Book Review "Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China" by Aminta Arrington
Aminta Arrington, Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvannia State University Press, 2020).
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
Readers familiar with mission history in East Asia may have heard of J.O. Fraser, the early twentieth century C.I.M. missionary who did pioneer evangelism among the Lisu people of southwest China. His story has been the subject of multiple biographies but many may not know what has become of Lisu Christianity since Fraser. In Songs of the Lisu Hills, Aminta Arrington skillfully fills this gap, recounting the history and development of Lisu Christianity from its early days to the present in a way that puts the Lisu Christians, and not Fraser and other missionaries, at the centre of the story. This book is not a mere history of Lisu Christianity, however, but also the reflective analysis of a participant-observer who weaves together first-hand accounts of modern Lisu Christians and their practices with academic analysis, setting the Lisu Christians in cultural, religious, linguistic, and political context.
Though not the focus of Arrington’s narrative, the early missionaries feature prominently in the early chapters of the book because of their lasting formative effect on the Lisu church today. The author’s greatest attention, however, is given to the communal practices of the Lisu that define their faith. Arrington repeatedly emphasizes the unity of internal faith and the external, communal expression of that faith among the Lisu. Despite the presence of a Lisu written script, developed by Fraser, the Lisu remain a primarily oral culture, and have little place for the solitary individual reflection that has shaped Western Christian practice and spirituality. Arrington emphasizes that practices, not doctrinal formulations, define Lisu Christianity. These include communal hymn singing and prayer, regular church attendance, seasonal festivals, short-term Bible schools, and a prohibition on drinking alcohol and smoking. This does not mean, though, that the Lisu do not have any theology. The doctrinal convictions of the Lisu are reflected and expressed by their shared practices rather than written works of theology per se. That said, the Bible and the Lisu hymnbook are treasured resources for learning and expressing shared beliefs.
Arrington’s survey and analysis of Lisu Christianity seeks to answer the question of why Lisu Christianity virtually disappeared in southwest China between 1958 and 1980, the harshest years of Chinese government anti-religious policy. The answer lies in the communal nature of Lisu Christianity which is simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness. For the Lisu, Christianity is a lived and expressed faith or it is no faith at all. When their faith was suppressed in China, many Lisu Christians fled to Burma, and some eventually to Thailand, although Arrington unfortunately includes extremely little on the development of Lisu Christianity outside China, a weak point of the book for any reader who had hoped to learn about Lisu Christianity in other parts of southeast Asia. Yet, every author must limit the scope of their study somehow, so this lacuna is understandable.
Both academically rigorous and engagingly accessible for the educated lay reader, Songs of the Lisu Hills makes a valuable contribution to not only the story of Lisu Christianity, but also the broader topics of literacy / orality, individualism / communalism, and the philosophy and practice of Christianity in East Asia.