Chinese Theological Review 19

Christianity in a Culture of Ethnic Pluralism: Report on Christianity among the Minorities of Yunnan



This essay is based on our study of the state of Christianity among minorities in Yunnan (including the Li Su, Wa, Hani, Jingpo, Lahu and Dai tribes); a discussion of Christianity’s entry into the area, its development and institutionalization and its effect on the tribal way of life, indigenous culture, social organization and inter-tribal relations. It is aimed at certain issues which have appeared; combining these with common social-scientific theories such as multi-culturalism, subculture communities, secularization and culture clash, we will put forward some policy and theoretical suggestions to enable Christianity to adapt to socialist society and promote the harmonious economic, social and cultural development of the minority areas.


In March 2003, we initiated our research topic "Christianity and Minorities in Yunnan," beginning field investigations and theoretical research into Christianity and its relation to the societies and cultures of minorities in Yunnan. Based on our plan, we carried out three field investigations in western and southern Yunnan among the Li Su, Wa, Hani, Jingpo, Lahu and Dai, doing an initial summing up of the situations and problems we identified, then carrying out a scientific analysis of the clashes and fusions between Christianity and the local minority society and culture and suggesting possible ways of dealing with these, which we hope will be useful to the religious work department in Yunnan and for the work of management of minority churches.


Christianity was spread in the minority areas of Yunnan quite early and its influence has been similarly profound and far-reaching; therefore, fairly penetrating research has been done, both by scholars and by government departments. These have included investigations of the state of Christianity in particular areas, the history of Christianity’s entry into each minority area and analyses of the impact of Christianity on the culture of each minority. The stance of such research has been objective, the data used quite detailed and the analysis balanced, providing a good beginning for further research. Hence our report is based on the field work done throughout Yunnan from 2002 to 2003, with research into problems as framework for our discussions of the internal relations between Christianity and ethnic minorities in Yunnan. We have also made some proposals from a theoretical perspective for solving new problems as they appear.

Christianity and minority ways of life

According to the Cihai Dictionary, "lifestyle" refers to "the sum total of activities and behavior in the areas of material and cultural life by social groups and individuals within a specific social order. This includes patterns of work, consumption and social intercourse, moral values, etc. It begins with the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter and transport, work and social interaction, involvement in social groups and culture, and is embodied through the concrete spiritual and material activities of the individual or the group." It can be said that the impact of Christianity on the way of life in minority areas in Yunnan is expressed in two aspects: the first is in the reform of the existing lifestyle; the other is in the construction of a lifestyle profoundly influenced by Christian faith and ideas.

Salient points

According to our survey, in general, the religious life of minority Christians in Yunnan is fairly intense. There is a big difference in lifestyle between the Christians and the non-Christian members of the same tribe. When the percentage of Christians within a tribe is 40 percent or higher, the Christian features of the social district where that group is located will be more obvious. For example, nearly 70 percent of the residents of Fugong county (Nujiang zhou) are Christians. The churches are all very striking and built in important positions. The Christians meet five times a week and on Sunday there are no empty seats. During services the mountains ring with their resonant singing.

The impact of Christianity on minority lifestyle can be roughly classified as follows:

Economic Customs.
When the minorities converted to Christianity, live sacrifices to propitiate the gods were banned. Medicine and prayer took the place of divination and sacrifice. And though this began for religious purposes it in fact preserved productive forces, maintained normality in people’s lives and ultimately enabled people to protect the fruits of their labors, amass wealth and further protect the trade in household goods and livestock and the formation of markets for agricultural products.

Among some minorities, the number of silver ornaments a woman wears is a standard of beauty and wealth. This custom is probably a remnant of a long nomadic period. Because they regularly move from place to place, without building permanent houses or factories, their wealth takes the solid form of the silver ornaments they have always on their persons. When they have a little extra money, they add to their collection. No matter how badly off they are, they do not hesitate to purchase more. But this custom is of no benefit for production or life. After the coming of Christianity, those minorities who became Christians gradually abolished this custom of fancy dress and gave more attention to the neatness of their everyday attire. This strengthened the circulation and accumulation of wealth as well as aiding in the convenience and healthiness of people’s lives.

