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You Bin

Scholars have paid much attention to the cultural reception of the Bible among long-standing, well-formed Asian traditions, like Confucianism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, whereas they have largely ignored how it has been received by pre-literate societies that nevertheless possess long-standing oral traditions. Based on historical research and anthropological fieldwork among some ethnic groups, Christian and non-Christian, in Southwest China, this paper will investigate the larger socio-cultural Sitz im Leben against which the Bible has been translated, formed, and received. Some basic issues, such as the distinction between orality and literacy and its sociological implication, as well as identity construction with the reception of the Bible, will also be discussed. By using case studies of the reception of the Bible by ethnical groups in Southwestern China, the paper will also contribute to our understanding of the formation of biblical literature itself and of its social implications to canonical communities.

Biblical scholarship has generally been aware that the question of "writenness" and "orality" stands at the heart of issues regarding the study of the Bible (especially the Hebrew Bible), prophets and prophecy in ancient Israel, and Israelite social history at large. The emergence of literacy, usually associated with the idea of Scripture, was undoubtedly one of the most influential technical inventions in world civilizations. [1] Interestingly, in the reception of the Bible in Asia, especially by pre-literate ethnic groups, was also deeply involved with the relationship between "orality" and "literacy," the idea of a written scripture, and the complex sociological impacts resulted from them. Therefore, this paper is primarily concerned with the following questions: Associated with the technique of "writtenness" and the formation of a written scripture, what changes had happened within the social structure and organization of a pre-literate society? What happened to the authoritative systems in the ethnic communities after they received the Bible? How did the ethnic communities construct their group identity with the acceptance of the Bible into their cultures? In short, what was the interaction between the reception of the Bible and the social reality of the ethnic Christian communities? Before further elaboration upon these questions, we shall first make a brief introduction to the history of Bible and Christianity among ethnic groups in Southwest China.

As China had long been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation, the ethnic groups in Southwest China developed a distinctive socio-cultural system apart from traditional Sino-society. [2] Consequently, the reception history of the Bible among these ethnic groups was very different from how and what had been received within the Han nationality, with its overwhelmingly Confucian background. Interestingly, a common dominating feature among these ethnic groups is the fact that the formation of the Bible was coincident with the creation of their ethnic literacies. [3] The Bible as a canon and its literacy become a new cultural symbol in these ethnic societies. For those ethnic groups, the Bible was usually the first-ever book in its socio-cultural history; in turn, this meant that the cultural reception of the Bible was inevitably intertwined with the issue of literacy, the relationship between orality and literacy, and the implicit sociological function of a canon, namely a written scripture.

In this sense, the study of cultural reception can shed some light on the study of biblical literature itself. Because biblical scholarship has been strongly concerned with the social role of a "written book" in prophetic study, the bearings of a book (especially after it became a closed canon) upon the status of its composers, readers, and interpreters, the formation of some new social structure, the construction of moral language and discourse, the propagation of theological/ideological viewpoints about group identity and self-perception, etc., are very important in understanding the nature and formation of prophetic as well as canonical books. [4] Interestingly, these issues are also crucial in the process of the reception of the Bible by ethnic pre-literate societies. Therefore, examining these issues through some anthropological research into the social-cultural reception of the Bible among these ethnic groups can provide us with some inspiration in reflecting upon the social processes and implications of the formation of the written Word of God in ancient Israelite society.

Methodological Reflections
To evaluate the social impact of written scripture upon a preliterate society, this paper will apply some anthropological theories of literacy to the social implications of literacy and the Bible as canon in the ethnic groups of Southwest China. Furthermore, because of the pre-literate nature of these societies, the author had to undertake participatory observations and interviews to supply the necessary materials for our understanding of the social life in these ethnical Christian communities.

In the anthropological study of literacy and scripture, scholars have largely turned either to an "autonomous model" an or "ideological model." Both models emphasize interrelations between literacy and social reality. According to the autonomous model, more attention needs to be paid to the social influence of literacy. For the ideological model, literacy is treated more as a product of interactions between social powers, and its influence upon the individual and society crucially depends upon the social practices surrounding it and upon the social system in which it is embedded. Relevant issues include: how literacy becomes symbolic capital, the access to which can be controlled by the social elite, how the role and function of literacy are determined by other socio-cultural even political entities in society, etc. In a word, both models propose that literacy cannot be studied independently of the social, political, and historical forces that it shapes and by which it is shaped.

In our study of the cultural reception of the Bible in the Asian cultural context, the importance of literacy is brought into our consideration because it is the most important technological invention for the formation of the Bible, the holy canon for the ethnic Christian community. Therefore, the socio-cultural dimensions of a canon are actually part of the larger context for our understanding of the social function of literacy in a pre-literate society. As biblical scholars have widely realized, the formation of a canon also shapes and is shaped by the social forces and systems in which that canon is embedded. From this perspective, at least three issues will be considered. First, the formation of a canon itself is a social process. Second, the formation of a canon is a landmark in a social history because it makes a clear and fixed the social boundary separating different groups. This is true of the case of the formation of the Bible in a pre-literate society, since the Bible is the first ever written text and is itself a strict, closed religious canon. [5] Third, after the formation of a written canon, the written canon becomes the starting point for oral communication. In short, to study the cultural reception of the Bible by the ethnic groups in Southwest China, an application of the anthropology of literacy and canon is needed. Only through this application can the socio-cultural forces intertwined with the reception of the Bible be fully understood.

