Christianity among national minorities

In general, all minority nationalities in northern China are Muslims, with the exception of the Mongols, who adhere to Lamaism, a form of Buddhism. Even though minority nationalities committed to Islam or Buddhism have traditionally been resistant to the Christian faith, efforts going back eight hundred years have been made to evangelize them.
Roman Catholic missionaries sought to penetrate Tibet in the Yuan dynasty (1276–1368), but more successful efforts were made during the latter years of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). From that time until the present, Catholic missionaries have tried to evangelize Tibet, whether from India, from the northwest corner of Yunnan or from western Sichuan. Protestant evangelization in Tibet began much later, in the nineteenth century, and has not been as successful as that of the Catholics. Some Protestant Tibetan Christians may be found in the scattered house churches in Tibet and Qinghai and in far western Yunnan. Even in these areas, however, they often worship together with Chinese Christians. Nestorian Christianity came to China and Mongolia in the late Tang dynasty (618–906), but its early influence was largely among the Han Chinese. Following its demise in the tenth century, many of its followers were dispersed to the north among Turkic-Mongolian groups in Mongolia. As a result, Christian communities developed among the Kerait, Naiman and possibly Uighur peoples. As far as we know, however, no present Christian communities exist among these minority nationalities today. However, in the People’s Republic of Mongolia, no longer a part of China, Christian churches have sprung up in a climate of religious freedom. Over the last two or three hundred years, Catholics have also evangelized among China’s minorities who are followers of folk religion. In general, however, Roman Catholic authors, apart from what they say about Tibet and Mongolia, do not highlight Catholic work among minorities. They treat such groups as citizens of China and as being on the same level as the Han Chinese.
One of the earliest Protestant efforts among traditional folk religionists was the Dutch evangelistic attempts among several minorities of Taiwan early in the seventeenth century. And in the late nineteenth century, workers from several Protestant mission agencies began to work among minority nationalities in southwest China. The results have been far greater among the resistant groups adhering to such major religions as Islam and Buddhism. Among the eleven original inhabitant nationalities in Taiwan, the proportion of the Christian population, both Protestant and Catholic, is about 75 per cent. The Korean nationality in China, living largely in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture in Jilin province, are known for the vigour of their Protestant faith. Miao churches—largely among the Flowery Miao and the Great Flowery Miao—have grown equally well. At present, there is an estimated number of 3,000 in Guizhou province and possibly as many as 50,000 in Wuding and Luquan counties in Yunnan province. Local government officials in the Nujiang Lisu autonomous prefecture in Yunnan claim that one half of the total Lisu population of 500,000 is Christian and that it would be accurate to call them a ‘Christian people’.
Today, several other minority nationalities (Zhuang, Tujia, Yao, Bouyei, Jing, Yi, Vai, Lahu, Va, Hani and Jingpo) have Christian populations numbering at least 10,000. In most instances their churches are well established and their members continue to evangelize among their own peoples. Other minority nationalities (Dai, Manchu, Dong, Li, Mulao, Nu, Zan, Drung, and Maonan) have Christian communities numbering fewer than a thousand adherents and with no strong, vibrant churches. Some nationality groups, even those following folk religion, have proved to be very resistant. For example, the Black Yi of Yunnan have several thousand believers, while their cousins among the Shengzha independent Yi in Sichuan are only now beginning to respond to the gospel.
As has been the case with Han Chinese churches, many of the minority nationality churches, whether small or large and whether associated with the government-registered China Christian Council or the more covert autonomous churches, have faced varying degrees of government interference and pressure. They are no longer dependent on the presence of outsiders, although workers associated with Christian and philanthropic organizations are helping in education, medicine, compassionate service and translation of the Bible.
Why has there been such a positive response to the Christian faith among so many of the minority nationalities of Taiwan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan? The very nature of their own religions has been important—traditionally not as resistant worldwide as the more classical religions with holy books, a priesthood and a unifying social structure. With most groups there has been a charismatic proclaimer of the message—whether local or an outsider—who has identified with the people, helped to meet their needs and, in some instances, defended them against all types of oppression. Anthropologists and sociologists talk about the ways in which the coming of a new religion is able to ‘revitalize’ a society that has been destabilized by some external challenge, as has been the case with many southwest Chinese minorities. This leads to developing a new corporate identity centred in the Christian faith. This enables the minority nationality—usually a subordinate group in a dominant society—to assert itself in establishing the new identity. Those proclaiming the new faith have usually latched on to indigenous concepts, such as a millennial hope for the coming of a future king among the Miao. There has always been a better response when the message has been contextualized in such a way. It becomes their message, and, subsequently, their church.
How will these minority nationality churches face future challenges? At least three dangers confront them. Will the churches have sufficient numbers of trained pastors to lead them in the development of their faith in a changing China? Will the Chinese government try to assimilate the minority peoples or continue to help them to use their own cultures and languages? How will churches and individual Christians deal with the pressures of modernization, even in isolated mountain communities? As compared with several decades ago when these peoples were largely rural and feudal in social life, many of the younger generation are well educated, technologically literate and working as dentists, doctors, lawyers and educators. Some have forsaken their language and culture and entered fully into Han society. Will they be able to maintain their Christian commitment and help their less fortunate co-villagers enter with them into the modern world? Or will there be many residual rural enclaves who continue to live in the past?
Covell, Ralph (1995). The Liberating Gospel in China: The Christian Faith Among China’s Minority Peoples. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
——(1998). Pentecost of the Hills in Taiwan: The Christian Faith Among the Original Inhabitants. Pasadena, CA: Hope.
Harrell, Steven (ed.) (2001). Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Hattaway, Paul (2000). Operation China: Introducing All the Peoples of China. London: Piquant.
RALPH COVELL

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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