July 2016

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The Undefinable Yi Peoples

by Wesley Kawato

In the hills and valleys of southern China live the Yi peoples. There are over 7,000,000 of them living in this region. Their customs are different from the Han Chinese. The contrast is as great as the difference between white Americans and Native Americans. And the Yi peoples are a diverse as the Native Americans who live throughout the American continents, according to Paul Hattaway, a key researcher of Asian peoples.
Today the Yi are grouped together as one of 55 minority groups officially recognized by the Chinese government. In actuality Yi languages have six very different dialects, and some experts believe these dialects might as well be separate languages.
The Yi peoples face numerous spiritual challenges. They worship their ancestors and nature spirits. Over the years they have also adopted a few Buddhist and Taoist practices. Prior to the communist take over in 1949, Christian missionaries had won a few to give Christ their loyalty. A few churches, formed by Yi believers, still exist today. Only in recent years have missionaries been able to return to the Yi homeland. Hattaway comments, “Several of these groups have been heavily Christian for a century, but because of the ethno-linguistic differences they have been ineffective when trying to take the gospel to other Yi groups. Most mission organizations went along with the Chinese government descriptions of the Yi being one large group, and as a result today most of these distinct peoples remain unreached and unevangelized.”

An Ancient People Held Back by Slavery
Records about the Yi date back to about 100 B.C. Chinese historians mention that the Yi lived in what is now Yunnan Province. Around 700 A.D. the Yi unified to form the Kingdom of Nanzhao. This ancient kingdom grew rich by controlling the region’s tea and gem trade routes. After the collapse of Nanzhao, the Kingdom of Dali was formed, but it didn’t last long.
The Yi peoples practiced slavery. Slave revolts had brought down the Nanzhao Kingdom, and slave revolts would also caused the collapse of the Dali Kingdom. The Chinese Empire took control of the Yi homeland after the collapse of Dali. Even after the Chinese takeover of the Yi homeland, slavery continued. Most Chinese emperors found that it was the easiest to rule the Yi regions by deputizing local landlords. These people tended to own many slaves, so they were motivated to keep the institution of slavery alive and strong.

In the Modern Era
The Yi regions continued to be unstable in the modern era. Many Yi participated in the Taiping Rebellion of 1851. In 1874 many Yi joined the Di Wenxiu’s rebellions. Both rebellions were crushed by the Qing Dynasty.
After 1920 A.D. many Yi supported the communists. They supplied Mao Zedong’s rebels as they fled from Nationalist armies during the Long March.
When the communists took southeastern China from Nationalist control in 1949, they were shocked by the stratified nature of Yi society. Rich landlords made up seven percent of the population, and they owned many slaves. The middle class made up 50 percent of the population, and they also owned slaves. There were two slave castes kept in bondage through the use of a corvee system. The corvee system required slaves to work the lands of their masters for a certain number of days each year. That meant less time to work their own lands and almost certain poverty.
Between 1949 and 1958 the communists studied Yi society, trying to decide what to do. In 1958 communist leader Mao Zedong introduced sweeping reforms. Collective farms were formed and the landlords lost their lands. The corvee system was officially abolished. That meant the end of slavery among the Yi. These reforms won the loyalty of the Yi peoples. There are many loyal communists among the Yi peoples today.
Since 1958 the communists began developing the Yi homeland. They built roads and railroads, giving many isolated villages access to the outside world. The Yi homeland also had large deposits of tin, and soon the communists opened numerous mines. During the last 60 years mining has become a major alternative to farming for many Yi.
Today the Chinese government has introduced ethnic tourism to bring money into the Yi homelands. They want people to visit the Yi homelands to see their exotic customs and ceremonies…and spend money. This situation might mean more exploitation of the Yi peoples. Those who run the tourist industry are Han Chinese, not Yi. However, it does provide jobs for Yi people.
The Yi peoples are less isolated than ever before because of the emerging tourist industry. It is very possible that in the years to come each Yi people group will have the chance to meet those who follow Christ and want to make Him known to all nations.

Let Us Pray!
• Pray that the current situation will allow the Yi peoples to improve their economies and also to find Jesus’ answers to life’s struggles.
• Pray that God would raise up faithful workers to reach out to each Yi people group.
• Pray for a disciple-making movement among every Yi people group.
• Ask God to break the hold that communism, the worship of nature spirits, and ancestor worship have on this people group.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

Dear Praying Friends,
As we cover unreached people groups in China this month, we will focus our attention on the so-called Yi peoples. Paul Hattaway of the research group, Asia Harvest, tells us that this is an arbitrary cluster made up of some rather diverse tribes, mainly in China’s Yunnan Province. In an attempt to simplify the confusing web of various ethnic groups, the Chinese government called many of them “Yi,” though they have different languages and cultures.
Most of the Yi ethnic groups are still unreached with the gospel, like many other peoples of Yunnan Province. For this reason, we are praying for them this month. Thanks to Asia Harvest’s book, Operation China, we have photos of most of the unreached people groups we cover this month.
For the first time in many years, we are raising the subscription rate for the printed Global Prayer Digest. The price has stayed at $12/year for so long that we are literally not getting even half of the funds needed for it. Starting this month, we will charge $18/year. If you would like the free email version, go to our website, globalprayerdigest.org, go to “subscribe,” at the top of the page, and click on “subscribe by email.” Then fill out the form, and make sure you click the box at the bottom that will get you the daily email versions.