15. Christianity in Southwestern China: Mass Conversion among the Miao and Yi

Zeng Shicai

Thirty-four ethnic minorities live in southwest China, and their populations number 34,000,000. These minorities still retain their own traditions in spite of interaction and integration with the "great tradition" of the Han Chinese. In the 19th century, after the Opium War (1839-42) and the Arrow Affair (1856-60), many foreigners entered the hinterland. Contact with missionaries exposed the minorities to Christianity and then another form of acculturation began to take place.
Generally speaking, Christianity has never gained an important place in Han Chinese religious life (Fried, 1987), but it did expand among some of the ethnic minorities on the border. Mass conversion among the Miao and Yi peoples is a typical example. They live in the Weining area in north west Guizhou and Zhaotong in north east Yunnan, both remote areas of these provinces. The movement started from the 1900s and a large number of them were converted to Christianity. This article aims to analyse the history and the present state of Christianity in this area. It seeks to examine the reasons why Christianity spread among the Yi and Miao, it reviews the means by which Christianity diffused, and the process of acculturation, and it comments on the syncretism of Christianity after Liberation.[1]

Before Christianity

Climate and ethnicity

Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces, located in southwestern China, lie on the Yungui heights. In northeastern Yunnan and northwestern Guizhou, the elevation averages over 2,000 meters above sea level. The weather is cold and there is a rain deficiency. In Weining, for example the average temperature is 10.6 degrees Centigrade and they only have 971.4 mm of rain on average in a year. In addition there are so many limestone

mountains, eroded over a long period, that it is very hard to engage in farming rice. Mountain slopes are used for grazing cattle and goats, and agriculture is conducted on the plains. The main crops are Irish potatoes, maize, buckwheat and oats.
The reason why the Chinese had not entered this area earlier was due to the harshness of its natural environment. Chinese people called this land guifang or "demon's region" and they regarded the non-Chinese inhabitants as barbarians. The inhabitants were also called loushi gui or "mud snail demon", which referred to the spiral form in which some of them did up their hair (Clarke, 1911: 5).
Some local chiefs of the Yi remained independent in this area, until their suppression by Wu Sangui in 1644. For example, the Lu clan were de facto rulers of Wumeng, the centre of which was Zhaotong, and the An clan ruled Wusa, the centre of which was Weining.
The Yi people moved into northwestern Guizhou from eastern Yunnan in the Western Han era, expelled the Gelao, the indigenous people, and established their own regime. During the Yuan and the Ming, the central government appointed these local chiefs as tusi, administrators of the natives, and ruled them indirectly. Under this system the tusi could to a great extent remain autonomous. The Yi people were divided into two classes, the Black Yi and the White Yi. The Black Yi, who referred to themselves as No-su, "black men", were the patricians and landowners while most of the White Yi were commoners.
The Yi were not the original inhabitants of this region. According to No-su they came from the north. Their origin appears in their story of the flood which reads as follows (Kurihara, 1982). In the age of Du-mu-e, the thirty-first descendant from the first ancestor, a flood broke out as a punishment inflicted on mankind by the Heavenly King. The flood killed all the people on the earth, but Lu alone survived because he followed the advice of a hermit. After drifting for a long time, he arrived at Luo-yi mountain where he started a new life. Later he married three celestial nymphs, and had six children. These children were called "the six ancestors". Ten generations later, the number of descendants of the six ancestors increased and formed respectively six subgroups: Zha, Wu, Nuo, Heng, Bu and Mo.
In reality, every tusi of the No-su during the Ming dynasty, in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, derived from the six ancestors. The Wu-meng clan were descendants of the Heng group, for instance, and the Wu-sa were from the Bu group. Tusi constantly intermarried for the sake of maintaining and forging alliances between groups. Their positions and estates were succeeded to by their heirs, who were born from legal wives. Furthermore they confirmed their sovereignty by appointing their sons who were born from their concubines as tumu, "magistrate" (Kurihara, 1982).
Miao people called themselves Hmong, but the Chinese dubbed them Huamiao, "party-coloured Miao" after the women's embroidered costume. The Miao population was greater than that of the Yi, but they were also not the original inhabitants of this land. According to their story of ethnic migration, they originally lived in the Yellow River valley. But they were defeated in battle by the Han Chinese, and forced to move south to the mid-Yangzi river area. Furthermore at the end of the Tang and the beginning of the Song dynasty, they migrated further south into southwestern China.
In Guizhou, they came under the control of the Yi tusi and tumu (Yang Hanxian, 1980). They became tenants or serfs like the Gelao and the Bai. The following proverb described the position of the Miao aptly: "there is no land for the Miao, there are no trees for crows to perch on."
After Wu Sangui suppressed the local chiefs of the Yi, a policy known as the gaitu guiliu, or the incorporation of aboriginal territories into the regular administrative sphere, was introduced to abolish the tusi system. Nevertheless the tumu managed to maintain their power and were appointed as assistants to officials. Besides the ground rent, the Miao people owed the tumu many days' labour service during the year. In reality, the tumu held practically the power of life and death over his tenants. In addition, the political vacuum was not filled sufficiently after the tusi system was abolished, so that quarrelling and fighting about the division of land constantly occurred. Each time trouble arose among the tumu, their Miao tenants were expected to serve as soldiers.
To sum up, the ethnic relationships in this area after gaitu guiliu were between the tumu (the Black Yi), commoners (the White Yi), and tenants (the Miao, the Gelao and the Bai).[2] Meanwhile in the case of the Han Chinese they migrated into this land on a large scale from the Ming era, and outnumbered the other ethnic groups. They mainly lived in cities or surrounding areas. They despised the non-Han inhabitants, but feared them at the same time. The Black Yi captured a considerable number of Han Chinese and kept them as slaves.

