Interview with Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China

Ian Johnson, whose latest book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao was published by Pantheon Press in 2017, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalist. Johnson teaches at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies and serves as an advisor for organizations including the Journal of Asian Studies, the Berlin-based think tank Merics, and New York University’s Center for Religion and Media. He spoke with graduate intern Francesca Chubb-Confer over Skype in July 2018.

FCC: You’ve had a long career of writing and reporting on China. How did you come to write this book—The Souls of China—at this point? Why this book, now? How did you become interested in the question of religious revival in modern China?

IJ: I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time. From the first time I went to China in 1984, I was curious about the country’s spiritual life. It could have to do with the fact that I grew up in a fairly religious, observant Christian household, and so for me it was natural to wonder about what other people believed in and what their faiths were. I knew about the Daodejing and some basic things about Buddhism, but I wondered what was going on in 1980s China because it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot of religious expression. This was a misunderstanding on my part. It was only eight years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and most temples and churches and mosques were closed. The revival was actually getting underway at that time, but I only came to realize that in the 1990s, when I went back to China and worked as a journalist. There was a big folk religious movement around Qigong, which is a form of physical cultivation that is very important in Daoism and also in Buddhism. They called this “Qigong fever” and said it was spreading across China. The best-organized Qi Gong group was Falun Gong, and I wrote about that in my first book about China, Wild Grass, which is made up of three case studies about civil society: one is a group of farmers who sue the government, another is a group of homeowners in Beijing trying to protect the old city, and the third is the Falun Gong movement.

But religion really only came to the center of the national discussion around 2008, which was when I came back to China to work around the time of the Olympics. The capitalist-style economic reforms that had started in the late 1970s brought a lot of prosperity to people, but also a sense, I think, of displacement: a disconcerting feeling that there was no moral basis to society anymore, that there were no shared values, and that there had to be more to life than just economics. I think initially people were pretty happy to get wealthier. But for most Chinese people, once the basic questions of food, clothing, and shelter were solved, eternal questions of morality in society and politics started to come up. This has become a central part of Xi Jinping’s platform, which is to create a new moral order in China and to revive Chinese traditions. So at first, I had a personal interest in religion and spirituality in China, but this is now a key quest in Chinese society and a key political issue. That’s why I thought the book would work really well now.

FCC: The book relies on interviews with individuals who are really diverse in terms of religious affiliation and geography. Could you talk more about the process of finding the people you interviewed? How did you even decide where to start?

IJ: One thing I did at the outset was to make a difficult, but necessary decision: that I was going to focus on ethnic Chinese, the Han Chinese. China is made up of 91% ethnic Chinese, and the other nine percent are divided into fifty-five other ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, and many small ethnicities that may just have a million or two or even fewer members. I thought that I would focus on the Chinese because they in the majority, but also because the Chinese run things even in the so-called autonomous regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. I thought that in order to try to figure out where this superpower is going, I should focus on the ethnic Chinese. Also—and maybe this is contrarian—I feel like there’s a lot of interest in the minority areas, almost disproportionately so. In a way, the Chinese are like the elephant in the room of China. For example, if you look at a lot of guidebooks to China, such as the Lonely Planet guidebooks, they almost tell you almost how to avoid China: how to go from Beijing up along the Silk Road to Xinjiang, or down through the so-called colorful ethnic minority areas in Yunnan and Guizhou, and to Tibet. The great mass of China (roughly analogous to Ming Dynasty China) has been the heartland of Chinese culture for a couple thousand years. I thought I should just focus on that.

Focusing on the ethnic Chinese also allowed me to avoid dealing with Islam and Tibetan Buddhism. These religions are very often tied into people’s striving for political autonomy. In order to do them justice, you would have to make the book even bigger, and I think it’s already long enough!

A separate decision was that I didn’t want this book to be primarily about Christianity in China. I thought that writing too much about Christianity would pander a little bit to Western readers. I think that it’s easy for people to sympathize with Chinese Christians--it's something familiar and it is also really important in China. So it’s one of the five case studies in my book, but the rest of the book is not about Christianity. In raw numbers, there are a lot of Chinese Christians. I estimate that there are something like sixty million Christians in China. But as a percentage of the overall population it’s not huge, maybe only 5 percent. I think we have to look at other religions, especially the amalgam of Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions that is almost like one religion in China: traditional Chinese religion. This is also what the government is promoting from a political point of view, and it’s also what most people believe in at the end of the day. That’s really what’s going to define China’s future.

FCC: Can you give us an overview of your five case studies?

