Despite the extraordinary resurgence of spiritual activity in China following the Mao era, journalists covering China have given precious little attention to the religious life of ordinary Chinese during the past four decades.
Where such coverage does exist, it generally follows one of two prevailing narratives. The religious expressions of China’s Tibetan and Muslim minorities are viewed as part of the struggle of these peoples to carve out for themselves an identity apart from the overwhelming control of the Chinese state. Religion among Han Chinese is most often presented as evidence of China’s emerging civil society, with groups of religious believers—whether Falun Gong practitioners, Catholics loyal to the Vatican, or house church Christians—standing in opposition to the party-state through their illicit activities. This cat-and-mouse narrative may provide a convenient way of showing how the Party dominates every area of society, but it does not begin to do justice to the reality of religious life in China today.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ian Johnson breaks this mold with The Souls of China. Focusing on religious expression among China’s Han majority, Johnson does away with the notion that religious believers in China are found only among a few scattered minorities or disenfranchised groups. Through patient reporting and firsthand experience coupled with a keen knowledge of Chinese history and culture, Johnson brings us face-to-face with ordinary Chinese whose expressions of personal faith are as varied as the diverse locations in which Johnson finds them. Indeed, as Johnson travels from the “incestuous” capital of Beijing to the shores of legendary Lake Tai and the teahouses of Sichuan, his rich, multi-textured description brings to life not only the fascinating characters he meets along the way but also the unique character of the places they call home.
I heartily agree with Joann Pittman’s assessment in her Gospel Coalition review of the book: “For anyone interested in looking beyond the headlines to understand the complexity of religious life in China today, The Souls of China is a must-read.” Here are a few reasons why:
Historical Perspective. Johnson deals adroitly with the current tension between religious believers and China’s atheistic regime, but he also takes the reader far back into China’s pre-CPC days in order to explain the antecedents of contemporary expressions of faith. His observation that religion has historically been “diffuse,” not easily categorized or organized in Western terms, speaks volumes about the enduring nature of faith in China.
Cultural Understanding. The seemingly offhand comments with which Johnson peppers his descriptions of China’s religious pilgrims are rich in meaning, providing insights into not only their faith but also illuminating the nature of family relationships, community life, and personal ambition in post-Mao China.
Personal Experience. Johnson’s is no armchair commentary; he spent six years traveling and living among those whose stories he carefully unpacks in the book. He meditated with them, studied with them, participated in their festivals, and appreciated their sermons. Johnson’s well-documented interactions with his subjects serve to draw out intimate details of their lives and their faith journeys that can only be gained through genuine relationship.
To call Johnson’s work monumental would not be an overstatement. For anyone seeking to engage in the spiritual life of China, it is a must-read.