Traditional spirits and magicians.

Clarke vividly describes the religious beliefs of the Miao and the Yi (1911: 60-88, 112-136). In Miao villages, the houses stood side by side. The Miao were extremely united, and all affairs concerning the village administration were decided fairly by the elders. On the other hand, in Yi society, differentiation had progressed further. The Black Yi were divided into a few patricians and many commoners. Even among the White Yi, there appeared tenants and serfs. In regard to culture, the Yi were more assimilated with the Chinese than the Miao. When the missionaries arrived, most of the Yi celebrated the Chinese New Year festival, though some of them still observed New Year's Day on the first day of the tenth month of the lunar calendar. They also worshipped Buddhist idols.
Even if there were some differences in their assimilation into Chinese culture between the Yi and Miao, they both believed in traditional spirits. For example typhoid and malaria were rampant in the area, and the Yi and Miao attributed these illnesses to evil spirits. In such cases, magicians and exorcists were summoned and expected to cure patients with herbs, or to find the evil spirits which caused the disease, and to exorcise them.
The Miao called magicians ai-pi-san. If someone fell ill or had bad luck, this was attributed to evil spirits, and magicians were summoned. If misfortune or emergency befell a village, ai-pi-san would exorcise the evil spirits from the village by killing a dog and hanging up a blood-stained wooden sword with straw rope. At the same time, the Miao feared magicians because they had the power to bewitch people by using gu or poison. In Miao society, quarrels often occurred because of this, and in some cases the magicians were expelled from their villages.
In the case of the Yi, the si-ai served as both soothsayer and medical magician. There was a more remarkable specialist called pu-mo. Yi society was patrilineal, and each clan had its no-i which was equivalent to the Chinese family name. The pu-mo wrote the genealogy of each clan in the old Yi script.

