the Biluoxue mountains, hacking open a deep cleft. The drop in elevation is severe; the water is treacherous. As the saying goes, “One pool reaches the next, and each a hundred feet deeper.”
On the two high cliffs of the banks in the mountain valley of the Nujiang, live the Lisu, Nu, and Dulong peoples. In every generation they have been cut off from the world, practicing slash and burn agriculture, hunting, and gathering firewood, speaking their own unique languages but having no writing system—until just over 100 years ago, when a few foreign missionaries came to this strip of land, developed a writing system for them, and changed this secret and savage place.
It is supposed to be the dry season in the valley of the Nujiang, but in March and April this year it rained extremely heavily; rain fell without stopping for almost two months. In many places this caused landslides which blocked the roads. While we were travelling, the locals told us the roads had only been reopened—the day before they had still been blocked.
As we progressed on our journey, we saw many roads had been cut off by floodwater, and temporary bridges had been erected in some places. Alongside the road, some of the homes had been lost to the landslides. A small vehicle lay crushed by a fallen rock—reportedly there had been no one inside. The car had just been abandoned.
I asked one of my Lisu fellow travelers whether landslides were common in this area. He said when it rains relatively hard, it always causes landslides—but such big landslides only happen once every three to four years. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained for the last couple of days, and on the first day of our trip, we were able to drive all the way to the northernmost village on the Nujiang, which is almost into Tibet, and to start the visits we had planned.
The first old preacher we visited was 101-year-old A-Di. His home is not considered far from the main roads; we could drive our car into their village. His health is still not bad, and his complexion doesn’t look like that of someone over a hundred years old. He speaks fairly clearly. He narrated for us in minute detail his experiences serving the Lord, and even said a prayer of blessing over us.
Preacher Dameidang John. Age: 106
Another person we visited was an old preacher named Dameidang John on Dulong River. This year he was 106 years old. It is around one hundred kilometers from his village to the Dulong River, and the road is extremely difficult; it takes four hours to drive just one way. Preacher Dameidang John is a Dulong preacher. All of the ethnic Dulong people in China—approximately 7000 in total—are gathered in the Dulong River ravine. In the 1930s, Lisu preachers went to preach the gospel to the Dulong, and John was the first Dulong convert. Afterwards, he went to Myanmar and was trained in the school opened by missionary J. Russell Morse. From then on, he began to serve and to plant churches. Preacher John was imprisoned in 1958, and spent 20 years in prison. Nowadays, the Dulong ethnic minority have tens of churches and more than a thousand believers.
Afterwards, with plenty of time, we wanted to conduct slightly more thorough interviews. The aim was to make a video record of the precious experiences of these old preachers. Many of them had had direct contact with the original missionaries; some of them were the missionaries’ students, some were the missionaries’ coworkers in their days. During the next twelve days, I, along with my local Lisu and Nu coworkers, visited and interviewed more than 20 old preachers who lived among the towering mountains and precipitous ridges.
Preacher Ken A-Bo. Age: 86
Preacher John. Age: 79
Preacher Ye Yongqian. Age: 80
Preacher Qin Zili. Age: 88
Preacher Joseph. Age: 71
Preacher Li Renrong. Age: 74
Preacher Shi Fuyan. Age: 106
Can a Church Actually Be Built Here?
These visits took place one right after the other over twelve days, because Nujiang is comprised of three counties, and each county contains about three or four townships and these old preachers were spread along the whole of Nujiang, in different villages along more than 200km of land bordering the water. Very seldom were two preachers found together; furthermore, many of them live up in the heights—their homes and the places they serve are in the mountains.
The landslides had caused incredible destruction to the roads. There were one or two places it was truly impossible to reach. There was one spot along the Dulong River where the only way to progress was to travel on foot for 17 to 18km. People like us wouldn’t have made it even if we walked for five or six hours. There was nothing we could do. There were a few places where we barely managed to drive to the base of the mountains in order to get out and walk the rest of the way. Each day it required a great deal of effort to visit just two or three people.