When Christianity came to the minority areas, it was influence by the fundamentalist theology of the times. Christians were scrupulous in their attendance at church on Sunday; they did not work in the fields on that day, even during the busiest times for farmers. To varying degrees, this did not accord with the needs of agricultural production. In today’s market economy, the strict regulation against working on Sunday causes minority people to lose opportunities and is one of the reasons why many small business people and handicraft persons are unwilling to convert. In the church people all know each other and call each other brother and sister and this contributes to the building of trust. In Fugong, the Christians buy their daily necessities at shops owned by Christians. The Christian shops in the towns have become the distribution centers for Christians in the villages.

Christianity generally thinks of itself as a modern religion and thus better at accepting new things and indirectly quite amenable to new economic concepts. For example, the Lahu were not accustomed to growing fresh vegetables, but those who have become Christians all do. In one county in Lancang, about ten kilometers from the county government, in a village with a concentration of Christians, the vegetables used in the county government are all provided by Christians and this also provides the Christians with some income. The Lahu in the villages around the county government are not Christians and do not grow vegetables. If they want vegetables they have to buy them from the Christian Lahu.

Customs of food, drink and health.
Among many minorities, though their economies are backward, drinking, smoking and gambling are all common, making their already poor lives even worse. Christianity took aim at these problems among the minorities and made rules against smoking, drinking and gambling. In some areas, the missionaries made these into religious taboos so that many minority people changed their bad habits when they became Christians. On one hand their economic situation was alleviated, on the other they became healthier and their spirits improved.

Because the natural environment in minority areas is poor and the economy backward, sanitation is also very poor. People are used to going for a long time without washing their clothes, taking baths, or even washing their faces; utensils used for food may not be washed at all. Christianity asked that the people take care of health. Among the Lisu attention to health has been made one of the ten commandments of the church. Thus Christians have formed a habit of attention to health. For example, in the past, the Lahu had no toilets, but the Christians now all have them. The non-believers among the Lahu and the Wa live together with their animals, generally people upstairs and animals downstairs. Christians live separately from their animals, a healthier situation.

Such habits reduce illness and improve health and even have a good effect on people’s spirits. At the same time, attention to health can improve not only minorities’ lives and lifestyle, it can also improve their view of life and approach to life.

Marriage and family relations.
Before Christianity, many minority tribes observed many vestiges of backward marriage customs, and in some areas still practiced polygamy. Such customs do a certain level of damage to the quality of the population and frequently clash with a modern society ruled by law. With the coming of Christianity, a strict system of monogamy was put in place, old customs were abolished and intermarriage within three generations of relationship (in some places within five) was forbidden. At the same time Christianity upheld freedom of marriage and non-acceptance of betrothal gifts.

In the family, Christianity advocates love and respect between spouses and such admonishments are preached in the church on Sunday, while in non-believers’ homes, due to long-held views favoring males over females, women are treated as inferior. In Christian homes there is less arguing and wife beating.

Collective spirit of mutual assistance.
Christianity pays more attention to mutual help between believers and friendly relationships. In contrast to minorities’ traditions of loose family ties, it is easier to form a collective-style spirit of mutual help among Christians. In Fugong County, for example, the church organizes dinners for believers twice a year. When Christians face difficulties, the church will organize assistance for them among other Christians. In cases of illness, they will organize visits. If there is a shortage of food, assistance will be given.

In some places in Lancang, some churches have their own stores of food. The church owns property and some land as a base of production and the harvest is given to those families in need. If that family has a good harvest the following year, they return their loan to the church so that other families in difficulty can be rescued. A section chief in the Religious Affairs Bureau in Simao district stated: "In 1990 I did a survey in Laba, an administrative village in Laba formed of three natural villages, in each of which was a church. Nearly all the Lahu there were Christians. The church has a base for production, it can grow grain or cash crops and their yearly income is not bad. This income becomes part of the church’s property and when there are shortages, the church distributes some of its stores to those affected to help them get through the hard time. In these areas, where the government should act, the church performs well."