The diffusion and penetration of Christianity

Protestant missions and missionaries

According to Latourette (1929), after the Opium War (1839-42) and the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), not a few missionaries came to China in order to start evangelising. To cope with the Arrow Affair (1856-60), moreover, the Treaty of Tianjin (1858) and the Treaty of Beijing (1860) were concluded between China and the Western powers. As a result, the activities of the missionaries and the faith of the Chinese Christians received protection under the treaties. Missionaries were even eager to go into the border districts. In the Weining area, the United Methodist Mission, and the China Inland Mission began propagating the gospel in earnest during the 1900s.
The United Methodist Mission was established by the Wesley brothers in the 18th century. The members of this society emphasised evangelism and social welfare, and condemned drinking and immorality. The mission entered China in 1851.
The China Inland Mission was founded by Hudson Taylor in 1865. Its headquarters were in London, and there were branches in the United States and Australia. This mission was organised for the purpose of evangelisation in China, and was associated with several societies with similar objectives. The founder, Hudson Taylor, after his arrival in China in 1854, spent his whole life there, except for a two-year sojourn in England, and died in Changsha in 1905.
As for the diffusion of Christianity on the Yungui plateau, we can refer to several sources such as Clarke (1911), Yang Hanxian (1981), Wang and Li (1986) and Zhang (1988). According to these there were two missionaries who played important roles in the expansion of Christianity in this area. One was Samuel Pollard, who first opened the Zhaotong Mission House of the United Methodist Mission in Yunnan, and later shifted the headquarters to Shimenkan ("Stone Gateway"). The other was J.R. Adam who worked in the Anshun station of the China Inland Mission and frequently visited villages around Gebu. Their activities aroused the suspicion and opposition of the ruling class. Not only the non-Chinese Christians, but also the missionaries, suffered interference and persecutions from the tumu. The missionaries tried to protect the converts at the risk of their own lives.
Pollard, Adam and their successors built many chapels, and also made efforts to construct public facilities, such as schools, orphanages, leprosy hospitals, and private post offices. In addition they tried to create scripts for writing the Miao and Yi languages in order to allow these peoples to print their own bibles. The non-Chinese peoples were extremely glad to be able to write down their own languages in their own scripts (Tan, 1983; Yang Zongxin, 1984; Wei, 1985; Wang and Li, 1986).
In most instance, the two Christian missions maintained cooperative relationships with each other. As the number of non-Chinese Christians swelled, the missions had to increase their activities. In a sense, both missions were competing with each other for converts. To mark out spheres of influence, Pollard, Adam and other missionaries held a conference in the Dasongshu Church of Fadi. At this conference, they decided on the the crest of the Shaopu Mountains as the boundary, and agreed that the China Inland Mission would work in the area to the southeast of the line, and that the United Methodist Mission would work to the northwest.
In 1915 Adam was killed by lightning at night. In the same year, typhoid raged in Shimenkan, and many of the pupils of the mission school were stricken. Pollard had a hard time nursing them. He also contracted the disease and died. In spite of this the two missions continued their work until all foreign missions left the area in 1949.