Lastly, a few of words are needed about the method of collecting primary materials about the socio-cultural impact of the Bible upon a pre-literate society. In particular, because of the pre-literate nature of these ethnic groups, few written resources about their socio-cultural traditions are available. This paper has to depend heavily on the oral histories narrated by the socio-cultural elite in these societies, which were collected when the author conducted interviews in his fieldwork.

Social Authority, Structure and the Reception of the Bible
The substitution of literacy (especially combined with the reception of the Bible as a written canon) for orality in a pre-literate society was not only a change in the technique for preserving religious traditions, but also a great social transformation in its history. Basically speaking, it brought in a class of literati, who could read and interpret the Bible, to replace the old class of orators, who could recite and narrate the oral tribal traditions, as the new social authority. Further, the church, where the Bible is read, sung, and interpreted, became the public center and a new "political block," replacing the household, where tribal rituals were performed. A new system of authority had been brought into the social structure and organization of these ethnic groups, altogether reshaping their society.

Christian Literati and Tribal Orator
As mentioned above, the immergence of literacy in Bible translation made literacy itself symbolic capital, the access to which exerted strong influence on the social status of the different groups. In the past, the outstanding status of tribal orators rested heavily upon their capability to memorize and recite oral tribal epics.[6]

The orators were religious as well as social authorities in pre-literate societies. With their specific capacity to memorize, they controlled access to the "belief and knowledge" world through the "symbolic capital" of oral epics and traditions. From the perspective of sociology of knowledge, oral tradition constituted the intellectual foundation for their authoritative social status. However, with the immergence of literacy and the formation of the Bible as a written canon in ethnic Christian community, that foundation was largely overthrown. The technique of literacy rendered memorizing less important, and the skill of reading and writing become a more dominating ability for the intellectuals of the community. As a result, the class of literati, educated by the churches and possessing the ability to read and interpret the Bible, arose as the new authority in the whole society. The orators of the traditional epics slowly lost their influence upon the community.

Churches and Household
With the immergence of literacy and the formation of the Bible, not only did a new class of literati arise, but the churches also emerged as the new authoritative, even holy, sites for ethnic members. Generally, churches, where the Bible was read and interpreted, were the first public central buildings for a pre-literate society. Before the establishment of a Christian community, religious life was traditionally conducted around the household or its extensions, which included the cemetery of a family, etc. [7]

Although the occasions for the oral recitation of the epics were varied, they were basically involved with family business, and their fundamental spatial location was the household. They were a part of family ritual. But the formation of the Bible as a written canon had dramatically changed this situation. The preaching of the Bible, the Word of God, was believed somehow to be the Word of God itself. A separate public space was needed, and the interpretation of the Bible became the center of the whole ceremony whenever the Christian community gathered together. In turn, this public space, i.e. church, became separated from and above the rest of the community because it was the place where the interpretation of the Bible — or in other words, the Word of God — was heard. As a holy place, the church transcended the household and became the visible symbol of the new authoritative book of the Bible. Combined with the new class of literati, who had taken on the responsibility of interpreting the Bible, the church became the dominating center around which the whole community was organized.

Identity Construction and the Reception of the Bible
As anthropologist have generally argued, the conception of who we are is one of the most fundamental ideas in shaping our social consciousness. Therefore, to investigate the socio-cultural dimension of the reception of the Bible, a crucial question has to be raised: After ethnic believers have received the Bible as their scripture, to what degree and in what ways are their conceptions about who they are, i.e. their consciousness of identity, been changed? In other words, how and where has the Bible (or at least some traditions in the Bible) been involved in their identity construction?

Before answering the above questions, we might first review how the oral recitation of ethnic epics shaped ethnic identity. As one of the principles in identity construction, how people perceive the present is largely dependent upon how they narrate their past; the rich oral narratives about ethnic history shape the ethnic understanding of identity. Here history is not merely the "fact," but mostly the "story," which consists of the event, ideology, and aesthetics. The narrative of ethnic history usually happened in ritual circumstances, where the orators sit with some ethnic members. [8] In these rituals, a process of complex identity construction was undertaken by narrating the oral epics. First of all, the orators made a common space and time for "those who are narrated" and "these who are listening". It was a double process of drawing the story of the ancestors into the present and the audience into the historical circumstances of their ancestors. Past history was experienced by the present audience. They agreed on their common ancestors and their common historical roots, and they developed a common attitude towards "other groups." Through this common experience, all the members somehow joined into a homogeneous group, each bearing the same group identity.