Minority culture and education.
These minority areas are rather backward economically and socially and thus education has been very restricted. In overall terms, the educational level is rather low. But Christianity is a religion of the Book, with the Bible as its scripture, which it asks its believers to read for themselves. In the missionary past, missionaries created written languages for these peoples and Christians here formed a habit of reading. The way one evangelist in Lancang puts it: "In terms of education, Christians are a bit better, mainly because they read the Bible everyday, and even if they did not, they would have to study it in worship. Reading the Bible, hymn singing and hearing sermons are all helpful in raising the educational level. Non-believers do not have this and their educational level is respectively lower. "

In Christian homes, in comparison to the practice among non-believers, education of the next generation has two special characteristics: more attention is paid to general knowledge and more attention is paid to Christian thinking, making them more attached to Christian ways of thought.


According to basic Marxism, Christianity as a religion is an ideology far removed from the conditions of material life. How then is it able to influence every aspect of the minority way of life? It is necessary for us to integrate the principles of religious studies and give a theoretical explanation for them which will aid us in our work of management of religion so that all of our arrows hit their targets.

1) Religion is a social ideology and occupies a central position in human civilization. Marx described religion as a general theory of this world, its all-encompassing net, its common logic and so on. Thus in these minority areas, once Christianity had replaced the local religions, it would necessarily bring about a whole range of changes in other areas of culture and with it, a new lifestyle.

2) Christianity is quite different from Chinese religions and this is expressed in the fact that it is very strongly theorized, systematized and organized. Christianity is often called "organized religion" as opposed to the "diffuse" nature of Chinese religion and folk religion. This is expressed in Christianity’s stricter organization, emphasizing the central position of the church in the Christian’s life of faith and in constructing a set of ordered, daily practices for organizing believers. And it theorizes its faith, emphasizing the guiding meaning of faith for life in the world, causing its adherents to respect and obey the church’s guidance and admonishments in their secular lives.

3) Christianity has been baptized into the modern secular world and has been largely integrated into modern civilization. The Christianity that is preached in minority areas is mainly the Protestant Christianity of the Reformation, mostly from the developed western nations. Thus in the course of spreading Christianity, some more modern cultural concepts and advanced skills are also spread, such as habits of sanitation, marriage customs and modern education. Christianity has thus played a specific role in the modernization of minority culture.

For those minorities that have accepted Christianity, especially in those areas where Christianity has become the mainstream of the culture, Christianity is the general principle of their lives, the universal foundation of their conduct; it is also the most extensive net connecting them. In a common saying of the place, "Christianity can be said to be their spiritual atom bomb." To achieve economic, social and cultural integration in the minority areas, and coordinate development, the study and encouragement of the positive elements of Christianity and guiding Christianity to adapt to socialist society is of great significance.

Issues and counter-measures

With the coming of Christianity to the minority areas, a way of life with very special characteristics took shape. In new historical conditions, this lifestyle brings with it new problems and gives rise to new situations.

In some districts, the piety of religious faith is still at odds with abundance in material life. In our investigation, in our discussions with evangelists and church leaders, they were all of the opinion that piety in faith was not in contradiction with material riches. It was their feeling that the material conditions of life should be improved. But in actual sermons, most expressed disdain for the secular life, emphasizing the blessings of the life to come, saying "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven." Ordinary believers are even more likely to see a life of poverty as God’s way of testing, a way to can make people stronger in faith, so that they are at peace with poverty, or even happy about it.

In some areas where the economy has recently developed very quickly, the opposite phenomena can be seen. The tides of secularism have mounted a huge attack on modern society and Christianity has not functioned very well as a corrective against excessive secularization. This has been most noticeable in the Jinghong and Siyu areas.

Christianity is a monotheistic religion, with a rather strong element of exclusivity in its faith. In some minority areas where the faith is quite pious, there is a quite strong expression of religious cohesion in the lifestyle, in that Christians mix only with Christians. In choosing marriage partners, it is a case of "believers cannot be yoked together with unbelievers": Christians must marry Christians; strict enough that it sometimes causes divorce if one partner becomes a Christian. One’s circle of friends and relatives is limited to inner Christian circles. In primary and middle schools in some districts, children from Christian families even refuse to have anything to do with children from non-Christian families.


