Ian Johnson

Often reviewers tend to look at the emergence of world religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, when they summarize Ian Johnson‘s book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. But the most moving chapter is that on the 80 pilgrim associations from Beijing, writes professor Richard Madsen in the Washington Post.

The Washington Post:

In the most vivid and moving chapters of the book, Johnson follows the Ni family, which leads one of the 80 pilgrim associations in Beijing. The family organizes the annual two-week pilgrimage to the city’s most important religious site, Miaofengshan, or the Mountain of the Wondrous Peak, to worship a goddess called Our Lady of the Azure Clouds. These associations are independent of the government, with an authority that derives from tradition and faith. The work is unpaid and passed down from father to son. Johnson spends the entire two weeks with the Ni family’s association, ascending the mountain with tens of thousands of pilgrims. The mountain is transfigured with statues and flowers and gold-colored sheets and banners; the air is redolent of incense; and time is filled with performances of singing and dancing, stilt-walking and martial arts.

What was the meaning of all this? “The key,” Johnson writes, “was that something was here, now: a bridge to the future. After everything that China had been through over the past century, the fact that temples were still standing was the miracle. . . . Instead of appraising the statues, I looked at the people, to see what was in their eyes.”

What was in their eyes was a kind of faith and hope, a belief that they were connected to their ancestors and a wish that they could bequeath that connection to their children. These aspirations are expressed in different ways by the religious practitioners throughout the book. Li Bin from rural Shanxi province is a ninth-generation Daoist, a “yin-yang man,” who organizes funerals and tells fortunes, helping the living both to understand their fate and to carry on the legacy of the dead. Qin Ling is a master of Daoist “inner alchemy” meditation techniques, who teaches in Beijing, with a clientele that includes the children of high-ranking officials. Johnson studies with her and then goes on a 10-day retreat in southern China with her mentor Wang Liping and 500 others, including lawyers, business people and artists.

More in the Washington Post. 

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