In Nujiang prefecture, the closer you get to the peaks of the mountains, the flatter the land. At the tops of the mountains it is a little safer—landslides, floods, and so on all travel downwards. So, the people all live up in the high mountains. Nowadays there are some villages on the main roads; they have moved the villages downhill, down to the sides of the state roads. But the cultivated land is still up in the mountains. Even so, it is still difficult for the local preachers to serve: climbing up into the mountains takes a couple of hours. It’s a thousand meters or so of elevation—like climbing Mt. Taishan each time! Even if we took five hours, we probably wouldn’t make it.
The challenges of this environment make people appreciate how incredible those missionaries really were. In that environment, that place, they still managed to start churches. Nowadays, it is really hard for us to drive up a mountain—we’re constantly breaking out in a nervous sweat. The most dangerous part is the route back down the mountain, with our four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle grinding downhill in first gear.
The missionaries, on the other hand, had to rely entirely on their own two feet. They had to spend several months journeying from their home countries to China. Travelling from the ports into the interior, then into Yunnan, also took a month. Getting from Kunming, Yunnan’s regional capital, to Nujiang, took yet another month. According to James O. Fraser’s records, walking the whole way to Nujiang took from half a month to a month.
They couldn’t communicate with the language they had, and they were harassed by sicknesses. Many missionaries lost their lives to disease. James O. Fraser died of cerebral malaria in Baoshan. The gospel flourished so much in Nujiang as it was the missionaries who used their lives and their blood to build the church.
Today, on the two banks of the Nujiang ravine there stand more than 800 churches; every village has a church, every hamlet has a meeting point. The three counties of the Nujiang ravine—Lushui, Fugong, and Gongshan—contain approximately 120,000 Christians. The Lisu, Nu, and Dulong are in the majority. There are more than 80,000 Lisu Christians, which is 70% of the Lisu population. In some Lisu villages more than 90% of the population is Christian. One can say that, in China, the place the gospel has flourished most is these three counties.
The ordinary local people just about keep themselves fed and warm. Full-time preachers, deacons, and elders get help with telephone fees and transport. The most money they can receive in a month is fifty to one hundred Chinese RMB. Other full-time church workers do not receive any salary. Every week there are set church meetings on three different days, including, usually, three worship services on Sundays. Preachers must preach five times a week, and also visit people in their homes, resolve neighborhood disputes, arrange weddings and funerals, make marriage introductions, and so on. Normally, one village’s preacher will perhaps serve at four or five different meeting points, and four or five churches.
The frequency of church meetings, including the style of the meetings, was passed down to them from the missionaries—they have not changed a bit. The foundation the missionaries built was extremely firm and deep. They emphasized the importance of training, and established many Bible schools, running full-time courses lasting three months, half a year, a year or two years. As soon as someone became a believer in the Lord, they could go to study at a Bible school. Many of the old preachers we visited believed in the Lord when they were very young. When they had believed in the Lord, they went to study at Bible school, and then started to serve.
Preacher John. Age: 86
Preacher John, an old preacher, is 86 years old. When he graduated from Bible school back in the day, he went with Yang Sihui to every village in the area to preach the gospel. When Yang Sihui preached, Preacher John led the church choir. Yang Sihui was the Chinese name of American missionary Allyn Cooke. From 1918 to 1947, Allyn Cooke spent almost thirty years in the great ravine of the Nujiang. His wife and adopted daughter both sickened and died during that time, and they are buried in Fugong County’s Liwudi Village. Their gospel preaching was extremely fruitful: within three months, they established six or seven meeting points, each with sixty to seventy people. Their training traditions and systems are still preserved to this day.