Christianity is a religion with a strong theoretical element; thus, under the basic principles of religious faith, if we want to achieve adaptation of Christianity to socialist society, one effective path is to actively develop theological reconstruction and guidance.

As for the issues discussed above, guidance can be furthered in terms of theory in order that Christianity actively respond to the secularization of modern society. On the one hand, this can be done through theology and interpretation of the Bible to clarify that Christianity also values the amassing of social wealth and gaining riches through hard work and that Christians should also actively join in the great project of constructing a well-off society. Examples from theology and the Bible include Jesus’ parable of the clever steward; the record found in the Book of Acts of contributions to the church made by the wealthy among the first generation of Christians; stories of God’s blessings on Abraham and Job in the Old Testament, etc. On the other hand, we should encourage the church to develop its basic principles of seeking spiritual blessings, moral perfection and loving others and to boldly resist the negative side of secularization which takes the form of money worship, hedonism, and selfishness.

As for those sectors of Christianity which, due to the influence of old theological thinking, overemphasize the gap between "belief and unbelief" which leads to rejection of those outside the church and to self-isolation, we should also begin with guidance from theology: for instance: that God is not only a God of salvation, but a Creator God and that everything in the world was created by God, and is therefore worthy of people’s love. We should emphasize that one of the goals of Jesus’ death on the cross was reconciliation among persons and that reconciliation should begin with the family and the village, move on to Christian with Christian, and to Christian with non-Christian.

Christianity and indigenous minority religious culture

When Christianity came to the minority areas of Yunnan, the majority attitude toward the indigenous religion and culture was one of rejection. This was the case among the Lisu, Miao and Yi tribes in the last century, and among the Jingpo, Wa and Hani in the last decade or so. Not only were some traditional religious rites opposed, but folk songs and festivals were thrown out with the bathwater as well. Major reasons for this are:
1) Most of the foreign missionaries who worked in the minority areas came from a fundamentalist background and were quite reactionary theologically, emphasizing "no salvation without Christ"; "believers must enter by the narrow gate"; and "the Bible is above culture and should take the place of culture." Thus they believed that indigenous culture and religion were "of the devil" and wanted to wipe them from the face of the earth.
2) Only by adopting this exclusivist attitude toward indigenous culture and religion, could they shake the indigenous society’s organizing base of "sacrifices" and "shamans" and set missionary authority in opposition to it.
3) With western culture in a position of strength, and indigenous Chinese culture in a position of weakness, the influence of the theory of cultural evolution meant that the thinking was that Christianity was bringing advanced culture, and that indigenous religions represented backward culture and should therefore be completely supplanted.

At the same time, some elements of the indigenous religion began to surface in Christianity through hidden and tortuous ways. The Christianity of the minorities has been folk-religionized and indigenized. In the area of religious doctrine and ritual, Christianity has adopted a strongly judgmental and negative attitude toward the indigenous religion of the minority tribes and their customs which have been deeply influenced by it. But investigating more deeply, one discovers that many elements of folk religion actually lie concealed within minority Christianity today. At the same time that the indigenous religion was broken, these elements gained a new lease on life in minority Christianity. In general, they remain in three areas:

1) Personnel. Some who had been shamans or priests in the indigenous religion have become evangelists or prophets in Christianity today. For example, in the Lisu area of Fugong, "Christ prophets" have a rather high position among Christians. They mainly prophesy and heal illness through prayer. Some famous ones were once shamans of the indigenous religion who changed to Christianity.

2) Function. Though Christianity has replaced the indigenous religion to become the most important, or even the main religion in places where minorities live, the conditions of life there, medical care, and people’s level of knowledge has not obviously changed, and so the sufferings and illnesses people suffered in the past still exist. People want to find in Christianity a spiritual comfort and a psychological "way out" and this results in Christian pastors and evangelists, in a certain sense, playing the role once played by shamans and priests of the indigenous religion, and the Bible and hymns having to function as talismans.

