Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, Pantheon, 2017. 486 pgs.
When Ian Johnson first moved to Beijing in 1984, China was only eight years into its recovery from decades of darkness. Johnson doesn’t write much about his early years in China in his most recent book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, but the era plays a significant role in his narrative. In the book, he focuses on the resurgence of religion over the last twenty to thirty years, namely Protestantism, which he labels as Christianity, Daoism and Buddhism—the latter two of which are often combined in China.
The practices often did not fit into organised religion, but then Chinese religion has always been run by ordinary people, with little input from authorities or clergy. It has always been held together by daily routines—like the unseen forces of an atom. (320)
China has five approved religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism, but the reason Johnson focuses on Protestantism, Buddhism, and Daoism is their numbers have greatly increased across China since the late 1970s. Catholicism is still viewed as an outside religion because of its connection with the Vatican. And Islam is mostly practised by ethnic minorities on the periphery of China, not throughout the country. It should be noted that The Souls of China was first published before the Chinese government upped its persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang.
A parallel and related story to the rise of religion in China is Xi Jinping’s ascent in the Communist Party, as well as China’s political changes since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Johnson, through splendid storytelling, shows how these two threads are interconnected. But he first points out that the fall of Chinese religions on the mainland—namely that of the Buddhism and Daoism—wasn’t due to Communist suppression in 1949. Instead, it happened decades before, during the final years of the Qing dynasty. As the Qing sought to reinstate its legitimacy in China, it brought about a series of reforms, including educating girls, ending foot-binding and smashing superstitions. Buddhism and Daoism were viewed in the same light as superstition, so the Qing set out to rid China of many of its temples and traditions. The Republican government that followed continued in this vein. How could China modernise if it held onto old traditions and people worshipped at Buddhist and Daoist temples? This was an incorrect assumption, of course, as Hong Kong managed just fine with traditional Chinese religion and modernity.
Christianity—viewed as western and modern—was embraced as a legitimate religion during the end of the Qing and throughout the Republican era. When the Communists came to power in 1949, they continued the suppression of Chinese religions and added Christianity to the mix. Mao became the only legitimate god in China for the next three decades.
For a year, Johnson follows Christians, Buddhists and Daoists in Beijing, Chengdu and rural areas in northern and eastern China. His book is thoughtfully organised into sections that represent different parts of the Chinese calendar, including a leap month that occurs every three years. These solar cycles track Chinese religion, agriculture timelines, and holidays that celebrate the living and the dead. Johnson’s most poignant storylines are those in which multigeneration family members help others with funerals, pilgrimages, and fortune-telling:
Inside the Ni family’s shrine was one of the most unusual altars I had ever seen. It was a wooden table covered in yellow silk and decorated with dozens of porcelain teapots, varying in sizes and shapes, painted with Daoist and Buddhist deities and inscribed with the association’s name: Whole Heart Philanthropic Salvation Tea Association. They had been custom-made in the southern city of Jingdezhen, the historic center of China’s porcelain industry. They were decorative but so numerous so that it was almost impossible to see the yellow silk underneath. (171)
For decades these traditions were lost, but because some people did learn them before 1949, they could pass them down to their children and grandchildren by the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. As Johnson explains, this was possible when China was still mainly an agrarian society. Now with half of its population in big cities, the people who help with these old traditions are dying and the younger generations are not interested in working in the same professions as their parents and grandparents. “Over the previous decades, China had urbanised fast—from 20 percent living in cities in the 1980s to nearly half by the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century.” (310)
Yet there’s a growing demand for traditional Chinese religious customs, but the state is trying to regulate it.
…the beliefs and practices, the ideas and relations among people—was trying to find a home in these oversized cities and depopulated villages…the effort was everywhere to see: the shelves devoted to traditional teachings that could be found in almost every bookstore; the heavy bracelets that men wear to show their piety; the religious icons placed on the dashboards of taxis; the temples filled on holy days; the burned paper on the sides of the roads; the growing number of lay believers; the popularity of Buddhist or Daoist websites; the smartphone apps that explain the solar terms. They were pieces from the past settling into a new pattern. (320)
Ironically, Xi Jingping in the early 1980s helped bring about a resurgence of traditional Chinese religion as he began his political climb in Zhengding, a rural outpost in Hebei province. There he helped restore a famous Zen Buddhist temple that been relegated to a sixth-century stone pagoda, as well as reconstructing eight other temples in the city of Zhengding.
While a number of party officials elsewhere in China would later see temple reconstruction as worthwhile for gaining political promotion, Xi was one of those in the vanguard, taking risks that many of his generation avoided. It was a remarkable period of reconstruction, and reestablished Zhengding as a religious center in northern China. (219-220)
The Chinese government became more aware of the power of religious groups after it cracked down on the Falun Gong in 1999. And as recent history has shown, the state would try to hijack Chinese religions and regulate them all while diminishing Christianity. These policies took off after Xi became president of China.
The leading Christian figure Johnson befriends is a pastor named Wang Yi, founder of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu. As Johnson explains, the Reform Church is a throwback to American Puritanism. But Wang is a likeable character who got into the ministry after enjoying a successful career as a film blogger and human rights lawyer.
“His church was independent of government control, but that made it all the more dynamic…Protestant Christianity was China’s fastest-growing religion, and Wang Yi was one of its stars.” (52)
Wang set up a seminary and his church served as a social service agency for the disadvantaged. He spoke out against Tiananmen and forced abortions during China’s one-child policy. Recently, in December 2019, Wang was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison for operating an underground church and subversion of state power. Operating a Christian church is still legal in China, but only if it is state-approved.
This book could have only touched upon Chinese religion or just upon the rise in Christianity in China, and there would have been a good story there either way. But by delving into both, Johnson gives a comprehensive look into the resurgence of religion in China and the subsequent crackdown on anything that isn’t approved by the state. Johnson concludes with the hope that people’s faith will persevere until there are real changes and acceptance of all religions in China.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)