Ian Johnson

Most reviewers of Ian Johnson‘s latest book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao focus on religion, while his book also has a profound political dimension. “Interesting that only a religious journal gets the deeper meaning of my book–not only as a challenge to religion and values, but also to China’s political order,” writes Johnson on Facebook.about the review in Voegelinview.


“For I saw it was impossible to do anything without friends and loyal followers; and to find such men ready to hand would be a piece of sheer good luck, once our city was no longer guided by the customs and practices of our fathers, while to train up new ones was anything but easy.”[1]

Ian Johnson argues, with considerable evidence, that the People’s Republic of China is undergoing a great awakening, comparable to that experienced by the United States in the nineteenth-century. This is in some sense inevitable in the generation after the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, where religions, including Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and especially folk religions (most of which are Daoist), were brutally suppressed. Totalitarianism led, in China’s post-totalitarian (and still officially atheist) phase, a spiritual and moral crisis that manifests itself in low social trust. In this regard, Johnson cites Peking University ethicist He Huaihong’s observation: “We can feel the overlay of savagery in our ordinary lives” (88). Johnson argues the Chinese are turning to faith as a way of filling the spiritual and moral void they experience in their culture. He combines first-rate journalism and interviewing with the most recent social science studies to show that, in discussing “China’s rise,” one must also account for its spiritual awakening that comprises, in a rough estimate, approximately 300 million believers (31).

Johnson focuses on the lively activities of a handful of religious groups, including the Protestant Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu that is led by a former democracy advocate, Wang Yi; a group led by Li Bin in Shanxi province that is world-renowned for its musical performances of Daoist rituals; Beijing’s Ni family that is the custodian of the temple dedicated to Our Lady of the Azure Clouds, an important Daoist goddess, along with several other representative samples of religious believers.

Johnson uses the term, “religion” for his Western readers but at the outset he explains this term is misleading. Researchers know not to ask the Chinese if they are religious because the answer will be overwhelmingly negative (28-29). But their response is not a sign of atheism. It is a problem of methodology and terminology because “religion” is too Western and implies something separate and alien to daily life, as well as dogma. Before the twentieth-century, the Chinese lacked a term for religion. The contemporary term, zongjiao, is a Japanese import (20-21).  Instead of religion, Johnson notes that China is seeing an awakening of ritual and of faith (xinyang). He understands ritual the same way Plato has the Athenian Stranger discuss nomoi, the customs and mores of a society. Indeed, the book is structured around the annual cycle of traditional festivals that are returning.

Much more in Voegelinview.

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