2016 The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Pantheon (April 11, 2017)
Following a century of violent antireligious campaigns, China is now awash with new temples, churches, and mosques—as well as cults, sects, and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty—over what it means to be Chinese, and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is still searching for new guideposts. Ian Johnson lived for extended periods with underground church members, rural Daoists, and Buddhist pilgrims. He has distilled these experiences into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle—a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.
“The Souls of China is a rich, informative, and timely book, which explores a major aspect of Chinese life. Ian Johnson carries erudition lightly and describes the people and events with deep insights and personal involvement. Section by section, the writing shows long-term dedication and meticulous research. At heart this is also a personal book, full of feelings and exuberance. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.” —Ha Jin, author of War Trash, A Free Life, and the National Book Award-winning Waiting
“The Souls of China is a marvel of reportage. For more than five years, Ian Johnson travelled all around China to observe rituals that few outsiders ever witness: funerals and temple fairs, fortune-telling and internal alchemy, Daoist cultivation exercises and underground Christian church services. Johnson writes about Chinese believers with detail and insight, but also with great heart – their stories are often inspiring and moving. At a time when most China books focus on politics or economics, this is the best exploration of the cultural and moral life of everyday citizens.” —Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years of the Yangtze
“On one level Ian Johnson’s book is about sages and spiritual pursuits, but it also embodies critical insights into Chinese society and its looming existential concerns. His engaging stories reflect a deep understanding of Chinese traditional religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as the rebellious groups and sects popular among those on the bottom rung of society. I wonder if I can attribute such knowledge and insights to the author’s deep roots in China? Since the 1980s he has spent most of his time there, traversing the countryside and the city streets, calling on the impoverished and downtrodden, and immersing himself in the lives of ordinary folks. His tripartite masterpiece Wild Grass and his newest book, The Souls of China, are the most remarkable works to come from a western author in the past two decades.” —Liao Yiwu, exiled Chinese author of God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, The Corpsewalker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, and For A Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison.
“The great Chinese writer Lu Xun once wrote that when many men pass along the same way, a new road is made. The Souls of China shows us how the Chinese people, some with heroic steps and others with hesitant ones, are making a new road for Chinese religion in the twenty-first century. The reappearance and flourishing of religion is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic changes in China in recent decades. With great sensitivity Ian Johnson guides us on a tour of the rituals, festivals, and above all some of the remarkable characters who make up this new Chinese religious world. This is a beautiful, moving and insightful book.” —Michael Szonyi, author of Cold War Island and director, Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies
“Ian Johnson breaks new ground with a brilliant approach, mixing theoretical explorations with real life vignettes from a convincing insider-outsider-combined perspective, making them commenting each other, illuminating in the same way as through the traditional Chinese criticism paradigm of ‘I commentate the six classics which commentate me.’ The Souls of China is a must read for an understanding of China.” —Qiu Xiaolong, author of The Inspector Chen Novels
“This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.” —Karen Armstrong, author of Fields of Blood
“Ian Johnson peels back the gleaming surfaces of modern China to reveal a sacred landscape underneath—a web of ritual and tradition, myth and faith—that has sustained the Chinese for centuries and is doing so anew. Over a year in the traditional calendar, Johnson takes us on an extraordinarily rich and intimate journey—from pilgrimages on holy mountains, to the thriving Protestant congregations in the nation’s booming cities, to the village farmhouses where Daoist funerals are held and fortunes told. Johnson shows us what is really in Chinese souls and hearts. This vividly written, deeply researched book will be the primary work about religious faith in China for years to come.” —Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
About the Author
IAN JOHNSON is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and National Geographic. He is an advising editor for The Journal of Asian Studies, and teaches a course on religion in Beijing. He is the author of two other books that also focus on the intersection of politics and religion: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in China and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He divides his time between Beijing and Berlin.