The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017) tells the story of one of the world’s great spiritual revivals. Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled 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.
This book is the culmination of a six-year project following an underground Protestant church in Chengdu, pilgrims in Beijing, rural Daoist priests in Shanxi, and meditation groups in caves in the country’s south.
Along the way, I learned esoteric meditation techniques, visited a nonagenarian Confucian sage, and befriended government propagandists as they fashioned a remarkable embrace of traditional values. These experiences are distilled 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.
18 May, Beijing International Society. Details here.
18 May, Foreign Correspondents Clubs of China. Details here.
-->CANCELED: 1 June, 7 pm. The Beijing Bookworm. Details here.
April 29, 2 pm Overseas Press Club/West. Mechanics Institute. Talk with Jennifer Lin, who has a new book (Shanghai Faithful) on the history of her Christian family. Our talk will be hosted by Mary Kay Magistad, former of PRI's The World and current host of the podcast "Whose Century Is It?"
"The Souls of China is a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise. It is the work of a generalist who is comfortable conversing with dissident Christians, Buddhist gurus, and conservative Confucian intellectuals, and one who has the social, cultural, and linguistic fluency to navigate the complexities of myriad encounters with people from diverse cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. Johnson, ever the modest Canadian, never vaunts these skills, remarkable though they are, and infuses many of his encounters with a self-deprecating humor that portrays him as the typical confused and ignorant foreigner stumbling through the complexities of Chinese culture. Do not be fooled by this literary device for one minute. Johnson is a master of his material, fully conversant with the latest academic scholarship on China, and has written an instant classic that deserves high praise and a wide readership." Read the full review by Queens University Professor James Miller here.
The World of Chinese
25 December 2017
"The book is just as much about urbanization, alienation, economic development, competition, aspiration, corruption, city planning, agricultural reform, globalization, nationalism, and politics as it is about any particular religious group."
"Souls is also unique in the wide scope of culture and history of China that is woven into the gripping personal narratives. It is so skillfully done you don’t even realize you just got a Masters Degree in the evolution of multiple religions under 'scientific' communism. It not only covers Taoism, China’s indigenous religion, but the foreign Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam as well."
Read the rest of the review by one of North America's foremost popularizers of Taoism, Michael Winn, here.
"The Souls of China is written like top-flight journalism—it is driven by the stories of real people, and the analysis flows out of their lives. At the same time, a reader who knows the literature (and who reads the endnotes) will see just how thoroughly grounded Johnson is in the broader range of scholarship."
Read the full review by Robert Weller of Boston University here.
Asian Review of Books
26 August 2017
"With the patience of the ethnographer, and the precision of a journalist, Johnson has produced an enduring account of China’s inner life at a time of disorienting social and economic change."
"Johnson provides the broad background so essential to telling the story of China, a country where the scale and size of population makes events difficult to grasp, and he renders the data meaningful by listening to ordinary people and telling us their side."
"To call Johnson’s work monumental would not be an overstatement. For anyone seeking to engage in the spiritual life of China, it is a must-read."
Read the review by ChinaSource founder Brent Fulton here.
The New Yorker
3 July 2017
"With a subtlety born of years spent in China, Johnson explains how traditional rituals help people overcome urban anomie and answer the “pragmatic but profound issue of how to behave” at critical life junctures."
"I recommend this book very highly. Read from a secular perspective, it's a very insightful and moving account of all how kinds of belief in China have not only survived but flourished. For a Christian, it shows that God has done, without really any outside "help" from anyone, an astounding miracle."
"Ian Johnson brilliantly demonstrates that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Under the surface lies a world of vividly imagined hopes and dreams. Johnson ventures far off the beaten path and listens to ordinary Chinese who introduce him to their world of the spirit.... In Johnson’s telling, there is not one but many souls of modern China, all engaged in a sometimes cacophonous quest for meaning, community and justice."
Read the review by the pioneering sociologist of Chinese religion, Richard Madsen, here.
Christian Science Monitor
12 May 2017
"Ian Johnson has written a deeply knowledgeable, eminently readable and important book that reveals a side of China that foreigners rarely explore. He is an excellent and companionable guide."
"These lives represent China’s immense diversity of experience. Yet they also reveal a widespread desire for spirituality. The lack of a moral “bottom line” at every level of society has left Chinese grasping for something to believe in."
“Through interviews conducted with a wide variety of practitioners, Johnson paints a vivid picture of the diversity of Chinese religious life….He provides a fascinating account of how traditional activities recovered after enduring severe repression during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). An excellent work that is highly recommended for readers interested in Chinese culture or religion.”
"Johnson’s writing is compelling and lyrical, and his research strikes a fluid balance between the political implications of a resurgence of spirituality in a society that for so long suppressed any official religious presence, and the implications for daily life and society found in the complex and human details of this new populist cultural development."
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 The Battle for God, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, and The Great Transformation: The World in the Times of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah.
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 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.
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 and three other books on China.
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 WarTrash, A Free Life, and the National Book Award-winning Waiting.
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 in 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.
Ian Johnson has long been a resourceful and bracing guide to the biggest national transformation of modern history. In The Souls of China he masterfully opens up a little explored realm: how the quest for religion and spirituality drives hundreds of millions of Chinese. —Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present.
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
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. —MichaelSzonyi, author of Cold War Island and director, Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
30 November 2018
An interview with the Macau-based Catholic magazine O Clarim, which you can read here.
A 45-minute podcast in German about China, values, belief and the country's political future. Listen to it on Souncloud here.
The Classical Ideas Podcast
28 December 2017
An hour-long discussion with Greg Soden on his show that explores the world's religions and trends. Listen to it here.
29 November 2017
An interview with Chen May Yee for the newsletter of advertising and marketing giant JWT. Read it here.
Religion and Ethics Report
22 November 2017
Australian Broadcasting's weekly podcast on religion talks to me about the state's support and persecution of religion. Listen here.
18 November 2017
One of Hong Kong's most fearless talk radio hosts Leung Kam Cheung (梁錦祥) talks about spiritualism, faith, and The Souls of China. Here's the show on YouTube.
National Committee on U.S.-China Relations
8 November 2017
During a recent trip to New York, I spoke at the NCUSCR and gave an interview on its China podcast series. Listen here.
The event was also taped. You can watch the video here.
11 August 2017
Interview with Alessandra Spalletta on god and Marx. Read it (in Italian) here.
The Sinica Podcast
4 August 2017
A free-wheeling discussion with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn and David Moser about The Souls of China and China's spiritual awakening. Click here for the podcast.
BBC "Witness" Series
3 August 2017
This series explore events in history that still deserve our attention and this show is on the 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. I was interviewed as an eyewitness to the crackdown and its historical significance. Click here to listen to the broadcast.
Faith & Leadership
24 July 2017
An interview by Bob Wells of Duke University's Faith & Leadership newsletter. Available online here.