3) Ethics. Although Christianity cannot condone the religious ideas and operations of the indigenous folk religion, it has adopted an attitude of acceptance toward most indigenous ethical ideas and given them new interpretation based on biblical principles. In Lisu areas, for example, respect for elders and ancestors is an important principle and spirit of folk religion. Worship of the deity is first of all filial piety toward parents. Christianity has taken over this principle as an important part of the Ten Commandments.

The policy of religious freedom has been very well implemented

Though theologically Christianity rejects the indigenous religion, the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, and thus, in our investigations, we have found that people have a fair amount of freedom in changing religions. There are those who switch from Christianity to the indigenous religion as well as those who convert to Christianity from the indigenous religion. Though Christian pastors and the indigenous shamans point fingers at each other, they are able to get along tolerably well.


Upholding cultural diversity is not the same as cultural conservatism or cultural protectionism. Though some minority indigenous religions and cultures are unsystematic, not profoundly theoretical, and without an institutional structure, still the local government has a duty to protect them. This is because: a) cultural diversity, like biological diversity, is a fundamental guarantee that humanity can maintain its illustrious history with the capacity to overcome any future cultural crisis; b) in these minority indigenous religions and cultures, there is always found the historical memory and tribal identity of a people; once it is lost, there is no getting it back and the group will ultimately lose its consciousness as a people; c) the primitive religion of some minorities contains some of the earliest patterns of ancient human civilization; they may be "living fossils" of the history of human civilization; d) the oral histories and poems of some minorities contain the history of the movement and merging of the different peoples of ancient China and these have definite value for the study of the history of ancient Chinese peoples.

Christianity occupies a position of strength relative to minority indigenous religion. In itself, in terms of thought, organization and structure, Christianity is well-organized and systematic; in spiritual terms it is strongly expansionist; externally, Christianity has undergone a baptism into modern culture and is fairly well integrated with modern communications. Indigenous religion has not been systematized (in thinking) and it is diffuse in organizational terms. Faced with Christian proselytism, it can only find itself in a position of weakness. Therefore, to safeguard the diversity of Yunnan minority cultures, strengthening protection of traditional minority religion and culture is an urgent task.

Issues and counter-measures

Christianity entered China as a foreign culture and this made relations between Christianity and minority indigenous religion very complex. Problems were caused on both sides, primarily as follows:

Indigenous religious culture was in danger of being obliterated. Christianity was superior in thinking and organization in comparison to the indigenous religion and it was both strongly expansionist and missionary. Thus in some minority areas where Christianity developed more rapidly, it is very difficult to find traces of indigenous religious or cultural activities. Christianity has become the main religion. Over the long term, the diversity and richness of Yunnan minority culture will be seriously damaged.

On the other hand, though superficially it would appear that Christianity has completely replaced the indigenous religion, because the standard of material life and social conditions remains at its original level, some elements of indigenous religion have slipped into Christianity unawares, and Christianity, too, is in danger of becoming folk-religionized, becoming akin to witchcraft and even superstition. In quite a number of minority areas in Yunnan, people have a very low-level understanding of Christianity, bringing some abnormal variables to normal religious activities. This is an important reason why abnormal religious activities and nascent heresies are frequently found in these areas.


Christianity should correct its fundamentalist or extremist standpoints, thus enabling it to have a theologically open attitude to traditional minority cultures. For example, to stress that all patterns of human culture can be seen as God’s creations, and thus, that each has value. The Bible itself is the product of the merger of many cultural traditions. If the Bible is to be widely spread, it must be integrated with modern culture and draw on the sources of indigenous culture in spreading the gospel.

In religious work, in addition to emphasis placed on the traditional five great religions, we also need to pay attention to the indigenous folk religions in their significance for maintaining local culture and ethnic identity, as well as the positive role these indigenous religions and folk cultures have played in preserving human culture and the way folk religion has functioned in fulfilling the local peoples’ psychological and social needs. For all this, we need to provide them with definite support. For example, specific cultural diversity protection areas should be defined. In terms of personnel, some folk religious clergy who have special functions and identity should receive education and training to raise their cultural level, etc. Minority autonomous regions, can, though legislation, protect their ethnic group and local religion and culture.

