Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, explains what five books you need to read to understand China in a Five Books interview. Not surprisingly, those five books also focus on religion, just like Ian’s own bestseller. The search for a moral framework.

The Five Books Interview:

As you say, we can’t understand China without understanding religion, but up until recently, a lot of people would have found that statement strange, because many people – historians, ethnographers and journalists – largely ignored religion in China. It was considered to be an unimportant topic, even though it had been central to the question of how to modernize China over the past century. Reformers from Kang Youwei to Sun Yat-sen, and leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek – not to mention Mao Zedong – saw traditional Chinese religion as a key social ill that had to either be massively reformed or eradicated. This unleashed one of the most radically secularizing campaigns in history, with hundreds of thousands of places of worship, mainly traditional temples, destroyed.

So in the 1970s one political scientist wrote—and I’m paraphrasing—of the astounding fact of our time that a nation with one quarter of the world’s population had no religious life as people had known it. At that time, all places of religion under Mao had been closed, and religion didn’t seem to be an important part of Chinese life. But that began to change at the end of the Mao era. Religion had been attacked for over a century, but in the reform era for roughly 30 years until the Beijing Olympics, there was a relatively laissez-faire policy toward it. There were moments of persecution, but by and large religion flourished on its own.

Now we’re in an era where the state is actively picking losers and winners, and religion is back at the centre of a national conversation in China, playing a role in what kind of society and values does China have – what are the ideas, the beliefs of this rising superpower? Many Chinese are grappling with these questions, while the government is trying, in typical Chinese government fashion, to guide and shape it. But it’s a very messy complex question.

Is religion filling what some people call the spiritual vacuum in China, as the nation figures out what its identity is in this newest incarnation?

There are people in China who are looking for values and answers to basic moral questions. Some find it in humanism or in democracy or in human rights, but the government has largely made these taboo topics. We do have dissidents, for example, who think China needs to change to a more open liberal society and a more participatory political system. A lot of those moral issues could be solved by having a more moral government, one that doesn’t rely on coercion and violence to keep itself in power. But other Chinese also see a wider moral issue, that China needs some kind of a moral framework.

More in the Five Books Interview.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Are you looking for more speakers on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list. 

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