The Lisu of China
~ From Nests Above the Abyss by Isobel Kuhn
Population and Location
The Lisu are one of the 55 minority people groups of mainland China. In 2005 there were 729,000 Lisu in China. Most of the Lisu live in Yunnan province. The majority live in concentrated communities in Bijang, Fugong, Gongshan and Lushui counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. The rest are scattered in other counties in Yunnan Province and in the Xichang and Yanbian counties in Sichuan Province. Significant numbers of Lisu have migrated southward out of China during the last century. Today, Lisu are also found in Myanmar and in North Thailand.
Linguistically, the Lisu belong to the Yi branch of the Han-Tibetan family.
There are two scripts in use and the Chinese Deptartment of Minorities publishes literature in both. The oldest and most widely used one is the Fraser script developed about 1920 by J.O. Fraser of the China Inland Mission and the Karen evangelist Ba Taw. Fraser`s published grammar of 1922 details the sript which was finalized in the American Baptist compound in Bhamo, Burma. It could be described as an extended Roman alphabet of 50 symbols. The second script was developed by the Chinese government and is based on pinyin.
Today the Lisu in Nujiang Prefecture have their own language, but Lisu elsewhere speak the local language.
The Lisu people inhabit mountainous areas that are largely covered with dense forests. Agriculture and animal husbandry are their main economic activities. Crops grown include maize, rice, wheat, buckwheat, sorghum and beans, but farming is becoming more and more difficult because of erosion. Many Lisu are expert hunters.
In the past, the Lisu people worshiped many gods, nature and a multitude of other things. Religious professionals made a living by fortune-telling and offering sacrifices to ghosts. During religious activities, animals were slaughtered and a large sum of money spent. In the early 20th century Christianity was introduced to the Lisu in the Dehong and Nujiang regions by western missionaries (both Protestant and Catholic).
Estimates reveal that today more than half of the Lisu people in the Nujiang Autonomous Prefecture are Christians. Small pockets of Christian communities are scattered in different counties. Recent reports say that there are at least 300,000 Lisu Christians in China meeting in over 1,300 places.
Shortage of pastoral workers poses a problem to the Lisu churches. Today, only 32 ordained preachers are serving in the Nujiang Prefecture. Another 300 lay preachers serve on a volunteer basis, but only 41 of them have received formal training. This small pastoral force takes care of 505 churches in the whole prefecture. Pray that God will open up ways and means for more Lisu ministers to attend formal theological training.
There is a Lisu Bible translation along with a few songbooks. The difference between Christians and non-Christians in Lisu culture is stark. Pray that the Lisu Christians will reach their neighbors for Christ.
Lisu of Thailand
Population and Location
According to 1997 population figures published by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai, there are 30,940 Lisu living in 151 villages in North Thailand. They live to the north and west of Chiang Mai. The Lisu originated from China, at the headwaters of the Salween River, and started to settle in Thailand around 1920.
Linguistically, the Lisu belong to the Lolo branch of the Tibeto-Burman family.
There are two scripts in use and the Chinese Department of Minorities publishes literature in both. The oldest and most widely used one is the Fraser script developed about 1920 by J.O. Fraser of the China Inland Mission and by the Karen evangelist Ba Taw. Fraser`s published grammar of 1922 details the script which was finalized in the American Baptist compound in Bhamo, Burma. It could be described as an extended Roman alphabet of 50 symbols. The second script was developed by the Chinese government and is based on pinyin.
The Lisu grow rice and vegetables for subsistence and opium for sale. Rice is grown at lower altitudes and the opium poppy at over 5,000 feet. Villages are located so that the inhabitants can maintain some independence from the Thai authorities. At the same time, these villages are relatively close to the market so that the Lisu can trade. Most Lisu live close to water because they believe water has a special power.
Within each Lisu house is an ancestral altar. And in each village, there is a “village guardian spirit shrine” which is located above the village, in a roofed pavilion which women are forbidden to enter. The Lisu also worship Wu Sa (the creator spirit), and a multitude of spirits of the forest, ancestors, trees, the sun, moon and everyday objects. Coupled with this, the Lisu fear possession by weretigers (phi pheu) and vampires (phu seu).
The first Lisu converts recorded were in Burma around 1908 through the work among the Kachin by the American Baptist Mission. Christianity was introduced to the Lisu living in southwest China by CIM/OMF missionaries such as J.O. Fraser and John and Isobel Kuhn in the early 20th century. In 1950, when missionaries were forced to leave China and the vibrant, growing Lisu churches, they went to Thailand eager to reach the Lisu people there. But they found a very different response. Dialect differences were great, but spiritual differences were greater. Thailand’s Lisu showed little interest in God’s Word. Pioneering work among the Lisu continued for many years before the Lisu in Elephant Village showed interest. Then, three families decided to believe and they moved to Huay Khrai (Rice Fields). At Easter 1970 they became the first Thailand Lisu to be baptized.
At present, OMF is no longer directly involved in church planting or church work among the Lisu in Thailand. It is however, a major supplier of Lisu Christian literature including Bibles, Sunday School material, commentaries and hymn books to the Lisu of Thailand and Myanmar. Translation of the entire Bible into Lisu was completed in 1968.