If you thought China wasn’t a
religious country, Ian Johnson is
out to prove you wrong. According
to the Pulitzer-winning writer’s
research, China is undergoing an
explosion in spirituality, fuelling
new sects, cults and underground
churches, plus a sweeping revival
in traditional folk religions – not to
mention a staggering congregation
of 60 million Chinese Protestants.
First arriving in China over 30
years ago, Johnson has travelled the
country to meet faith leaders and
practitioners of all kinds, observing
ceremonies at huge new urban
churches and traditional fortune
telling rituals. His groundbreaking
book, The Souls of China: The Return
of Religion after Mao considers the
interplay between faith, culture,
politics and tradition in a breakneck-paced
When did you first get the idea for
'I grew up in a fairly religious
household, so when I came to China for the first time I was curious what
people here believed in. It was 1984,
only eight years after the Cultural
Revolution had ended, and there
really wasn’t a lot to see. I remember
thinking: Wow, religion really has
But this was a misapprehension
– religion was actually coming back.
By the 1990s, China was engulfed
in "Qigong Fever", a mass religious spiritual
movement, and I realised
something big was happening.'
But even with an explosion in faith,
why do most Chinese people still
say they aren’t religious?
'Partly it’s a definitional issue. The
word for ‘religion’, zongjiao, is a
neologism coined in the late 19th
century when people were looking at
Western models of religion. So many
feel it is a political word. A better
word to use is ‘faith’ (xinyang) and
people will often use ‘culture’ too.
Religion in China has these vast grey
areas, where things are not exactly
legal, but not exactly illegal. It often
becomes troublesome to be
identified as part of a formal religion,
and it’s a lot easier to be a cultural
centre than a religious centre,
especially as the government
has been supporting a revival of
traditional Chinese culture.'
How does China reinterpret the
'I think while the general ideas are
all found in some form, what has
traditionally not interested Chinese
people too much is grand theoretical
debates, like we see in the West.
There are so many different versions
of Protestantism, for example,
and they often have really narrow
doctrinal differences but people
argue passionately over them.
Western theology was highly
influenced by Greek ideas of logic
and debate, but it didn’t really
interest Chinese philosophers. It’s
the same in modern China. People
are looking to find what makes
the society function, what holds
us together, how to live a moral life.'
How do you think religion will
develop in China?
'They’re definitely all going to exist in
the future, but I think they’ll appeal
to different people. Big urban
churches, like the one in Chengdu
I describe in the book, appeal largely
to white collar people in big cities,
who are less interested in traditional
culture and feel Christianity is more
modern. But many other people
are eagerly embracing traditional
Chinese culture. This might be
people who go fasting for a weekend
with monks, or go to temples and
read Buddhist mantras, or practice
calligraphy. On one hand, this can
be just seen as a hobby, but often
there are religious statues, incense
– some kind of a spiritual meaning
and ritual, even if it’s
not explicitly religious.
But there is no interreligious
China. There are a lot of
areas where religions
could co-operate and
it could be helpful, but
people remain siloed in
their religions. Christians
don’t know anything about
don’t know anything about
Christians, and nobody
knows anything about Islam.'
You met so many fascinating
people throughout the book. Who
made the biggest impression?
'I think it’s the Beijing pilgrims who
go to the Miaofengshan temple
every year. More than 80 pilgrim
associations from Beijing attend –
groups you would just never think
existed. They are really devoted
people. They were typical in the
sense that they really believed in
actions – don’t spend a lot of time
talking about it, just go and do
charitable things, acts of faith.
In a lot of Chinese cities, you don’t
see any sign of religion. It’s not like
European cities with big churches;
in China you have to really look,
and then you find all these people
with their own faith and rituals just
beneath the surface.'
The Souls of China is available on amazon for 104RMB.