The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by journalist Ian Johnson, is an infectious, celebratory book about the state of religion in mainland China since the 1980s. Framed around the lives of various religious devotees in China—ranging from solitary seekers to associations to experts —Johnson explores different aspects of Chinese religion and spirituality, as well as the “import” religion of Christianity, as living practices in China today. He wants to understand what motivates religious believers in a time of greater material comforts, and what their beliefs mean to them.
In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.