Faith by Aurality in China’s Ethnic Borderland: An Interview with Author Ying Diao

Published by University of Rochester Press in December 2023, Faith by Aurality in China’s Ethnic Borderland: Media, Mobility, and Christianity at the Margins is the first book by ethnomusicologist Ying Diao. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in southwest China, Myanmar, and Thailand between 2010 and 2014, with additional research in 2017-18, Diao explores the concept of “aurality” among the Lisu Christian Gospel community, observing how sound and music have played a role in the practice and understanding of faith among its members. 

Although the Lisu region in Yunnan Province is geographically peripheral within China, Lisu Christians have developed a transnational network that connects them with the faithful in Myanmar and Thailand. The flow of media recordings among the three countries offers Chinese Lisu Christians a way to cultivate and extend their religion, despite often facing difficult social and political conditions in China. Yet, as Diao explains, the Chinese government has also engaged with the Lisu Gospel community, which has been brought into Chinese state pageantry by performing as “song-and-dance” troupes representing minority groups. Faith by Aurality is a fascinating case study in which Ying Diao traces “the ways in which people acquire, cultivate, and renew religious belonging in an environment where public discussions about religion are constrained.”

Diao received a Publication Support Grant for this project from the 2022 AAS “Striving for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Asian Studies: Humanities Grants for Asian Studies Scholars” program, made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. To contact Ying Diao about her work (and request a discount code for purchase of the book!), email her at xiaoweiicorn@gmail.com.

To learn more about Faith by Aurality in China’s Ethnic Borderland, please see our conversation about the book below.


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): Ying Diao, congratulations on the publication of your book! Faith by Aurality is such an interesting study of Lisu Christians, a group that might be called a minority-within-a-minority in China. How did you first connect with the Lisu Gospel community and decide to make it the focus of your research?

Ying Diao (YD): Thank you, Maura, for your kind introduction. And many thanks for offering me this opportunity to be at #AsiaNow to talk about my new book. This is the question I am often asked. To answer this question, I have to first talk about my journey to becoming an ethnographer. I use research methods where I spend time with communities to learn firsthand. My focus is on the ethnic borderlands between China and Southeast Asia, where music plays a fascinating role in religious practices, cultural expression, and politics. It has been a long road to get here.

I majored in Chinese language and literature in college at Tsinghua University. I was then introduced to ethnomusicological work during my graduate studies at Fudan University. This unexpected encounter led to my pursuit of doctorate in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. Though the majority of ethnomusicologists come through music, ethnomusicology is actually a discipline that is very inclusive and welcomes different backgrounds. That’s how I got in without formal musical training. In my doctoral studies, I was first interested in the revival of Taiwanese aboriginal music. My doctoral project, however, took a surprising turn. A random YouTube video featuring a small group of Nujiang Lisu singing beautiful harmonies in front of a church sparked my curiosity, as I had never encountered Chinese minority people singing like that before. The combination of their choral singing with a Christian setting was completely new to me. It made me realize that there was a whole world of music and religious practices in China that I had not learned about through textbooks or other public sources of information. Even worse, for me it was not simply a lack of knowledge. Growing up, I was surrounded by stereotypical portrayals of minority cultures (traditional songs and dances, colorful costumes, cheerful festivals, etc.) in the media. The video proved that my previous impression was wrong, and I had to dig deeper and understand what I had gotten so wrong.

This newfound curiosity about the untold stories of minority cultures, particularly the Lisu Gospel community, became the driving force behind my passion for ethnography. I was very adventurous at the time. Without doing much investigation or connecting with local researchers in advance, I embarked on a journey to China’s southwestern borderlands in January 2010. (Well, I was not that courageous. I brought my mother as a fieldwork “assistant” and cheerleader.) It was during that trip I met some of my most important Lisu interlocutors, and they introduced me to more local Lisu families. My first meaningful encounter with the Lisu was in the dedication ceremony of a new church building. We were having breakfast at a diner down the street in Shangpa Town of Fugong County. We asked the owner about the situation of Lisu churches and where we should go to see their activities. She told us that a big dedication was going to be held in the nearby village in the afternoon. We went there without hesitation. The church was located in the hillside of Gaoligong Mountain. So we had to take a motorbike, then the most popular means of transport between mountainous villages, to get there. My mother and I seemed to be the only visitors from outside the area that day, but we received a warm welcome. I was not only struck by the hospitality of the churchgoers but also amazed by the variety of music they were performing within the three-hour-long ceremony. How was this range of music introduced to the Lisu, and how did it become a seemingly integral part of the church gathering? There were just so many questions demanding further investigation. This first trip marked the beginning of my long-term engagement with the Lisu community.