The wild boar incident and the Duanwu festival

Anshun Mission Station was opened in 1888 by Adam. While working and preaching among the Chinese, he was frequently in contact with the Miao around Anshun. By giving them quinine and other remedies for malaria, he gained their confidence. Later he began to visit their villages and learned their language. However, at that period the Miao were afraid of what the Chinese might say if they showed friendship to a missionary or received him in their houses. So the number of converts did not greatly increase. In 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion, the Dowager Empress issued an edict ordering all foreigners in the provinces to be put to death. Foreign missionaries took refuge in Shanghai. The Acting Governor hesitated and did not obey the order, for fear that the western powers would take revenge. A rumour passed around Anshun that all Christians would be killed. It is not hard to imagine that the converts were terrified during the absence of the missionaries. In fact, thirty Miao in Guizhou were put to death that year, on the grounds that they were Christians.
When Adam returned to Anshun in 1901, he began to preach in earnest among the Miao. In 1902 he visited the north side of the Sancha River, an area which no foreigners had previously visited. The north side was originally the estates of the Shuixi An clan (descendants of Mo, according to the "six ancestors" legend) where the Yi tumu landowners ruled even after the tusi were abolished.
Adam visited a village called Dengdui during his first journey to the north side where he prayed for a dead person and evangelised among the villagers. The local people were much impressed, and interest rapidly spread from village to village, and in a short time people from many villages attended the services at Anshun. In 1905, a chapel was built in Dengdui and one hundred Miao Christians and two hundred others attended the services. He was given an enthusiastic welcome wherever he went.
One day in 1903 four Miao hunters, including Li Matai, met Adam on their way back from chasing a wild boar. Adam gave them a warm reception, serving them with coffee and milk. He persuaded them that they would not be insulted if they became Christians. He invited them to consult with him when they had any trouble. They lived in Lanlongqiao (about two days from Anshun) in that time, but they formerly lived in Xinlongchang of Gebu (now called Xinglongchang, nine days from Anshun), and migrated to Lanlongqiao because of population increase.
Later on an incident occurred in which a landowner robbed Li Matai's group taking their wild boar. Li and other members came to Anshun and resorted to Adam. Adam lodged a strong protest to Anshunfu (the district office). The office ordered the landowner to give compensation for the loss, because the Chinese government had agreed not to persecute its Christian subjects in the treaties of Tianjin and Beijing. The Miao believed that Jesus was Klang Meng, the "Miao king". In the winter of the same year, a memorial festival for the ancestor was held in Xinlongchang. This ceremony was conducted on a large scale every twelve years. Li Matai attended the festival and told the villagers of his old home that the Miao King had appeared in Anshun. He advised them to attend the service. Luo Yabo, the leader of this festival, showed a keen interest in it, and went to meet Adam with his brother-in-law, and Li Matai. They returned and gave an account of all they had seen and heard. The people in their village however, were not satisfied, and sent a second deputation the next year, this time composed of seven men, including Luo Yabo, Luo Danyili, and Zhang Baoluo. From that time on they visited Anshun in groups of twenty, forty, fifty or more. In some years the number exceeded a hundred.
It took ten days to reach Anshun, an arduous trek over mountains. Besides the Chinese despised them, and on the way they could not stay at Chinese inns. One man contracted smallpox on the way and died in the mission compound. Adam decided to build a chapel in Gebu and so asked Pollard to preach to the people living in outlying areas, for it was only two or three days distance from Zhaotong to the northwest edge of Guizhou Province. They did not know Pollard and hesitated to go to meet him at first. Pollard was given an open-hearted welcome by the people living on the northwest edge of Guizhou. Soon after this he went to Weining District with Luo Danyili and his wife, who were Miao Christians whom Pollard had baptised. Pollard built a chapel in Shimenkan the next year, 1904. That year was the year of the Dragon, and the Miao people worshipped the dragon as sacred. They were very glad to know Pollard and said that they were awakened spiritually in the year of the dragon. On the other hand, Zhang Baoluo who was baptised in Anshun went back to his home town of Gebu, and propagated the faith. A thousand-seat chapel was built in 1906 with Adam's help.
An English missionary who succeeded Adam, called in Chinese Pei Zongqian (his English name is not known), moved to Gebu in 1917 in order to learn more about the Miao language and customs. After this, several foreign missionaries took turns living there. In 1918 the crops failed in the Weining and Hezhang areas. In the winter of that year, Pei with twenty-four preachers visited Yi villages around Magu and Bandi and gave them provisions and cash. At that time a feud was brewing between Duo'e Tumu and Huomo Tumu over the question of a successor to the Zumu Tumu who ruled Ertang. Large numbers of young men were killed in skirmishes. The Yi appealed to Pei to convert them to Christianity. It seemed, on the other hand, that Pei and his followers took advantage of Yi practices in order to increase the number of converts among the Yi. The next spring a famine occurred again, and many people starved to death. Pei made it known that he would sacrifice five oxen in the Duanwu Festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and that they would be welcome to take part in the feast, so as to obtain food and other commodities. Thus the missionaries obtained influence among the Yi around Hezhang, Weining and Shuicheng by distributing food and other goods.

