The Souls of China

The Return of Religion After Mao

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Ian Johnson
  • New York, NY: 
    Pantheon Press
    , April
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



When Ian Johnson was a Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, he won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on the Chinese government’s 1999 suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. His latest book, The Souls of China, aims to tell the other significant story of religion in twenty-first century China, which is that “faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life” (16). To those whose knowledge of China is limited to the “fake news” of the mainstream US media, such a claim might seem startling to say the least. Johnson does not discount the stories of persecuted Christians, self-immolating Tibetans, or crackdowns on Wahhabist Islam among Uighur minorities: “All of this exists and is true,” he writes, “but misses a bigger point: that hundreds of millions of Chinese are consumed with doubt about their society and turning to religion and faith for answers that they do not find in the radically secular world constructed around them” (16).

The Souls of China is, on the surface, an impressive anthology of Johnson’s interviews—conducted mostly between 2011 and 2013—with a cast of characters whose lives exemplify the resurgence of religion in contemporary China. These include Christians in Chengdu, folk religion pilgrims in Beijing, Daoists in Shanxi, and assorted spiritual gurus. The interviews, rich in color and detail, provide a wealth of evidence as to the nature of this religious revival, which Johnson compares to the Great Awakening of nineteenth century America. They are interspersed with Johnson’s commentary, which provides background information to help the reader navigate through the complexities of Chinese cultural conventions, and, to a certain degree, analysis of this remarkable phenomenon of religious revitalization. The organizing principle of the book is to document a year in the life of China’s religions, grouping the chapters according to the main nodes of the lunar year. While China’s outward, modern, secular life follows the Western calendar, Johnson argues, the lunar calendar still dominates its inner, traditional, religious life. Religion is, in this sense, the dark yin to the bright yang of China’s economic miracle.

Johnson’s focus is on faith: the expression of religion in people’s lived experience. As he explains, when Chinese people are surveyed about their adherence to religion (zongjiao), the answer is overwhelmingly negative. But when they are surveyed about their beliefs (xinyang) in karma, the will of Heaven, or fate, the answer is overwhelmingly positive. The takeaway from Johnson’s book is that while the Chinese state engaged in the deliberate dismantling of religious institutions over a century-long period leading up to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), this failed to suppress faith. Indeed, as the Communist Party of China (CPC) made clear in its famous Document 19, the active suppression of religion was in fact a misinterpretation of Marxist theory. The more remarkable truth, towards which Johnson’s book distantly points, is that the revival of religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century did not somehow take place over and against the will of the CPC, but in fact because of it. Indeed, as the book hints from time to time, the revival of religion, the rise in China’s self-confidence in the world, and its miracle of economic growth are all interconnected phenomena. In this regard, Chinese and American societies seem more and more like mirror images of each other than many may care to admit. Indeed, I would even argue that scholars of American religion might be the ones who would benefit most from Johnson’s text.

The Souls of China is a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise. It is the work of a generalist who is comfortable conversing with dissident Christians, Buddhist gurus, and conservative Confucian intellectuals, and one who has the social, cultural, and linguistic fluency to navigate the complexities of myriad encounters with people from diverse cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. Johnson, ever the modest Canadian, never vaunts these skills, remarkable though they are, and infuses many of his encounters with a self-deprecating humor that portrays him as the typical confused and ignorant foreigner stumbling through the complexities of Chinese culture. Do not be fooled by this literary device for one minute. Johnson is a master of his material, fully conversant with the latest academic scholarship on China, and has written an instant classic that deserves high praise and a wide readership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Miller is Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian Johnson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times; his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and National Geographic. He is an advising editor for The Journal of Asian Studies and teaches a course on religion in Beijing. He is the author of two other books that also focus on the intersection of politics and religion: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He lives in Beijing.


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