God with Chinese characteristics

The Souls of China by Ian Johnson Review of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson. Pantheon, 2017.


There are limits to New Journalism.  At its best, by rendering the author as a fully formed presence, it makes difficult or distant subject matter more approachable.  Often, it is essentially an extended illuminating anecdote. But it can also, instead of rendering a larger phenomenon understandable, compound the reader’s disorientation. In these instances, the curiosity of the author can come at the expense of the analysis deserved by the reader. Such is the tension with Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China, an exploration of the return of religion after Mao.

Start first with what is there. Structured around the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, Johnson interweaves four main story arcs: the pilgrimage societies of Beijing; a family of yinyang men, a “cross between “geomancer, fortune-teller, and funeral director” in Shanxi province; an unrecognized Protestant church in Chengdu; and interactions with master Buddhists and Daoists. Johnson has a powerful sense of observation and his mastery of Mandarin allows him to engage with Chinese with the depth that any real exploration of faith requires. This allows him to demonstrate how, in contrast to the West’s conceptual divide between the secular and sacred, traditional belief pervades Chinese society; the important linguistic distinction its people make between “religion” and “belief,” the more recognized term; and the privileging of ritual over theology.

Johnson, as have others, portrays China as a country suffering from a spiritual void and searching for meaning after the horror of Mao’s disastrous final years and the shock of the country’s sudden lurch into modernity. “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor,” one person tells Johnson. “But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.” Faithful and unfaithful alike lament China’s corruption and relentless competition, the degrading lust for power and money that affect the elite and common man alike. Some of this corruption, predictably, has even infiltrated the temple and the church, not unsurprisingly when the government runs many temples as tourist attractions via a publicly listed company.

The official revival of religion begins with a 1982 ruling known as Document 19. In it, the Party recognized the errors of the Cultural Revolution and called for “respect for and protection of the freedom of religious belief.” The survival and resurgence of faith from the destruction of that era, even though some tradition is lost forever, is a marker of Chinese society’s broader resiliency. Indeed, as Johnson writes, the suppression of traditional faith began even before the Communists took power, as the country sought to shed perceived sources of national weakness in its quest to catch up to the West.

Figures from the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, suggest China as of 2010 had some 240 million Buddhists, 68 million Christians, 8.7 million Daoists, and some 200 million more who follow some folk practices. Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism, are the five religions recognized and nominally managed by the Party. (Most Christians practice in unrecognized house churches.)

The analysis and historical context that is included, much of it crowded towards the final fourth of the book, is limited to the barest essentials. And yet, it hints at what more the book could have been. Johnson sketches the Communist Party’s move, despite its continued official atheism, to appropriate Chinese tradition as part social corrective, part legitimizer of its continued rule, and part defensive pushback against what it sees as malign Western influence. In doing so, he attempts to discern current president Xi Jinping’s intentions from his support of a Buddhist temple early in his career, his early run-ins with Christian activists, and how he may have been influenced by his father’s former responsibility for religious affairs.

For every physical mountaintop that Johnson ascends in pursuit of spiritual understanding, it is a pity that Johnson does not take more opportunities to ascend the metaphorical one, rising above his own astute powers of observation to survey the full sweep of religious activity. That does not stop others in the academic and religious communities interviewed for this review from praising the book. Fenggang Yang, a scholar at Purdue University, praised the book as “excellent.” Brent Fulton, president of China Source, an organization that supports Protestant churches’ engagement with the country, similarly says, “I don’t know many people who have done this as well as he has.”

Johnson makes his point in focusing on the grassroots, but disappoints in relating so little about the government religious apparatus and the pressure to “Sinicize” religion. The church Johnson profiles in Chengdu openly provides names of its congregants to the government, hoping transparency buys some degree of continued autonomy. “Sinciziation is about submission to the party-state,” Yang tells me. He notes that a recent Internet meme mocked calls for greater Sinicization of religion by demanding that Daoism, which originated in China, be more Chinese. Fulton anticipates that foreign engagement is going to be increasingly difficult to pull off, particularly for non-ethnic Chinese. “It remains to be seen whether overseas Chinese will be treated any differently.”

Christianity’s growth and its adherents’ particularly active engagement in China’s weak civil society deserve particular focus. While government controlled seminaries produce a modest number of graduates each year, those who lead unrecognized churches must look elsewhere for theological and church management education. For pastors of unofficial churches, the quality of training has grown significantly over the past ten years, according to Fulton. “Networks of unofficial Bible schools operate across China, some of them granting degrees from institutions outside of China, some of them with faculty resident in China or coming in and out of China with advanced degrees. It has become a lot more formal than it was,” noting online programs from the West and countries such as Singapore that cater to Chinese.

The demographics of China’s religious revival and whether the young will follow their awakened parents is another important question that Johnson does not fully answer. Fulton is confident that religious momentum is being sustained among Chinese youth. Both Yang and Fulton referenced high levels of religious activity on university campuses, which may have drawn the ire of government, which in June announced new regulations banning such activity on campuses. Analysis of internet search data since 2013 provided by Baidu shows that Chinese terms such as “Jesus” or “belief” attract an estimated 27% and 35% respectively of searches from 20-29 year-olds, compared to 39% and 38% of 30-39 year-olds.

Interfaith dialogue to the extent it exists, appears limited to the government’s propagandistic United Front efforts. “A real dialogue when people listen to one another on the basis of equality of ecumenical spirit can only flourish in a democratic society,”  Xi Lian, professor of world Christianity at Duke Divinity School tells me. “I have not seen real examples of interfaith dialogue,” he added, noting that there can be counterproductive rivalry between denominations. Also unclear is how religion may affect other aspects of social policy, such as the gay community’s quest for recognition. Calvinism’s notably strong hold gives what Lian describes as the Chinese Protestant community’s “conservative voice,” even among those supportive of democratization. In the church Johnson profiles, a couple is dismissed after advocating for a greater role for women.

The few passing references to Christian churches’ connections with counterparts outside of the mainland that dot Johnson’s book, and a brief aside of religion’s role in the democratization of Taiwan, are glaring in their inadequacy. Chinese heritage pastors from the US, Canada, and Australia, as well as Koreans, play an important role on which Johnson shines little light. Hong Kong remains an important window for mainland Christians and the rest of the world, says Lian, noting that it is there that many mainland pastors get a “crash course” from visiting theologians. China also remains a popular destination for lay Christian missions: a search for “mission” and “China” on crowdfunding site Gofundme returns 1,275 such pages.

In a brief afterward, Johnson argues that the Communist Party “is not yet so weak” that it must transition from management of religious affairs to outright appropriation of religion’s legitimacy. He goes on to blandly assert that the “winners” will likely be the Daoist, Buddhist, and folk faiths, in part because the government is less suspicious of their foreign ties, but does not  seriously reconcile that with Christianity’s growth. Framing China’s religious revival in the narrow terms of competition undermines the larger point that he seeks to make: that all religions are cultivating a renewed national conscious, based on a sense of universal rights and a commitment to social activism that amount to a “real challenge” to state power. To neglect entirely the religious underpinnings of the tensions between Tibet and Xinjiang and Beijing is to sidestep how central faith is to the very integrity of the Chinese state. It is an abdication of journalistic duty.

Rarely has an acknowledgments page seemed so revealing. The uncertain odyssey, reduced to one paragraph, of having his journalistic credentials renewed so that he might return to China to write this book and how much his subjects wanted him to convey to “the universality of our yearnings” speak volumes. In the end, to dwell on what is missing is to criticize a book that Johnson clearly did not seek to write. One can respect his decision, while regretting it all the more.