YUNNAN, China – When you meet preacher Bi Hongzhen, you couldn’t help but notice his left eye. It doesn’t look normal. Some fifty years ago when Bi was grinding rice flour in his village house, the rod suddenly bounced up to his face and hit his left eye.
“My left eye has gone blind since the accident. But I consider myself blessed because I have seen the publication of the Bible in our own language with my own eye,” preacher Bi who is from the East Lisu ethnic minority group in China, said reminiscently.
Preacher Bi was one the earliest members of the East Lisu Bible translation team, and one of the few who stayed through from 1992 when the team was established until 2013 when the translation was completed. The East Lisu Bible was officially published and launched in 2016.
As a young preacher in the 1980s, preacher Bi noticed that elderly pastors only had portions of the East Lisu New Testament left with the church by the early missionaries. Being illiterate in Chinese language, the pastors could not read the Chinese Bible. So they would often come to Bi and ask him to translate a passage from the Chinese Bible into East Lisu.
After preacher Bi managed to verbally translate the Bible passage to the pastors in East Lisu, they would then go on to expound and preach to the congregation. These faithful servants of the Lord only remembered in fragments what the early missionaries taught them but they didn’t know the entire Scripture. They didn’t have a chance to read what the whole Bible says because it wasn’t yet available in their language.
But, things began to change as God prepared preacher Bi for the translation of the Bible into East Lisu language.
Firstly, Bi came to know an elderly man who taught him the East Lisu script. After Bi’s uncle passed away, he took his aunt into his family to care for her as she had no children. Being a fervent Christian, she began to hold Christian gatherings at his house. Among those who came was this elderly gentleman. It turned out he used to be a landlord who was well versed in the East Lisu language. In those days, landlords were branded as a bourgeois class and people were cautious in dealing with them for fear of getting implicated politically.
“But I became his student and started to learn from him the East Lisu script. Beginning from basic alphabets, we used the hymnal as our primary textbook. This was how the Lord miraculously prepared me!”
Secondly, the Lord opened the door for the East Lisu translation team to be supported by the United Bible Societies (UBS). For a prolonged period, they were living on only 350 yuan (about USD $50) a month. Bi and other Bible translators were struggling to make ends meet and carry on with the work.
Living in the remote mountainous regions of China, ethnic minorities are usually economically impoverished. Most of them are subsistence farmers and manual labourers. Likewise, ethnic minority Bible translation teams need to juggle between farm work, family, church ministry and translation work.
Bi shared openly with Rev Jiang Zhulin, the former Vice Chairman of the Yunnan Three-Self Patriotic Movement, that they could not proceed. Mr Jiang encouraged him by saying: “I know the work is not easy, but think about the forty years when the Israelites were in the wilderness. You must persevere, if you give up now you may have regrets. It’s not just about you, it’s about the whole ethnic group!”
Thankfully, Bi and his team did not give up. Soon, Rev Jiang shared about the need with UBS leaders and requested support. UBS readily responded and supported the East Lisu translation work through the National CCC/ TSPM.
“If it were not for the support of UBS, we don’t know when we could have the whole Bible in our own ethnic language. The value of the East Lisu Bible is immeasurable, and the credit goes to the United Bible Societies. We can’t thank UBS and all of its supporters and donors enough. I have often shared with fellow East Lisu believers that it is like we are going to heaven by holding the hands of brothers and sisters from UBS.”
Today, preacher Bi often shares with his co-workers and family how he felt so blessed by the Lord to be involved in the East Lisu Bible translation, a project that had spanned more than two decades. The progress was slow especially in the early years when there was a lack of computers, Bible translation training and financial support which were later provided by UBS. Some elderly East Lisu pastors and preachers who started the translation work did not get a chance to see the Bible being published.
“Praise God, I am blessed to witness the work from start to finish. I’ve seen with my own eye the Bible translated and printed in our ethnic language!”
Story: Marcus Xiao, Cynthia Oh
Photo: UBS CP
2022 © United Bible Societies China Partnership