We should be on guard against and protect Christianity from the further absorption of superstition and abnormal tendencies. For example, there are in Christianity some teachings concerning the end times. This was originally just an understanding within theology, but becoming mixed with some simple and rude thinking in indigenous religion, it might turn into abnormal social conduct in the real world, such as "waiting to go to heaven.". This is another case where we must ask Christianity, in its preaching, to give more prominence to its moral teachings such as "love" and "justice," preaching less on doctrines of the end times or judgment.

Christianity and minority social structure

One of the most obvious ways in which Christianity differs from Chinese religion and minority indigenous religion is that it is highly organized. It is not only a religious organization, but a social organization embedded in the social fabric. It has its unique social function and an interactive and complex relation with other social organizations.

Salient points

Christianity has both a consolidating function in society and to a certain degree a divisive one. Social consolidation means that Christianity can take what were diffuse systems of blood relationship like the family and clan and join them in closer consolidation. Prior to Liberation, some minorities still lived in a clan society and the level of social consolidation was very low. When Christianity became prevalent throughout these areas, it leapt the bounds of the old branches and systems, enabling people to have a unified social consciousness, and through Christianity’s particular church structure, joined people more closely together. The appearance of daily church gatherings, regular church activities, annual church festivals and an ordained Christian clergy, all increased levels of social consolidation among these minorities on a much broader scope. At the same time, to a certain degree, Christianity caused new divisions within minority society, the most apparent of which is the division into Christian and non-Christian, so that social units such as family and clan are further divided.

Christianity and the original structure of minority society clash in certain ways. Christianity as a meaning system is quite different from minority indigenous religion, and so the social system it constructs clashes to a certain degree with the social organization of the original indigenous society on some issues. For example in some Hani villages there is a tree which is thought to be the tree spirit protecting the village and every March there are sacrificial rites for the tree spirit, praying for blessings and peace. But Christians see these activities as devil worship and refuse to take part. This does not accord with the ethnic customs and the elders and non-Christians of the village will blame the Christians, which may cause head-on clashes.

In areas where Christianity has become the main religion, relations between Christianity and the government are rather marvelous and complex. These are what is often called relations between "spiritual power" and "state power". This happens first because Christianity is rather systematically organized. In minority areas, for example, the management positions in the churches consist of pastor, evangelist, teacher and elder, which means that the Christian personnel framework is quite complete. Where Christianity occupies the main spot, its organizational structure becomes even more numerous and complicated. This has meant that a number of well-known church leaders in the locale possess a strong attraction for people and an inhibiting function in the carrying out of government activities. Secondly relations among these leaders are very interactive. For example in Fugang county, some churches have unique management styles, particularly the democratic management system of the church. Christians have already formed the habit of democratic voting and this impacts the way grass roots government authority is produced. It has function rather well in promoting political democracy.


Christianity is a religion "in the world"; it is also a "universal" religion that advocates no divisions on the basis of race, position or gender. Thus it has a very strong "social cohesiveness." Christians take the church as their unit, hold daily services and annual festivals, gathering together to collectively embody religious "mass nature."

Christianity and traditional Chinese religion have widely different worldviews and social views and matured in different historical and cultural milieu. In terms of relations to state power and, different from the widely existing tradition in Chinese religion that says "without reliance on the state, it is difficult to establish Buddhist rites." In its western cultural milieu, Christianity has often been a force to restrict state power. In western society today, Christianity is still a very lively political force.

Issues and counter-measures

As stated above, between Christianity and the original minority social structure and grass roots political power, there exist marvelous and complex relations. In areas where Christian influence is greater, the complexity of the relationship is greater as well.

We would like to put forth some counter-measure proposals.

When clashes between Christianity and the original minority social structure are involved, Christian clergy and believers can be guided to make a distinction between religious events and ethnic customs. Emphasis should be on distinguishing some ethnic customs and activities which have lost their religious meaning, stressing that at the same time that they are Christians, Christians are also part of the ethnic group. Taking part in these ethnic customs and activities that no longer have religious meaning is theologically tenable. Ethic harmony and concord among tribe members and their fellow citizens is not in contradiction to maintaining Christian faith. For example we find such a teaching in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter eight, verse ten.