MEC: In discussing radio broadcasts of services and sermons, you note that most feature senior male leaders of the church. How does gender play into your analysis of aurality in the Lisu Gospel community? Did you observe differences among the groups in China, Myanmar, and Thailand?

YD: Gender norms are one particularly salient aspect of Lisu Christian practices. Despite offering women’s ministry training, the church leadership remains mostly male. In Nujiang, each church has a team of pastoral staff to organize church activities, which includes a nominal elder, one or two deacons, a worship leader, a treasurer, and an evangelist (malpat, literally, “teacher”; chuandaoyuan in Chinese). These positions are mostly served by men. Women more commonly serve as a malma (female teacher). It is a Lisu word used to refer to those who have sufficient knowledge to preach and teach, including teaching music. Women relatively enjoy greater autonomy in music ministry than in other aspects of leadership.

The gender issue is an important part of my analysis of aurality. Chapter 3, “Producing Gospel Songs: Studio and Media Practitioners,” examines the Myanmar-centered transnational Lisu recording industry and networked home studio production. We see a clear gender-based division of labor among what I call “media practitioners.” These include studio professionals (musicians, singers, song writers, sound engineers, etc.), producers, photographers, fashion designers and amateur actor in music videos. Generally speaking, men are generalists with multiple skills and work primarily as songwriters, arrangers, and producers. Most prominent musicians and singers have been men. Women have often played a larger role in dance and fashion design. In the Burmese Lisu community, there have been a few talented female singers gaining recognition. They are active in Gospel concerts and cultural festivals, where they sing in rotation accompanied by one music band. Three second-generation Burmese female singers are particularly renowned among the Nujiang Lisu––almost every one of my interlocutors could say their names, Jenevy, Si Si Phi, and Ivy, in the same order.

Chapter 4 delves into the circulation of Lisu gospel songs, which goes beyond just lyrics. It’s about the circulation of sound and voice. I discuss how the studio sounds of Burmese Lisu recordings left a lasting influence on the Lisu Gospel community Nujiang. In terms of the intersection of music, religion, and gender, this chapter also highlights the special place of vocal timbre (vocal quality) in the Lisu practice of aurality. Particularly noteworthy are the identifiable lyrical and gentle voices of Burmese Lisu female singers. Their singing style presents a stark contrast to that of Chinese Lisu female singers performing traditional songs or conservatory-style ethnic folk songs.

In terms of the differences among the groups in three countries, in contrast to the Lisu churches in China and Thailand where women are primarily visible as dancers, the Burmese Lisu community offers a striking example of female empowerment in music. Several prominent Lisu female soloists from Myanmar have made viable careers in music and produced their solo albums despite the long period of time they had to spend doing so. This disparity is further highlighted by the fact that I only encountered mentions of one female songwriter/singer and one female guitarist within the Nujiang Lisu churches I visited. Chapter 6 focuses on song-signing performances (daibbit) in Nujiang. They are mostly performed by women, although there have not existed any rules that discourage men from participation. This divide along gender lines becomes ambiguous in the Christian training centers, short-term biblical workshops, and get-togethers of an informal music group, where performing daibbit is viewed less as gendered religious activities than as an indispensable part of extracurricular exercise and recreational activity. It will be interesting to see how this trend will continue or change in the future.

MEC: Early Lisu Gospel singers had to contend with the need to purchase expensive recording equipment and find ways to distribute physical copies of their music. How have advances in technology and the advent of online streaming changed this religious and musical community? What is gained—and lost—in the shift from radio and CDs to streaming and WeChat?

YD: Many studies have explored how technological development has changed the lives of religious communities worldwide. The Lisu Gospel community offers a fascinating example of this impact. This book is not just about how these advances have affected the ways music and sound mediate religious devotion. Instead, I wanted to use the Lisu as a way to understand what it means for people (of faith) to be on the margins. Even though they live in remote areas, the Christian Lisu are able to stay connected with each other, forming a network of overlapping national and (imagined) transnational communities. I wanted to offer a sound paradigm for the study of global Christianity and mobility that is exemplified by aurality, the overarching theoretical approach I use to examine how sound plays into the Lisu understanding and practices of faith. My analysis of aurality was inspired by Joyce Coleman’s definition of “aurality,” which she defines as “shared reading of written texts” in the context of Middle English literature. I define the term as “the shared hearing of mediated sound” to emphasize the materiality of sound, the centrality of listening, and the social experience of sound in different settings.

