“The Souls of China” by Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson Ian Johnson

How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.

Yet, while such figures provide a practical, if partial, illustration of the resurgence of religion in China, they tell us little about the nature of the spiritual life they account, and still less about any given individual’s own motivation in undertaking religious practice. In The Souls of China, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ian Johnson undertakes an inquiry into the lives of those guided by faith in modern China, observing their practice with patience and sympathy.

In researching and writing The Souls of China, Johnson consciously elected to pursue a limited number of stories. The three main groups whose experiences Johnson follows are all Han Chinese: a Shanxi family of Daoist funeral masters; a group of Beijing pilgrims who run a shrine on Miaofengshan, in the mountains west of the capital; and a protestant congregation in Chengdu. In addition, Johnson pursues two supporting narrative threads: one relating to the personal masters or shifu, who act as guides to spiritual practice, particularly for China’s aspirational middle class and, finally, that of the government’s conflicted relationship with faith in modern China.

Part of the story that the book tells is of the remarkable recovery of religion in China over the last few decades; a resurgence which, as Johnson observes in the opening chapters of The Souls of China, has occurred in the face of “the destruction of religious infrastructure and knowledge, the continued political suppression, and the broader difficulties of defining one’s spirituality.”

One can trace China’s uneasiness with religious faith back to the declining years of the Qing dynasty: “The suppression of religion in China really began in the late nineteenth century, with the increasing belief amongst reformers that religion and superstition were part of a set of problems which were holding China back,” Johnson observes when we speak over the phone. “Many local temples were converted into schools at that time.”

However, it was the ascendance to power of the Chinese Communist Party—and the Cultural Revolution which raged from 1966 to 1976—that ultimately resulted in the demise of spiritual life in China. For China’s new leaders, the old customs and habits which religion represented were both a remnant of the feudal past and potentially dangerous in their potential to encourage faith in something other than the Party.

Faith is an aspect of Chinese culture oft-overlooked in coverage of the country.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, Ian Johnson (Pantheon, April 2017)
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, Ian Johnson (Pantheon, April 2017)

The Souls of China adopts as its orienting structure the phases of a single year in the Chinese traditional calendar. The old lunisolar calendar was replaced back in 1929, but in recent years Johnson began to observe it creeping back into everyday life. “The way that a culture measures time is revealing,” he comments. “I had begun to notice that people were becoming more interested again in the traditional solar terms; you could even download apps and screensavers tracking the different phases.” These twenty-four phases are tied to seasonal change, with evocative titles such as “Awakening of Insects” or “Clear and Bright”.

As Juliet Bredon observes in her book The Moon Year—an acknowledged influence on Souls—the system reflects a belief in “the interdependence of earth and sky and the connection between the spiritual, the animate and the inanimate worlds.” Johnson sees in the reawakening of affection for this ancient system of accounting the year an analogy for the broader search in China for something beyond the materialism of the modern world and the atomising influence of urbanization. “Many people in China today feel that there is something missing in their lives,” he observes. “Religion or spirituality seem to offer ways to fill the vacuum.” As one of Johnson’s interviewees comments:


We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.


The professed policy of the Party is “respect for and protection of the freedom of religious belief” and the government officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism—the latter two divided for administrative reasons.

Growing at particular speed, Johnson notes, are Buddhism and Protestantism. Yet the Party remains suspicious of religion as a social force, and keep close watch on organised activities. How did the sensitivity around religion in China affect Johnson’s ability to pursue the stories he wanted to tell? “People on the whole were welcoming and even excited that stories were going to be written for an audience outside China,” he comments.

There were some ground rules with the Early Rain Church in Chengdu, a high-profile underground church which is led by the former civil rights lawyer Wang Yi, but what is striking about the book is the openness with which his subjects speak to Johnson. “I think as long as people feel that you are telling their stories in good faith, with honesty and clarity, they are open; keen for this important aspect of their lives to be understood.”

Johnson has produced an enduring account of China’s inner life at a time of disorienting social and economic change.

Faith is an aspect of Chinese culture oft-overlooked in coverage of the country. The journalistic imperative to keep up with the churn of politics and economics tends to restrict the possibility of considering such complex topics in the depth, and with the time, they require.

Bredon wrote in the 1920s of the difficulties of understanding this most intangible aspect of Chinese culture:


As for the intimate life of the Chinese, their religions, their superstitions, their ways of thought, the hidden springs by which they move, the customs followed behind the protecting walls of homes and temples—it is only after many years’ residence among them that one can hope to penetrate these inner mysteries.


In Ian Johnson, whose relationship with China dates to the mid-1980s and who took five years in researching The Souls of China, the faithful have found an ideal chronicler. With the patience of the ethnographer, and the precision of a journalist, Johnson has produced an enduring account of China’s inner life at a time of disorienting social and economic change.

Jonathan Chatwin is the author of travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.