Mass conversion and social disturbances

The work of the two missions was concentrated in different areas. The United Methodist Mission established the Shimenkan Church as its central headquarters, and mainly worked in the northwest of Guizhou, the east of Yunnan and the south of Sichuan. They reputedly built fifty chapels and converted 60,000 non-Chinese Christians between 1905 and 1920. On the other hand, the China Inland Mission divided the Weining parish into the Miao area and the Yi area in 1920. The Gebu church and the Jiegou church respectively became their central churches. In the Miao area, twenty-one chapels were reported by 1937 and 7,000 Christians by 1938. In the Yi area they built thirty five chapels by 1934, though the number of converts was unclear. Conversions were made not so much in consequence of the travelling and preaching of the missionaries, as by the zeal and persistent testimony of the believers.
Judging from the wild boar incident which led the Miao to convert en masse, they were warmly treated as equals, and what they had to say was listened to for the first time in their lives. Troubles over marriage or land often occurred among the Miao. They solved problems related to marriage themselves, but the Yi landowners had the power to judge cases related to land issues. The Miao were often treated unjustly by these landowners. Appeals to Chinese officials rarely yielded satisfactory results as these officials were bribed by the landowners.
With a history of oppression, the Miao regarded Jesus Christ as a saviour king endowed with magical power. Many of the leaders in Miao revolts claimed to be Miao kings. It was for this reason that the Miao people first resorted to the church and converted to Christianity. Mass conversion among the Yi began fourteen years after that of the Miao. It was quarrels among the tumu and crop failures that drove the White Yi into the Christian fold.
We can discern differences in the reaction to Christianity among the Han Chinese, the Miao and the Yi. In the case of the Han Chinese they were more keen on obtaining knowledge about science than about Jesus. Confucianism seems to be inconsistent with Christianity, because the former is based on Han Chinese ancestor worship, while the latter demands absolute obedience to God from believers. The number of Christians did not increase at that time. The Miao, who were desperately poor, were especially keen to take on Christianity. What they tried to clarify first of all was whether Jesus was their true saviour or not.
After seventeen years' stay in Zhaotong, Pollard had made many Chinese friends, but few converts. His friends often asked him silly questions, though he longed for a heart-to-heart talk about the things which really mattered. For example, "Have you a moon in your country?", "Do women rule in your country?" Still more stupid was "Have your people a hole right through the chest through which a pole is put when they are carried out?" (Pollard, 1919: 38). Apparently his friends imagined western countries to be like Guanxiongguo in the ancient geography book Shanhaijing, where strange people lived with poles through their chests. Miao who wanted information asked none of these silly questions. Their one request was "Give us books and teach us about Jesus" (Pollard, 1919: 38).
When Miao converted to Christianity, they broke with convention. They made a bonfire, and then burnt the drums used in offerings to traditional spirits, magicians' wands, with other instruments and charms. Furthermore, some women threw their necklets into the fire. These necklets were charms for protection, which the magician had told them to wear. Women also burnt their "spirit packets" in their homes. These "spirit" packets were made up by the magician or exorcists, and kept as charms to ward off evil spirits which might attack children.
Towards the end of 1904, the movement had influenced the whole region from Gebu to Zhaotong. In the evening service, Miao people listened silently to the sermons. There were plenty of songs and many short prayers. They especially liked singing the hymns. Before chapels were built in each area hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of people often gathered on hillsides to sing until midnight, and sometimes till dawn. In extreme cases, the rumour went round that Jesus was coming very soon. One group moved to the mission house and prayed for the millennium. Interestingly enough, some of the magicians tried to play the role of prophet.
The mass conversion caused social malaise with regard to traditional order. Magicians reacted directly against it. For instance, one magician imitated the rites of Christian worship and deceived villagers. He led them to a pond and bathed them there, collecting a substantial fee from each person for administering the rite. Another woman called herself "Jesus's sister". In the former case, the magician was out to make money. In the latter case the woman was a wife of a magician, and while most of the villagers attended the church services, the magician and his wife were left alone. The more the villagers became interested in Christianity, the more quirky his wife became. What is interesting is that this magician was the first man to become a believer in "Jesus's sister". We can see a magician who was upset and impatient in the midst of rapid change of values among the villagers.
Unrest prevailed among the tumu and landowners too. They tried to turn villagers away from Christianity by torturing them, confiscating their estates and setting fire to their villages. The Chinese also had their doubts about the conversion of the Miao. Rumours spread that the Miao would rise in revolt and that the Miao had poisoned wells with poison which they had got from foreigners. Some Miao people were beaten and robbed, while others were driven away from the markets.

