Pulitzer Prize-winning Ian Johnson on the return of religion after Mao

The author unpicks China's faith in his fascinating new book

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 modern China.


When did you first get the idea for this book?

'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 been eradicated. 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 major religions?

'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 dialogue in 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 Buddhists, Buddhists 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.

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