THE SOULS OF CHINA
The Return of Religion After Mao
by Ian Johnson
Random House Canada Pantheon
Publication date: April 11th, 2017
455 pages. Hardcover. $30.00 CAD.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, a revelatory portrait of religion in China today—its history, the spiritual traditions of its Eastern and Western faiths, and the ways in which it is influencing China’s future.
The Souls of China tells the story of one of the world’s great spiritual revivals. Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled with new temples, churches, and mosques – as well as cults, sects, and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty—over what it means to be Chinese and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is searching for new guideposts.
Ian Johnson first visited China in 1984; in the 1990s he helped run a charity to rebuild Daoist temples, and in 2001 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
While researching this book, he lived for extended periods with underground church members, rural Daoists, and Buddhist pilgrims. Along the way, he learned esoteric meditation techniques, visited a nonagenarian Confucian sage, and befriended government propagandists as they fashioned a remarkable embrace of traditional values. He has distilled these experiences into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle—a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese patriots … worried that their country was so backward that it would be torn apart by foreign powers… Those who sought reform of China’s traditional culture, especially its systems of belief, (targeted) superstitious relics that dulled people to the potential of science and progress…
Out of these struggles for a new identity, based on the best of the past but also open to the future… is coming something more than the hyper-merchantilist, fragile superpower that we (currently) know. It is a country engaging in a global conversation that affects all of us: how to restore solidarity and values that have made economics the basis of most decisions. Perhaps because Chinese traditions were so savagely attacked over the past decades, and then replaced with such a naked form of capitalism, China might actually be at the forefront of this worldwide search for values.
These are universal aspirations, and like people elsewhere in the world, Chinese people feel that these hopes are supported by something more than a particular government or law. They are supported by heaven.
– from the introduction to “The Moon Year” and the Afterword
Ian Johnson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and 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 China, and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He lives in Beijing.
Christianity Today Interview of the Author (short):
Like many foreign observers of Chinese society today, I am both intrigued and baffled by what is going on there. The miracle of religious revival or of the growth of new faiths like Christianity, is simply amazing. At the same time, solid predictions are hard to come by and it is difficult to describe the future of that great nation. One thing is certain, what happens in China will have global ramifications.
I have tended to approach the subject of China’s souls from a religious perspective. But much of what lies at the heart of China’s people are spiritual traditions quite different from what we have experienced in the west. Why, for example, is there so much animus to the nation and spirituality of the little country of Tibet? Why the bitter resentment to such internal Chinese movements like Falun Gong?
What is similar in all this are the common hopes and aspirations that influence and affect all humans.
We in the west are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is actually taking place in China today. People like me have been approaching the subject from a very limited perspective – such as more recent historical encounters through the prism of colonialism and modern missionary Christianity.
What we need right now are venturesome scouts and interpreters like Ian Johnson, who can provide a bigger picture and deeper awareness.
Thank God we are no longer dealing with the fears and biases that early guides like the Canadian Chester Ronning had to face fifty years ago! We now stand at a stage of serious human-to-human encounter that could not have happened before the era of the cold war or the ubiquitous, global presence of Chinese tourists!
Many more of us need to be reversing current behaviour and making China one of our personal travel goals. I have a number of friends who have done just that. Perhaps there is still time for me too!
“The Souls of China – The Return of Religion After Mao” is a book that will require attentiveness and concentration – as well as conversations with those Asian friends who may be in as much need for enlightenment about the real China today as non-Chinese might be.
There is much more to this book than a rich resource on the miraculous growth of Christianity in China. But that story is also present here as marvelous testimony to the role of religion in modern societies.
This book is one with shelf-life and would be well worth the investment – either now, or during the next few years – for those who take the future of our world, its people and spirituality seriously.
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