Conflict and the revival movement

The expansion of Christianity owed much to the devotion of missionaries. Mission headquarters at first gave little financial support. In 1923, the China Inland Mission put into effect the "three self" principles, namely self-government, self-propagation, and self-support. They gradually cut back financial support for each mission station, and in 1928 ended all assistance. Some of the chapels collected money from the converts and became involved in money-lending. As a result, the good relations between the missionaries and believers were broken. What is worse, missionaries forged friendships with the tumu and landowners, even though at first they had protected the believers from these groups.
The tumu and landowners had been afraid that if the Miao people became Christians, they would lose all their authority over their tenants who would refuse to pay rent. They persecuted those tenants who converted. Missionaries, on the one hand, protected their believers, and on the other hand assured the landowners that their tenants would pay their rents and that they would not ask believers to work on Sundays for the Church. Most of them readily gave their consent, and were pleased that the missionaries should make better men and women of their tenants. Some of the landowners attended the service and taught their tenants some sections of the Gospel. Missionaries gradually noticed that their task was facilitated by the conversion of peoples of the upper classes, and so this changed their attitudes towards them from confrontation to cooperation. All of the pupils at the mission school were poor Miao children at first, but Yi pupils from the upper classes gradually increased. Some traders made use of the postal money order system set up by the mission, and had close relations with them.
Old slogans such as that, if people became Christians they would not have do do military service, provide so many days' labour, or pay rent, no longer worked. Mission activities declined in the mid 1920s, and the number of church members decreased. For example, the membership of the United Methodist Mission fell by 46,000 between 1925 and 1931.
In 1932 some people from Anshun argued for the necessity of a revival. Their point was that only the faith in God could cause people to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. They demanded that believers thoroughly confess their sins. People became excited, and as the revival movement was successful the number of church members increased again.
The Gebu church unified the Miao and Yi areas in 1940, while the revival movement was expanding. When Japan was defeated in 1945, the revival movement reached a peak. A Chinese preacher, Li Ji'an, visited Gebu and read aloud a newspaper account of the victory. He preached to audiences of five or six hundred for three days. He persuaded them to strive for the advancement of the church. He sang and prayed continually, and became so excited that he could not stop himself trembling.
The members of the revival criticised the fact that the China Inland Mission was conservative. They advocated that they should sing a "soul song" and perform a "soul dance" in order to try their souls. They even advocated that men and women should embrace and sleep together. They also often gathered together on hills to eat beef. It is easy to imagine that a mass spiritual uplift had been created and that the people participating were in a state of mass hysteria. They probably indulged themselves in a physiological catharsis. Interestingly enough, the "soul song", "soul dance" and hill climbing are all associated with traditional Miao and Yi practices.
One of the reasons why mission activities slackened in the mid 1920s was because the missionaries could not rectify social inequality or at least try to change it, but we should take into account another reason which belongs to the cultural sphere. Frictions often developed between Christian commandments and believers due to the difference in cultural backgrounds. In the case of the United Methodist Mission which aimed at teetotalism, the church was particularly strict in regard to drinking and sexual immorality. Miao households made alcoholic beverages and drank on both happy and mournful occasions. Prohibition of this caused many believers to leave the church.
There was also a clubhouse called huafang by the Han Chinese in the Miao village where boys and girls met and could sleep. They sang all night through and courted. One of the first things Pollard and his associates did when they visited villages was to tear down these "immoral" and "cursed" club houses (Pollard, 1919: 46, 135). The Miao had practised monogamy but they still courted quite openly before marriage, and their courting practices were not regarded as moral by the missionaries. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year, the Yi and the Miao climbed mountains where they held a musical festival. Boys and girls paired off to sing love songs to each other, and the girls danced to bamboo pipe music played by the boys. This was a great occasion for courting, but the church forbade these traditional songs and dances.
The Miao looked up the Jesus and the missionaries as the Messiah, and broke with the past without hesitation. Afterwards, when they noticed that Jesus and the missionaries were not the true Messiahs as far as they were concerned, complaints about strict rules erupted. Many believers left the church. It may be said that this "revival" was just a revival of their traditions.