This book explores how studio-made Lisu Gospel songs are created, shared, and performed across borders. Whether broadcast on the radio program, edited in home studios, sold on (pirated) discs at farmers’ markets, shared on social media, or interpreted through daibbit dances, the meaning of these songs transcends the individual media forms. It’s a combination of how they sound (including the technology used) and the shared experience of listening and performing them together that creates significance. The focus is on the connection between music makers and listeners, how technology facilitates this connection, and how humans connect to technology. I would not say the shift to different media formats as a “loss” of tradition or something. For me this way of thinking is a bit subjective. Instead, I emphasize that the ways in which faith is practiced by members of the Lisu Gospel community today simply represent a transformation, not a decline or improvement. My thinking aligns well with Elizabeth Freeman’s (2007) concept of “belonging,” as something more than the longing to be, also including longing to be long, which goes beyond simply existing within a community but also cultivating a longing for lasting presence. In the Lisu church, we can see how Christian belonging is cultivated and renewed through remediation, where various media forms (written text, sung lyrics, recorded and live sound, visuals, bodily movements, video clips, etc.) are brought together and interact with each other. Through aural repetition and reinterpretation, faith is not only communicated but also embodied and continuously renewed. For the Christian Lisu, the practice of aurality is an open-ended journey of creation, sharing, and remaking. In reality, even for those Lisu who have never left their villages, there is always a thirst for knowledge and a spirit of experimentation with available options.

MEC: Your research took place well before the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown of China’s borders. Do you have any sense of how that affected the Christian Lisu community in southwest China and its ties with other groups in Myanmar and Thailand?

YD: I only have limited firsthand information about what was happening during the pandemic and its residual effects on the religious life of the Christian Lisu community in Nujiang. The pandemic forced the closure of Nujiang churches. This prompted a rapid shift to online worship services using WeChat. According to my chat with Pastor Jesse, videoconferencing was too expensive for most churches, so they adapted by using prerecorded materials on WeChat. For example, church members joined their own church’s WeChat group for seven services during the Easter celebration in 2020. They listened to prerecorded hymns and sermons on WeChat, which was very much like how they used to listen to prerecorded radio programs in the church or within a small group. That was still a group thing. But now, everyone has a smartphone.

This shift has its obvious limitations. In the Lisu church, attending an in-person gathering for worshipping, praying and singing together, especially the Sunday noon worship service, has always been a formal event in a public space outside one’s home. They would not work on Sundays and have to put down most other non-urgent matters that day. The virtual space lacked the sense of directness and communal feel that characterized in-person gatherings. They cannot sing hymns together on WeChat, to say nothing of daibbit dancing. Another challenge was maintaining a dedicated space within the more personal and everyday environment of WeChat.

In terms of how the pandemic affected the ties of the Nujiang Christian Lisu with other groups in Myanmar and Thailand, I do not have many details to share. Travel restrictions likely reduced in-person connections. The pandemic had a harsher impact on the Burmese Lisu community, with more illnesses and deaths reported. As far as I know, in a gesture of solidarity Nujiang church leaders provided aid (food, medicine, and life supplies) to help them through this difficult time. The situation in Thailand seemed less severe, and the small Lisu community in Minnesota—where I live now—switched to online worship using Zoom to comply with government regulations.

The pandemic took away many lives, including that of my valued friend and fieldwork assistant David Ahpu, who lost his battle with COVID-19 in 2021. He was a wise and sincere man, and I dedicate this book to his memory.

MEC: How does aurality play a role in conversion for Lisu Christians? How do converts to Christianity, or members new to a church community, incorporate aurality into the practice of their faith?

YD: Chapter 2, “Becoming the Faithful: Cleanliness and Conversion,” focuses on these questions. It was added based on reviewer feedback. This addition has not only allowed me to engage actively with anthropological and ethnomusicological works on world Christianity but also offered a deeper look at the Lisu practice of aurality over a long period of time. Conversion is complex, as are are the reasons for conversion. While historical resources offer limited insights into the exact role of aurality, missionary writings suggest that converting to Christianity for the Lisu involved a clear break from their existing cultural traditions and ways of life, especially animistic belief and rituals, and adoption of Christian practices.