IJ: The folk religion case study focused on Beijing-based pilgrimage associations. That’s the first one. For the Daoists I chose a family of folk Daoists: the Li family in Shanxi province. The Christian congregation is the one in Sichuan, in Chengdu. Then I had another case study which I called “practice,” which is internal cultivation similar to Qigong that a lot of people follow in China, a lot of middle-class people. So I joined one of these groups in order to get access—so there’s participant-observation there. This was in a different part of China, down the Yangtze river delta. And then the fifth group is the government itself, and its practice, its ritual practice. Because the government rules in a quasi-ritualistic way, and I think its policies are also part of the story, so I wanted to make that one of the case studies.

FCC: I wanted to follow up on this question of the state’s religion. It’s so interesting, as you said earlier, how theoretically religion is not practiced in that sector, but there’s this idea of a difference between what counts as a “religion” and what’s a “tradition,” or what’s authentically Chinese when the government seeks to promote particular traditions.

IJ: These questions—what’s religion, what’s culture—that have been key for the Chinese over the past century or so. There was this paradigm imported from the West of religion versus superstition. It became prominent in the West during the Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholicism as being quasi-idol worship—superstitious and backwards. This argument was also used by Western missionaries but also many Chinese elites to essentially redefine a lot of Chinese religious practices as superstition. My definition of religion is quite broad. Maybe the case study where people might push back would be the internal cultivation practices, meditation practices. If you say “is this religion?” and you use the word for religion, zōngjiào, a lot of people would say “oh, no, this isn’t religion, this is just my personal thing.” I think in the West we also are faced with these questions, because attendance in many organized religions is down, but quasi-religious practices and beliefs are not.   

FCC: Is the Chinese word for “religion”—zōngjiào—a direct translation after the historical introduction of the English world “religion”? When did that term come into use?

IJ: It’s a neologism. You can find the term in Buddhism but it meant something completely different. Basically, the Chinese words for “religion” and “superstition” were imported from Japan, which had undergone a similar process of “modernization” during the Meiji Restoration a generation earlier. A lot of words, especially complex words, were imported from Japan, because it uses the same script. So China imported these words, along with a lot of other terms like “physics,” “proletarian,” "neurasthenia," and so on.The upshot was that a lot of beliefs and practices were defined as superstition: ancestor worship, fortune telling, and feng shui (geomancy).

But over the past decade or so, the Chinese government has redefined a lot of these things as "intangible cultural heritage"—a term borrowed from UNESCO. They say “oh, it’s just intangible cultural heritage,” and that way, they get around the whole question of whether it’s religion or not, by saying it’s just our Chinese tradition. You might say, “but people are kowtowing in front of a statue with incense,” and the response would be that that’s just culture.

FCC: This is a great segue into another question I have about the broader framework of your book. It’s about the resurgence or revival of religion in China, but it’s also about this idea of “religion” as itself a symbol for the interior life of Han Chinese people. One of the symbols that you use for that is the calendar, the Western calendar versus the lunar calendar. As you were saying earlier, when you asked people “What’s your religion?” that would answered in the negative, but if you were to ask “What do you believe or practice” then you’d see things come out that we would categorize as religious. Could you say more about this – not just the presence of religions, but what this bigger-picture category of religion as a private, internalized set of practices might mean for Chinese people going forward?

IJ: That’s a key question: what does it mean going forward? I think it’s a question of how people define themselves and their society, and this is a key reason for this return, this rebirth, or revival, or recreation of religious practices. Because there’s great uncertainty about what it means to be Chinese. Chinese people are proud of having five thousand years of culture. It’s probably the world's longest continuous civilization. There’s pride in that. But when so many things have changed,when people look around at their lives, the clothes they wear, the way their cities are constructed, even Communism, which was also a Western import, there’s so much destruction that went on in the 20th century: physical destruction of cultural places and loss of practices and the persecution of people who were cultured and who had religious knowledge. There’s this desire to bridge the past, to go back and recapture what’s been lost. People will often try to find old masters, such as one guy I describe, Nan Huai-chin, a ninety-five-year-old Zen master who lived on the shores of Lake Tai. People flocked to him with questions, often just  because he was educated in the early 20th century. They imagined that he could tell them what things were like in the old days.

FCC: What would you say to someone coming to this book with the idea that religion in China today indicates the ultimate failure of the policies of the Communist party, or that it represents a resistance to it?

