“The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao” by Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson (photo Sim Chi Yin/VII) Ian Johnson (photo Sim Chi Yin/VII)

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.

Johnson begins with a discussion of religion, and why it’s a nebulous term. For while it’s debatable what “religion” means to individuals in China—the term jiao 教, or teaching, is commonly used for both religion as well as other doctrines of thought—he intentionally applies the term broadly.


Asking “what faith do you believe in?” Seems like a simple question for people who define religion according to monotheistic norms. They expect a clear-cut answer, like “I am a Buddhist” or “I am a Daoist.” But for most of Chinese history, this sort of question would have been strange. Religion was part of belonging to your community. A village had its temples, its gods, and they were honored on certain holy days. Choice was not really a factor. China did have three separate teachings—Confucianism (rujiao),  Buddhism (fojiao), and Daoism (daojiao)—but they did not function as separate institutions with their own followers. Primarily, they provided services… For most of  Chinese history, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described as “Chinese Religion.”


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)

Johnson is most interested in the ways that individuals have understood or expressed their personal religious beliefs—which in much of Chinese history were, for many, inclusive. Yet this began to change in the 19th century, as religion and traditional thought either stagnated or were intentionally abandoned for different, newer, usually Western ideas. A series of catastrophes or incidents followed—the second Sino-Japanese War, the destruction of temples during the Republican period, the Cultural Revolution, just for starters—that left religious and traditional institutions in shambles for much of the 20th century. After China gained market freedoms in the 1980s, many people found themselves beginning to “wonder what more there is to life than materialism and what makes a good life,” and looking again at those earlier religions and institutions.

In Johnson’s book, this question of the good life comes from the mouths of rural farmers, practitioners of funeral music, and displaced residents of Beijing. It permeates individual practice as well as organizations built around individual religious belief. He follows gurus, therapy-session hosts, monks and religious pilgrims as they seek to perform the tasks they see as central to their identity as practicing members of whatever they happen to believe.

Since the Chinese government is currently promoting traditional Chinese beliefs, a number of these religious practitioners receive government assistance in the form of money as well as confirmation that what they do is OK. But the Christian organizations Johnson follows exist in a less confident manner, possibly because of those organizations’ status as foreign religious entities—Christianity is usually considered a Western religion in China. That, and because the Christians in Johnson’s book seem impressed by the Christian message of universal justice: that there are laws that originate outside of the human world and apply to all, regardless of context (or government).  The usually Western framework of those “laws”, leaning towards judicial accountability, democracy and other liberal values, is exactly what the government doesn’t want to hear, and what Xi Jinping has warned against in recent talks about “Western values”. Possibly because Johnson’s Christians are what in the West would be called “good people”—they run charities, help relatives of dissidents in jail, are actively concerned with questions of justice—the government is also wary of them.

They were, however, the only religious believers in the book in the normative, Western sense of the term. Not because they believed in the immortality of the soul and in an immutable God, but because they were the only ones outwardly concerned with theological questions. And even if only a small portion of those believers are interested in theological questions, when compared to most of the others in the book, who simply want to preserve their traditions, the Christians were looking for something more—something like the traditionally religious answers of community, faith, and advocacy on behalf of others that aim beyond the present.

The non-Christians he follows have found profound meaning in their actions, yet their actions had little significance for those outside of their community—very unlike the universal Christian message, which promises transcendence of a physical and cultural horizon (however encoded in Western liberal values that promise may be), and often uses that promise as a basis for social engagement. The interviews with Buddhists and Daoists left this reader feeling that there was little message that, in its present form, explicitly addressed the status quo or the world outside—hence the government endorsements.

Which is, frankly, depressing. Depressing because, at the very least, Buddhist and Daoist philosophies can be intellectually rich. And depressing because a number of the practitioners are critical enough to be skeptical of the government in general, and especially of its involvement in their religious affairs—they personally question the government’s motives, and don’t see their actions as consistent with the moral codes that practitioners should subscribe to.  But without a more rigorous development of those ideas, those codes cannot be turned into coherent ethics or religious philosophy, and are exclusively faith-oriented practices.


Christians like to say that only their religion carries with it the idea of God-given rights. This is wrong. All faiths have ideals that trump temporal powers. For Confucians, they were the teachings of the sage; for Buddhists, the ideals found in the sutras; for Daoists, the ideas of ziran, or the Dao; and for ordinary people, a sense of righteousness—a belief in heavenly rights and justice.


And here I’m in the rather awkward position of agreeing with the Christians—not in their exclusivity, but in their assertion that, in China today, only their kind of belief keeps the temporal powers at bay. Of course, it depends on who’s doing the talking—there were ancestor-worshipping “Confucians”, but their actions bear no resemblance to the teachings of the man himself. The same for Buddhism and Daoism. Christianity explicitly aims to suspend earthly powers, or at least apply itself to them. But, in a manner of speaking, that isn’t what matters here. Johnson’s task is not to explore the theological arguments that inform Christianity but are lacking in contemporary Chinese religion. Writing about individual practice, he is most compelling when writing about events that appear to transcend mere prose.

For what is the language of the practice that motivates religious believers and what they believe in? And are their beliefs intellectually informed arguments, or, more simply, whatever has the power to place the world in brackets while the important things—faith, ritual—are amplified? Maybe these questions are best answered incompletely—at the limits of what can be expressed with language— with an anecdote.

Near the end of the book he follows the funeral procession of one of his characters through an alley in Beijing. Of course, anyone who reads the book will feel sympathy for the character and his family, yet the ritual connecting the man to his religious beliefs (he was a Buddhist, and especially a devotee of a local deity) was equally, if not more, moving—thought behind it be damned. People came to pay their respects, and led a costumed and papier-mâchéd procession to an otherwise unremarkable intersection and, stopping traffic, threw everything down and burned it all. Afterwards they went back to their normal lives. And when I read this, I almost wept. Not because I was close to the character, but because during this passage it was as if, for a moment, the temporal order was forcibly suspended and something else—call it belief, but I have none; call it religion, but religion didn’t stop traffic—reigned over Heaven and earth, or at least over that intersection.

Matt Turner is a writer and translator living in New York City and Beijing. He publishes regularly with Hyperallergic Weekend, Seedings and Cha, and has work forthcoming in Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The World of Chinese. His translation of Lu Xun's 1927 book of prose poetry, Weeds, is forthcoming from Shanghai's Seaweed Salad Editions.