So chapter 2 dives deeper into how the new converts learned to distinguish their new Christian faith from their old traditions through learning new vocal expressive forms. These included specific ways of speaking (prayer), singing hymns in four-part harmony, and reciting scriptures aloud. The chapter also explores the introduction of writing, the Fraser script, created by missionaries. This writing system is also known as “book language” (tot’et ngot), which facilitates reading the Lisu Bible, hymnbooks (with tunes in Lisu cipher notation), and later lyrics scrolling on Lisu gospel music recordings. Learning to read and write the Fraser script and singing hymns became central to being and becoming a Christian for the new converts. From the very beginning Lisu practice of faith involved both listening and learning through spoken words and written materials.

In terms of how the new members incorporate aurality into their practices, I will take the prominent role of music in Lisu worship services as an example. The Lisu term for the worship service is “watku zzirddu”: the noun “zzirddu” means “gathering,” indicating that worship activities are communal in nature; the verb “watku” means “to pray.” The Lisu church has five worship services a week—one on Wednesday evening, one on Saturday evening, and three on Sunday—the entire Sunday, known as “Sipat Hainrni” (the Lord’s Day), is devoted to worshipping God, with three consecutive services—one in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening. A regular service features diverse practices of sonic interaction, including music performed by congregations, soloists, and dancers (song signers), in combination with multiple prayers and one sermon. Most notably, there is a special time called “xelgget rriq” for voluntary performance of dominantly non-hymn repertory as musical profession of faith. These various vocal practices are customarily embedded in a regular worship service. The new church members become accustomed to this standardized procedure by attending as many of the services as possible and by listening and singing in the service both individually and collectively.

MEC: To wrap up, what can you tell #AsiaNow readers about your current interests—do you have any projects in the works, or other hobbies/activities/efforts occupying your time?

YD: I have always joked about having delivered two babies in 2023: one is this book, my intellectual baby, and the other is my son who is now a fifteen-month-old. Balancing motherhood with the demands of finishing this book was a challenge, but incredibly rewarding. However, I’m still struggling to find a better balance between work and family responsibilities.

Currently, I am on a one-year research fellowship supported by the Social Science Research Council. In this project, I am collaborating with the Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis. This thirty-year-old company is dedicated to presenting innovative stage works rooted in the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam. My work explores their underrepresented history and how the artistic directors have integrated their culturally rooted art form into the contemporary American dance scene. The ethnographic method I use can offer valuable insights into the experiences of artists of color—whatever that may mean—creating, performing, and running a non-profit organization at the periphery of mainstream recognition. By examining Ragamala’s artistic journey, I hope to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and successes faced by such artists.

Building on my passion for ethnography, for my next project I am planning to resume an oral-history-based research that explores the politics of creativity during China’s socialist period and the 1980s. The focus will be on how Maoist ideologies of innovation were interpreted and practiced within local artistic communities, particularly in the northeast of Sichuan Province. Unlike my previous work on the Lisu, this project focuses on state-sponsored performing arts, specifically the Nanchong Regional Cultural Work Troupe (wengongtuan). However, a central theme connects the two: understanding how people on the margins navigate artistic expression under various constraints. I am particularly interested in the experience of the “wenyi gongzuozhe” (cultural and arts workers) in state-sponsored performing arts troupes. This project is personal, drive by my desire to understand my mother’s experiences as a flutist performing in the troupe’s orchestra. Her stories have always sparked my curiosity. By talking to more ordinary cultural workers like her, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of my parents’ generation and the enduring impact of revolutionary performing arts on their lives.

It seems that my interests hopped around over the years but now I see how they are connected because researching these seemingly disparate groups of music and dance practitioners has all helped deepen my understanding of how people on the margins cultivate creative agency within various regulatory regimes and sociocultural-political pressures while exploring sources to achieve personal and communal (artistic) goals. Ethnographic research can be incredibly inspirational yet frustrating in a wonderful way. The ability to capture the nuances of human experience through in-person fieldwork is invaluable. I believe this expertise is crucial, and I am committed to conducting ethnographic research whenever possible.