IJ: I think Chinese religion was often portrayed in academic work of the 1980s and 1990s, and also still today in the popular press, as a kind of resistance: underground churches fighting to be loyal to the Vatican, self-immolating Tibetan monks, and so on. This is certainly part of the story. But the government has, especially over the past decade, recognized that there is this spiritual yearning, this desire for something else in society, and it is trying to co-opt it. I think it’s a little bit like Russia, where you have Vladimir Putin cloaking himself as a protector of the Orthodox Church. With Xi Jinping, he doesn’t go to Buddhist temples and worship, but the government does support the spread of Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion (but not Christianity or Islam). They realize there’s a lot of political capital to be gained in backing the majority religions. It’s ironic, of course, for people familiar with Chinese history. This is the same Communist party that tried to destroy a lot of this stuff a generation ago, and now they’re supporting it and rebuilding temples. But I don’t think that bothers a lot of people, frankly. One of the reasons Xi Jinping is so popular is not just the crackdown on corruption, but also that he presents himself as a defender of traditions, trying to re-establish some sort of reimagined traditional China. I think this goes over really well on a variety of levels. Kids are learning calligraphy and memorizing traditional books, just like their grandparents and great-grandparents would have done. All this is coming back with government support.

FCC: Where do you think future research on this topic is headed?

IJ: I think there’s been a flowering of the study of Chinese religion at universities around the world. A generation ago, there weren’t very many people who even taught about Chinese religion. Now, almost every university has somebody who studies Chinese religion. If you were offering a course of study on Western Europe, of course you would have somebody teaching Christianity and Judaism. By the same token, people have realized that to understand China you have to understand Chinese religion. There’s a lot of great ethnographic work being done at the grassroots level in China on the role of the state in religion, and I think that work is going to continue.

For myself, I’m actually going back to school to get a PhD in Sinology from Leipzig University. I’m writing about one of the groups that’s in The Souls of China: the folk religions and pilgrimage associations. I’m looking at them more systematically, analyzing their relationship with civil society. We tend to look at civil society in China in terms of classic groups like trade unions or environmental movements, groups with a political agenda that might challenge the government in some way. But religious groups are actually excellent examples of civil society. And not just politically active, underground churches like the one in Chengdu from my book. A lot of these pilgrimage associations are self-organizing, self-governing parts of society. They represent an effort on a grassroots level to recreate traditions. Invented traditions are very important to Chinese people as they try to negotiate modernity and create some kind of a society that has values that they can believe in, and that will help unite society, help hold it together. 

FCC: I’m glad you brought up the idea of invented traditions since I was thinking about it a lot, especially in terms of your case studies on Daoism, Buddhism, and the amalgamation of traditions that we’re calling Chinese folk traditions. To what extent do those traditions represent a survival of an ancient tradition into the modern day versus something that is a very modern phenomenon, having been constructed in the last few decades?

IJ: Often, when Chinese people talk about this they’ll use the word huīfù, to “revive”: the traditions were dormant or lost, and we’re going to revive them, to find the authentic way these things were done in the past and train a new generation of people in these practices. This is one of the key things that all these groups, including the pilgrimage associations, are interested in—how to carry on to the next generation what that our ancestors have passed down to us. But if we look at it more closely, a lot of these things are invented. People really don’t know how it was done in the past. It’s not as bad as in Russia, say, where you had a seventy year gap from 1917 to 1989 during which a lot was truly lost. In China, at least in the best case scenario, you might have someone who in 1949 was thirty years old and when reforms began in the early 1980s was in their sixties. So they might have an idea of how things were pre-1949, pre-Communist takeover, though they might not have known that much. In general, the religious repertoire has shrunk quite a bit. In the past, these pilgrimage associations would perform martial arts, feats of strength, or dances for the gods. These performances were quite sophisticated. But now people don’t have as much time for that sort of thing. The groups themselves are still very popular. People join because it gives them a sense of community, a sense of belonging. This is true in the West as well. Church services have become much less complex in the number and types of services. It’s similar in China, where you have a streamlining of tradition. People still find a lot of value in it, but the traditions have changed. Another change is the role of women. China remains a very patriarchal society, but it is changing. A hundred years ago, women had basically no role in religious groups, except possibly to be nuns. But now you see women playing a large role: about a third of clergy are nuns. Going from perhaps 5% in the past to a third now is quite something. In the pilgrimage associations, which were always transmitted in a patrilineal line from father to son, some now transfer knowledge and leadership to daughters because of the single child policy, as well as changing ideas of female equality. These things are changing with the times.

FCC: Who is your ideal audience for this book?

IJ: People who are interested in China and who want to know the direction in which China is headed, but also people who are interested in the role of spirituality in capitalist or post-capitalist societies, how spirituality tries to create a counterbalance to the highly economic societies we’ve created. One of the things that really struck me was the commonality of people’s spiritual search in China with people in other cultures. You can see in the West that we have a populist backlash, be it Brexit, Trump, or far right groups. Part of it, I think, is this sense that people don’t really know what their society stands for anymore, that elites are corrupt, that they’ve been left behind. It’s complex, and there’s more reasons than that, but this is something that you also find in China. There’s a global conversation about the common values of our societies, what makes life worth living besides making money. China is part of this conversation now, so I think that if you’re interested in these kinds of questions, you’ll be interested in this book. This is by far the most interesting project I’ve worked on!