Christianity in the new China

The present situation of Christianity

The religious policy of the PRC is clearly set out in the constitution: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief", but "no one may use religion to conduct counter-revolutionary activities". Furthermore, "no religious affairs may be dominated by a foreign country" (Article 35 of the Revised Constitution of the PRC). Chinese Christian leaders issued the "three self" manifesto in 1950 (originally implemented in the 1920s) and later Chinese churches broke of their relationships with foreign countries (i.e. the Vatican for Catholics, and Great Britain and the United States for Protestants). After 1957, the "radical leftists" closed down all the churches, and many church members were persecuted. In 1979, three years after the fall of the "Gang of Four" the church activities recommenced (Jiang, 1983; Wang and Ji, 1990).
After the policy of religious toleration was publicly reinstated in 1979, the number of Christian believers increased, and several million copies of the Bible have been published to date. According to the UBS World Report (United Bible Societies, 1989), this includes versions in some minority languages, such as Miao, Yi, Lisu, Korean, and Jingpo. As for Christianity among the Miao and Yi, detailed information has not been released, but Wang Tingsheng and Wang Guolin (1990) have reported that there were 35,000 believers in Guizhou Province just after Liberation, of which Miao and Yi accounted for 70%. They also reported that now the Christian population in the northwest of Guizhou numbered 70,000. Most of them are probably Miao and Yi. It may safely be said that Christianity has taken root in their corner of China. Witness the following case of a Yi village called Bandi which I visited in 1986.
It is located in Yancang District, Weining County, and consists of four hamlets. According to Li, it has a population of 1,174, of which 1,103 are Christian, that is 94% (Li, 1985). Christianity was introduced into this village in 1917, and a church was built two years later. The number of believers was 500 in 1925, and 800 in 1942. After all it turned out that the strict rules were inconsistent with the Yi's traditional ways of drinking and courting. Many people left the church, but membership doubled once the revival movement began. Under the influence of the revival movement, new believers were not baptised and did not obey the precepts of Christianity. The only thing they did do was dance. Dancing was, in a way, their way of praying. Some attended meetings for courtship. Some attended them only to enjoy the festive mood. Some became believers lest they should be isolated from the other villagers.
In 1958 a people's commune was set up in the village and the church was destroyed by the "radical leftists". The authorities concerned regarded the church members as "counter-revolutionary", and "anti-establishment". Believers were often forced to go underground and they often held meetings outdoors in secret at night. Believers still accounted for 85% of all villagers during the Cultural Revolution. After the "Gang of Four" fell from power in 1977, society returned to normal, and the believers gradually came out into the open, rebuilding their church in 1983. Though there was no official pastor in the village in 1986, the senior members acted as substitutes. Every Sunday many believers from adjoining districts and counties attended the church services. Ordinary activities include village-level meetings every Wednesday and every Friday. In addition, several churches joined together and held a mass-meeting every month or every other month.

