Lisu China Isobel Kuhn James J.O. Fraser

Lisu of China

From Nests Above the Abyss by Isobel Kuhn

"Are the Lisu tribes people, who have built their homes all over these mighty rocks where Satan reigns, enjoying the peace and happiness of living ‘the natural life’? Yes, they are just as happy and peaceful as fledglings in a nest built on a ledge of jutting rock over one of these mountain abysses, when the monsoon winds sweep like a hurricane through the canyon... What chance has a little nest against such strength?"

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.