YUNNAN, China – In the past, for centuries, the ancestors of the Wa (meaning “mountain dwellers”) people were steeped in animism and even head-hunted as part of their religious rituals to appease evil spirits.
But that did not prevent God’s Word from reaching this hill tribe in the beginning of the 20thcentury. And now, more than 70 years later, the Wa ethnic Christians can proudly claim to have God’s word in their own heart language!
“We are simply overjoyed! The joy we feel is beyond words. This is a dream come true!” said Rev Bao Guangqiang, a Wa pastor from southwest China and one of UBS sponsored Bible translators, holding the Wa Bible, the culmination of more than 10 years of hard work and sacrifice.
The Early Years
In 1900s, American Baptist missionaries William Young and his son, Vincent Young, brought the gospel to the Wa people. Recognising the importance of Bible translation, the Youngs led a team to transcribe the Wa language based on the Roman script. In 1938, they translated and published the Wa New Testament.
By the middle of 1980s when churches in China reopened, there was a need to update the Wa NT and translate the OT. In 2002, a team of Wa pastors including Rev Bao Guangqiang, continued the work of Bible translation built on the legacy left behind by the early missionaries.
However, their journey was fraught with many difficulties.
“It was difficult to find a suitable meeting place for translation work as all of us come from different counties in Yunnan. On top of that, every one of us has our own pastoral duties and family obligations,” shared Rev Bao.
There were also technical issues. Without access to any computers, the team wrote manuscripts by hand and then moved on to use old typewriters which were very time consuming and tiring to the eyes.
“Our eyes became blurry and we lost track of our work, not knowing if we were translating the same sentence twice!” shared Rev Bao. To make matters worse, each Bible translator spoke a different Wa dialect, which sometimes resulted in fierce debate and arguments among themselves over the terms used in the translation.
After three years, the translation team had to stop work.
An Experience Beyond Imagination
The situation took a turn for the better in 2005, when the United Bible Societies (UBS) stepped in to provide sponsorship of technical equipment like computers and software, as well as the assistance of an UBS Bible Translation Consultant, Dr Simon Wong.
Rev Bao recalled, “Back then we had never seen a computer before nor did we know how to operate one. But we were grateful for the chance to learn and make use of them. The computers made our work a lot easier and faster in the long run! Moreover, Dr. Wong’s emphasis on making the translation clear and simple was very helpful.”
“Translating the Bible has been a most valuable and spiritually-enriching experience as we read, think about, write and translate God’s Word. An experience beyond our imagination!” shared Rev Bao.
With Tears and Heartfelt Joy
The experience beyond imagination was shared by hundreds of Wa Christians at the Thanksgiving Service for the launch of the Wa Bible.
Decked in their striking red-black costumes and beaded headdresses, the Wa believers lined up under the scorching hot sun to give a warm reception to UBS guests who attended the thanksgiving.
The ceremony was held at a church beautifully decorated with colorful flags and banners, located more than a thousand meters above sea level at Lincang County.
To a congregation of Wa believers, UBS visitors and some Lahu Christians who had come to share a song presentation in Lahu to their Wa brethren-in-Christ, the Wa choir sang songs of thanksgiving to God in their beautiful voices and mother tongue.
Tears and heartfelt joy were seen on the faces of the Wa believers, who could hardly believe that they were holding the Word of God in their very own heart language, having waited almost a century for it.
Another Legacy Awaits
Rev Bao and his team of Bible translators have not only fulfilled the dream of having their own Bible translated, they are also recognized by the local authorities as the heritage bearers of the Wa culture. In addition, the Wa Bible was recently used as a reference in the compilation of the Wa-Han (Chinese) dictionary.
Yet another challenge and legacy awaits. “By translating the Bible, we have built on the legacy left behind by the early missionaries. The dream now is to have a Wa Annotated Bible. But that, I think, is a task for the next generation of Christians,” Rev Bao said with a smile.
With currently 20% of Christians amongst the 400,000 Wa people in China, the need to be anchored in the Word of God is paramount. Besides Bible translation, UBS is continuing to support and partner the Wa Church in China in Scripture literacy and equipping programs so that future generations of Wa Christians will no longer have to wait for decades to be strengthened in the Word of God.