Pastor Mark. Age: 85
In 85-year-old Pastor Mark’s youth, he was taught the Bible by John B. Kuhn and Charles Peterson. Afterwards, he became an important co-worker of the missionaries. After the missionaries left, in 1958, he was imprisoned. He received a death sentence, which was suspended for two years. Later he was kept in prison for twenty years. In prison, he was urged by the Holy Spirit, and in front of more than a thousand people he sang praise songs in a loud voice. He witnessed openly to the Lord, and when he left prison, he continued to lead the church. He established a high-standard Bible training school in the prefecture.
Preacher Pu A-Duo. Age: 78
Preacher Wu Peiju. Age: 76
Preacher Peter. Age: 83
Preacher Sammy. Age: 84
Preacher Zan Liga. Age: 70
Preacher Deng Bashe. Age: 73
Preacher David. Age: 86
So, We Do Not Lose Heart
The Lisu people as a whole really hold fast to the truth—whatever the missionaries taught them, they passed on. All their practices have come this way, with nothing changed or added. Their singing is also like this. They always sing in four-part harmony: incredibly free-flowing, unaccompanied, and without a conductor.
Their theology is incredibly pure and strong within a very difficult environment. In the 1950s, church activities were greatly impacted. At the time, altogether more than 300 deacons, pastors, and elders were arrested. Only 50-60 of them returned. Many died for their faith.
While we were visiting one of the old preachers told me that Morse (the American missionary) had a student named Thomas who suffered from a disability. He was a Lisu preacher. He walked like a frog—he used his hands to crawl along the ground. At that time, the old preacher who told me this story worked keeping horses. He took on the job of carrying Thomas on his back everywhere to spread the gospel and they served together in this way. When the arrests began in 1958, he carried Thomas on his back into the local county, but Thomas never returned. Because of Thomas’ very poor health, after one or two years in prison, he died.
Preacher Deng Gan. Age: 82
In Bingzhongluo there is an old preacher named Deng Gan, who is over eighty. His health is very good, and he looks like he is only in his sixties. Bingzhongluo is around 80-90km from Tibet. When Deng Gan was in his sixties, which was over twenty years ago, he went to Tibet to spread the gospel. At the time, the only way to do that was by walking through the mountains. It took between one and one-and-a-half days to reach the main roads, carrying the dried provisions needed to walk to Tibet. It was very difficult to evangelize there, and he was often kicked out of places. Bit by bit he established friendships, slowly broke the ground in the villages, and gradually established church meeting points.
When I visited Deng Gan, his wife was at his side, adding to his story. His wife particularly supported him. When he had been to Tibet a few times, he felt it was too difficult, and wanted to give up. His wife pressed him, and said, “You must do this kind of work. This work is pleasing to the Lord. You don’t have to worry about anything at home, but you must go to Tibet and preach the gospel!” His wife simply drove him out to evangelize. That was how he persevered. After that, in Tibet, he established a house church of more than thirty people.
God has truly been gracious to the church and these old preachers. They have labored for the Lord their whole lives. Counting up and visiting the old preachers of Nujiang’s ethnic minorities, I continually discovered more old servants needing care—and there are still 21 of them left. All of them were students of the missionaries Fraser, Morse, Peterson and the others.
Encountering these old preachers at close range, listening carefully to their teaching and testimonies helped us understand their local church more—this was truly a blessed trip for me. I had one opportunity to attend a training session in one of the villages. I took a video recording of the whole evening: more than 200 co-workers receiving training, singing songs in the evening—it was a deeply moving occasion.
My only regret was the language problem. There was no way for me to communicate directly. Although I had a translator, most of the time I was left with just a few sentences giving the general idea of what was said, and I couldn’t get a more detailed understanding. I would like to return and conduct interviews again, but I don’t know if I will have the opportunity.
These old Lisu, Nu, and Dulong preachers have kept the faith, walked the way of the cross, and served God their whole lives. Each of us who went to visit prayed for them concerning their poverty and sicknesses. We also received their prayers of blessing. In these short few days, my wife and I completed the interviews with tearful eyes.
Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.
So, we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Image Credit: Nujiang river, Yunnan by Axel Drainville via Flickr.
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