After conversion to the Christian faith, to receive the Bible as scripture was not only a symbolic ritual for these ethnic members, but also part of a long process of internalizing biblical traditions through the routine of visiting church to listen to the interpretation of the Bible. Because of the sole-truth claim of the Christian Bible and the exclusive attitude towards other religions and tribal culture adopted by the first missionaries, participation in the oral recitation of tribal orators was forbidden strictly. Therefore, in the replacement of oral ethic epics by the written Bible, the diminished authoritative status of both the ethnic orators and the tribal historical memory were implied. And a more far-reaching result was the lost of historical foundation in ethnic group identity construction. Based on biblical interpretation, the "spiritual genealogy" of the Bible replaced "blood genealogy" in constructing group identity:

XXXXThe God we worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. Before our conversion to the Lord, we would invite some orators to recite some songs about our ancestors. But we nowadays almost forgot all of those, and we are more familiar with the Bible figures and stories. We do believe that Abraham is our authentic forefather. [9]

The written Bible's replacement of oral epics has had a great impact on ethnic group identity. In addition to nominal ethnical identity, there is now another dimension to their being, i.e. the Christian (symbolically the biblical) identity. In a sense, Christian identity has become more important than the ethnic one for them. In some of the Confucian cases, the struggle between the Confucian and the Christian identity was intensive, and people strained their very nerves to bridge the gap between the two because there is another long-standing scriptural tradition in Confucianism and it is impossible to replace it completely with the Bible. [10] But in the case of the ethnic groups in Southwest China, the preponderant advantage of literacy over orality helped in the overwhelming victory of the Bible over the ethnical oral epics. With the loss of the oral epics, biblical history, heroes, and the faithful have come to form the spiritual foundation for new identity construction. Christianity, rather than ethnic identity (whether it is Lisu, Miao, etc.), is their dominating identity.

To receive the Bible is not only a change of attitude, but it is also an influential event in the process of identity construction. In the cases of the ethnic groups in Southwest China, the far-reaching influence of the traditions implicit in the Bible on identity construction can be clearly seen. According to this analysis, the spiritual lineage of faith in the Bible and the arrangement of time by the festivals in biblical traditions have refreshed the groups' perspective in understanding about who they are, what kind of life they shall follow, etc. With the overwhelming victory of literacy over orality and of the Bible over the ethnical epics, the traditional cultural foundations for constructing a strong ethnical identity have been largely collapsed. The Bible has become the dominating element in constructing identity. Especially when the closed nature of the Bible as a canon and the sole-truth claim of Christianity are considered, these groups have correspondingly developed a clear bounded identity. They have understood themselves first and most of all as Christians or "the children of Abraham."

After these case studies of the reception of the Bible by pre-literate ethnical groups, we can first of all say that within a society where the vast majority is illiterate and where ethnic traditions are preserved in orality, the explicitly written character of the Bible cannot be considered a theological or literary feature of secondary importance. In fact, it has a very substantial bearing on the social role of the Bible and the social status of cultural elements related to the Bible, like the clergyman and the church. Furthermore, with the victory of the written Bible over the oral ethnic epics, a new sense of group identity and self-perception among ethnic members is constructed, which in the long run will influence the social structure as well. Biblical literacy and the Bible in literacy need to be considered as a cultural event, and most of all as a social event. This reminds us that in the study of the writing, composition, and reception of biblical literature, especially the Hebrew Bible in Israelite society, the issue of literacy and its socio-cultural dimensions needs to be considered seriously as well.

You Bin, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Central University for Nationalities in China, Beijing,


1. A classical work on this issue is Ehud Ben Zvi, Michael H. Floyd, eds, Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy (Atlanta: SBL, 2000), SBL Symposium Series, No. 10. esp. pp. 1-30.

2. For a general introduction to, and rich case studies about, the distinctive aspects of Chinese ethnic religions and cultures, see Lu Daji and He Yaohua, Encyclopedia of Religions of the Chinese Minorities [Zhongguo Geminzu Yuanshi Zongjiao Ziliao Jicheng] (Beijing: Chinese Social Science Press, 2000).

3. For general studies about Christianity among ethnic groups in Southwestern China, see Qian Lin, Christianity and Social Transformation among Chinese Minorities [Jidujiao yu Shaoshuminzu Shehui Wenhua Bianqian] (Kunming: Yunnan University Press, 1998), Han Junxue, Christianity and Yunnan Minorities [Jidujiao yu Yunnan Shaoshuminzu] (Kunming: Yunnan People's Press, 2000).

4. As to the formulation of these issues, see Ehud Ben Zvi, pp. 8-9.

5. This is a dominating feature of the so-called Semitic religions, especially when they are compared with Eastern religions like Confucianism, and even Buddhism, etc. See Kogen Mizuno, Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1982).

6. Interview of a Lisu traditional orator priest, July 20, 2003, Yunnan, China.

7. Interview with a traditional orator priest, July 22, 2003, Yunnan, China.

8. Interviews in a non-Christian community about the ethnic oral epics, July 25, 2003, Yunnan, China.

9. Interview with a Lisu Christian leader, July 30, 2002, Yunnan, China

10. For some of the Confucian case studies, see Archie Lee, "Cross-textual Reading Strategy: Studies on Some Chinese Christian Writings," Religious Studies [Zongjiao Yanjiu] (Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2004).

Citation: You Bin, " Literacy, Canon and Social Reality: Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Reception of the Bible among Ethnic Groups in Southwest China," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2005]. Online:


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