The significance of Christianity’s strong organization is two-fold: on the one hand, it gives Christianity higher prestige among believers, which may work to restrict the authority of the government. On the other hand, the government can draw support from the church to mobilize and organize the masses to undertake economic construction and social governance. Looking at the significance of this latter, the government can guide theological reconstruction on the one hand, while on the other hand, by means of organizing all sorts of training classes, it can foster dependable church leaders.

Christianity, ethnic identity and inter-ethnic relations

All the issues discussed above are closely related to one at a deeper level, that is, that as minorities accepted Christian faith, they gained a new religious identity outside their traditional ethnic identity, that of Christian. How this religious identity is related to their traditional ethnic identity lies at the core of all the issues discussed above.

Salient points

According to our observations, among the eight main minorities in Yunnan that are Christian, religious identity is more important on a daily basis than ethnic identity. Identity as Christians has widely become the most important indicator of identity. In the course of our interviews with Christian members of the Lisu, Wa, Jingpo, and Hani tribes, nearly all of them felt that their Christian identity was more important than their ethnic identity. For example, as far as holidays are concerned, the universal opinion was that the most important holidays were Christmas and Easter and that tribal holidays or Spring Festival were secondary. In some places they went so far as to identify their own traditional religion and culture as the sources of their people’s backwardness.

The traditional ethnic network is also an important channel for the spread of religion. In some areas which already have a translation of the Bible in the local language, some people actually believe that Christianity is their ethnic religion, because the Bible and hymnal they use are all written in their own language. When asked who they should care most about in religious terms, they respond by saying they should have greatest care for their own people and that first of all their own people should be the objects of their proselytism. In fact, in minority areas, the channel and network for evangelization draws support from and begins with the ethnic group, clan relatives and blood relations. In terms of leadership and management of the church it can be seen that traditional ethnic kin relationships play a role.

Christian identity is helpful to the affections that bind ethnic groups together. Among some minorities in Yunnan, old scores or struggles over land have caused deep estrangement between tribes and there is no contact between them. This is true of relations between the Yi and the Lisu, for example. But along with Christian evangelization among these groups, Christian feeling has transcended the old resentments. The majority of interviewees all felt that if a member of a hostile tribe was a Christian, they could not be estranged, and should even feel emotionally closer than to members of their own tribe. From this we see that Christianity has been a link among tribes and has been helpful in shaping an organic whole from pluralistic tribal peoples.


According to anthropological identity analysis, people are complex organisms constructed from multiple identities. Among these identities, there sometimes exist relations of conflict, or synthesis, even consolidation. An example of the former would be Chinese Christians during the rites controversy; an example of the latter would be the Arab people and Islam. People’s identity is always in a state of flux, with the possibility of accepting a new identity or of losing an old one.

When people accept a new identity, they are to a certain degree distinguishing themselves from the collective of their original identity, becoming a so-called "subculture community," as, for example, when minority Christians form a small-scale new group within the original ethnic group. The identity this subculture group has accepted is a Christian religious identity. Religion has taken the place of their original ethnic identity and become their most important sign of identity. And with this new identity as foundation, they judge their old cultural identity, a judgment expressed as a particular tension in the relationship between religion and ethnicity.

Issues and counter-measures

As was stated above, the tense relationship between Christianity and the indigenous minority culture with its old social structure can be said to be due to the fact that once the new religious identity was established, it did not entirely fuse with the traditional minority identity. The changes this brought about in lifestyle were mainly beneficial to social development among the Yunnan minorities. However, the shock it gave to the social order and the fact that the attitude toward the indigenous culture was divisive if not exclusive and in some areas might still cause a definite degree of social instability: this should be avoided at all costs.

Here we would like to propose some counter-measures from the perspective of religious identity, ethnic identity and inter-ethnic group relations.