Syncretism and the future of Christianity

Church activities have changed the way of life of the Yi and Miao. For example, a Yi bride used to abstain from food before marriage in the old days. On the day of the wedding her brother would carry her to the door without letting her touch the earth, and put her on a horse. But today, to the singing of Christian hymns, she is received by the groom's side at the door. There is no fasting and riding now. Courtship singing, swing festivals and wrestling tournaments as agricultural rites have been abolished (Li, 1985: 351).
As regards religious beliefs, they still worship the ancestors at their New Year (on the first day of the tenth lunar month in the Chinese calendar) at their homes, though all the ancestral halls have disappeared. it seems that the ancestors coexist with Protestant belief. Li points out that they pay great attention to fengshui geomancy. When they build a house, they often look for longmai or "dragon's veins". If a disaster happens in a family, they often move the family tomb. Li also points out that a new type of magician has come into being. When someone is ill, several Christian believers come to read a few sections of the Bible and to dance beside the patient. These believers claimed that this endows them with inspiration (Li, 1985: 350-51).
The Miao and Yi did not completely abandon their traditions when they converted. They sang hymns to their own melodies, and accepted Jesus as an ethnic hero in the case of the Miao. This indicates that their conversion to Christianity was achieved within the framework of their own traditions, and this is precisely the reason why they did not lose their own ethnic identity with conversion.
Li also refers to an educational problem. At the five-year elementary school in Bandi, the percentage of school attendance was 95% during the Cultural Revolution, but it dropped to 30% in 1978, and has levelled off, though the political situation remains stable. The branch secretary of the Communist Party attributes this fall to the current emphasis on making money as well as on church activities, but he thinks that the church is mainly to blame. The secretary points out that the percentage of school dropouts is very high and that a large number of pupils attend the church activities after giving up school. As regards money making, it has become a nation-wide tendency after the implementation of the responsibility system for production. Farmers' households did not let their children attend school because they need their labour. As for church activities, I have one point to add. As a rule, all classes are held in the Chinese language at Bandi elementary school. Though third and fourth grade pupils can learn the new Yi script, created by the PRC and based on the old Yi script, at school, this is a part of the new curriculum that started not long before I visited the village. On the other hand pupils can read the bible written in the Yi script created by Pollard and sing hymns in the Yi language in church, so they seem to find church activities more appealing than elementary school. The church, so to speak, is a cultural centre for maintaining and strengthening their ethnic identity. The problem which the branch secretary pointed to is due to the nature of the educational system rather than to church activities per se.
In recent years, Christianity has been growing and spreading among the Han Chinese, especially in the rural districts, but general whole families and villages have not converted. For example, in a certain county of Anhui Province, 73.8% of Christians in a meeting place are women. As for the age range of Christians, women over 50 constitute 53% in this instance (Luo, 1991: 233-234). Han Min, who carried out research in Su County and Xiao County of Suxian Prefecture in Anhui, also refers to a boom in Christianity (Han, 1993: 285-307). According to her report, after the adoption of the household production system, those who have access to sufficient labour, technology and cash become rich, while those who have insufficient labour, or who have to look after the sick at home, live in poverty. In addition, the breakup of the communes has affected the welfare system in the rural areas. Medical payments have increased so that many old poor people cannot afford them. It is against this background that Christianity appears to attract people by helping them solve their problems.
According to Han's report, there are three main reasons why Christianity is growing rapidly. First of all, many recent converts came to believe in the religion because they themselves or members of their families had fallen ill and failed to recover. The medical services provided by the churches are a means of attracting poor people with health problems. Secondly many people converted to Christianity because of family problems such as ill-treatment of parents or bad relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law. They became cheerful and patient after their conversion. Third, some people converted because of loneliness. In the case of widows or those who lived alone, they felt lonely till conversion. Christianity not only gives them encouragement to overcome this loneliness, but also fills a spiritual vacuum (Han, 1993: 298-300).
Han also points out that Christianity in China stresses ethical relations in this world in order to adapt to China's situation, because Confucian ideology with its emphasis on ethics has long been dominant. Therefore local officials generally do not interfere with Christian services. They even hope that Christianity will play a more important role in the creation of a socialist spiritual civilisation (Han, 1993: 304). She also told me that generally within a single family, if some members convert to Christianity others do not, because no one would be able to offer incense to the ancestors if all the members converted.
On the other hand, in the case of the Miao and Yi, Christianity is treated with indifference by local officials. As for the scale of conversion, whole families and villages have converted. I discovered one interesting fact during my research in a Yi village. The village is located in Zhongshan District, Weining County. It has a population of ninety, and the total number of houses is eighteen. This village consists of four clans. The Zhao clan is the dominant clan, and it has eleven households. The whole village converted except for four households. All four are members of the Zhao clan. In addition, they include two local cadres. It is very interesting that these four households worship their ancestors eagerly, while others are cool towards ancestor worship. The ancestral hall of the Zhao clan was rebuilt after the fall of the "Gang of Four" and the memorial tablet written in the old Yi script was installed there, but only these four households go to offer incense to the tablet every year. If those who worship their ancestors can be said to stand for the indigenous cultures based on family ties, the church is a symbol of Yi unity above the level of consanguineous relations. The reason why the local cadres take sides with the former may be that the former is much safer to the establishment than the latter.
When we review the process by which Christianity diffused and the pattern of acculturation, it is evident that it did not replace the indigenous religion, but absorbed elements of it. In the revival which aimed at returning to the indigenous tradition, they rectified distortions brought about by the excessive denial of this tradition, and attempted to restore social stability as well as to revitalise their ethnic culture. Will they continue to revitalise their own tradition in future? Will this Christian power lead to a national independence movement as Buddhism has done in Tibet? It all depends upon how the present regime deals with them.


1. Twelve research trips were made to study the traditional cultures of ethnic minorities in south China between 1982 and 1991. As for the Miao and Yi in this area, Torii Ryuzo, who was the first ethnologist in Japan to study them, pointed out the similarities between their folk cultures and those of Japan. As far as Weining is concerned, Torii did not go there. As a member of a study group which aims to collect first hand materials about folk customs based on agriculture, I travelled in the Weining area in 1986. I stayed there for only ten days but many materials were available. A book named Society and Culture of a Mountain Village in South China: A Visit to Ethnic Minorities of Northwestern Guizhou, edited by Tsuboi Yobun, was published by the National Museum of Japanese History in 1989. I found a large number of Christians in villages during my stay. This is the first time I have studied Christianity in southwestern China.
2. Apart from the ethnic groups mentioned in this article, a considerable number of Hui people live in this area. They are descendants of soldiers dispatched there in the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Many Hui people disguised themselves as Han Chinese after the uprising of Du Wenxiu was crushed by the Qing dynasty in 1877. The Hui are Muslim and have nothing to do with the issue of conversion to Christianity, so they are not dealt with in this article. As for the Bai, they are descendants of officials of the Nanzhao Kingdom when it ruled this area during the Tang dynasty. After the kingdom fell in 901, they were gradually reduced to poverty. Some of them disguised themselves as Han Chinese or Yi.

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Updated 4 June 2020