Efforts should be made to bring about equilibrium among believers and to balance their religious and ethnic identities. The religious identity and the ethnic identity are not identical but they are intimately related. Every Christian is a "citizen of heaven" and a "member of an ethnic group." On many issues, these cannot be set in opposition to each other. A Christian taking part in traditional ethnic cultural activities will certainly do no harm to his religious faith. And a Christian should be a good compatriot, able to identify with his own traditional ethnic culture and to make a contribution to the development of the ethnic group.

Yunnan is a multi-ethnic area; it is crucially important to safeguard the unity in pluralism of the Chinese people. As an ecumenical religion, Christianity can be a component part of the pluralistic culture making up the Chinese people. And the role it plays in fostering ties between ethnic groups should at a definite level be strengthened and elevated.


The coming of Christianity into the magnificent multi-ethnic culture of Yunnan added a new hue to the mix. Our discussion above covers only some topics of general significance. Concrete issues in Yunnan Christianity such as Christian training courses, Christian anti-drug clinics, etc., have their own particular significance and these will be discussed in a supplement.

To sum up, the spread and development of Christianity among the minorities of Yunnan has its good side, such as raising the level of consolidation and the capacity for organization in minority society, forming a systematic ethical view, bringing many advanced cultural elements and so on. It has also brought new problems and new situations for our ethnic and religious work, such as the relation between "spiritual power" and "state power," and clashes between Christian culture and indigenous religion and culture. As for our management work among minority Christians in Yunnan, we need to look dialectically at the contributions and the problems Christianity has brought to minority society and culture.

The crux for dealing with minority Christianity in Yunnan lies in management and guidance, and the crux of this guidance lies in strengthening theological reconstruction. Just as Jiang Zemin stressed in his three statements on religious work, the government’s religious work can be summed up as having its basic goal in guiding religion to adapt to socialist society. Christianity is a religious organization with a long history and a rather broad mass base in minority areas. In order to make a smooth and long term adjustment in relations between Christianity and the government, indigenous social structure and minority culture, and to take first steps in constructing a minority theology that at its core stresses harmony between God and humankind, human harmony, social harmony and ethnic harmony, we must enter by the door of theology.

Theological reconstruction in Yunnan minority Christianity must also take into account the particular cultural, social and historical background of Yunnan minority society in the construction of a theological tradition with minority characteristics. Yunnan minority society and culture is quite different from the Chinese language and culture of the central plains. It will not be very effective to simply transfer some Chinese-language theology to Yunnan. Only by integrating theological reconstruction and biblical interpretation with the life and traditions of Yunnan minorities can Christianity be enabled to truly benefit Yunnan minorities.

The broad impact of Christianity in Yunnan minority areas has brought out the potential of the positive sides of Christian doctrine, regulations and ethics, contributing to the construction of minority spiritual civilization, public order and social construction. Just as we said before, the coming of Christianity contributed to minority lifestyle and culture and education, and in the future it should strive even harder to correct new problems appearing in minority society through use of Christianity’s special identity and role. In recent years, minority churches in Yunnan have done a great deal in anti-drug and AIDS prevention work and have gained much experience in these areas. For example, in the Nujiang district, Christianity has played a positive role in anti-drug work and perhaps in future it can play a similar role in the rehabilitation of drug addicts.

As for some social issues which Christianity has given rise to among minorities in Yunnan, we should see the general nature of these issues, as well as their complex nature and mass nature. In governing, we can only apply general governance measures. Religious questions which have arisen in minority areas are, in most cases, just other social issues expressed in religious form. Governance of these issues cannot be limited to a discussion of the religious aspects. A comprehensive approach to governance should be undertaken, strengthening the entire level of economic development in society, strengthening ties and communication between minority areas and non-minority areas, etc. Some abnormal religious activities, such as incidents which have appeared mainly in minority areas in Yunnan, can only be resolved through comprehensive measures of governance.

Nanjing Theological Review 3(2004): 4-23.

You Bin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Central Minorities University, Beijing.

Wang Aiguo is Associate Director of the Religious Affairs Bureau, Yunnan Province.

Gong Yukuan is Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Central Minorities University, Beijing.