'The Souls of China' traces the remarkable rebirth of religion in China

Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity claim around 300 million followers today, nearly one-third of China’s adult population.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao By Ian Johnson Knopf Doubleday 480 pp.

We are all familiar with the standard signs of China’s role in a globalized world – its electronics exports, its burgeoning military prowess, its influence on other developing countries seeking the road to prosperity, its often crass materialism.

In his fascinating new book The Souls of China, Ian Johnson introduces us to a lesser-known aspect: religion. China, he shows, no less than Western nations, “is a country engaging in a global conversation that affects all of us: how to restore solidarity and values to societies that have made economics the basis of most decisions.”

As religious faith spreads in China, many voices are making themselves heard in this conversation. The question of how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago with the end of Imperial rule is prompting a bewildering range of answers. And the ruling Chinese Communist party, militantly atheist but nonetheless claiming the right to regulate religion, is having an increasingly hard time keeping control.

Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, guides us on his exploration of the resurgence in religious belief by using a map grounded in tradition. He frames his book around the Chinese lunar calendar seasons such as The Awakening of the Insects or The Hungry Ghosts Festival. It is a charming conceit that provides a living link to ancient beliefs.

En route, he introduces us to a rich cast of well-drawn characters who bring the pages alive. Their faith brings a personal dimension to this meticulously researched book, six years in the making.

With Li Bin, a fortune teller, funeral director and musician in the Daoist folk tradition, we bury a deceased peasant farmer in a village in northern China. We sit at the feet, metaphorically, of Master Nan, an enigmatic 90-year-old sage whose knowledge of traditional Chinese scholarship draws wealthy urban truth-seekers to his Great Hall of Learning on the shores of Lake Tai.

We sit cross-legged in a darkened room in Beijing with Johnson as he learns Daoist meditation techniques, and we follow the pastor of a semi-legal Protestant "house church" operating from the 19th floor of a dingy office block in Chengdu as he navigates the nebulous grey area between official tolerance and repression.

They are all players in the remarkable rebirth of religion in China today, resurrected from the ashes left by Mao Zedong’s frenzy of destruction. Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity claim around 300 million followers today, nearly one-third of China’s adult population. “Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life,” Johnson says.

That poses a dilemma for the Communist party. On the one hand, President Xi Jinping has launched what he calls “the great renewal of the Chinese nation,” which involves searching for an indigenous moral value system that would help bind society together and lend legitimacy to its rulers.

So traditional values and practices are encouraged as a source of stability and morality.

At the same time, Johnson points out, “faith is also feared as an uncontrollable force – an alternative ideology to the government’s vision of how society should be run.”

In a country where only the Communist party is allowed to network, churches and temples must be careful to avoid any semblance of political activity. But Johnson cites the well-known social commentator Li Fan, who has described China’s unregistered Christian churches as the only real example of civil society, independent organizations trying to change society.

And this is how the pastor whom Johnson befriends, Wang Yi of the Early Rain Reformed Church in the southwestern city of Chengdu, explains the humanitarian help his church gives to the families of jailed dissidents: “In Chinese society there is no force that’s independent and organized enough to help these people except the congregations.”

It is no coincidence, Johnson suggests, that a disproportionate number of the lawyers in the weiquan “rights defending” movement were practicing Christians. Faith prompts social action and spiritual transformation has consequences.

There are reports that Xia Baolong, the Communist party official who led a 2014 campaign in Zhejiang province to tear down crosses from church roofs, is slated to be put in charge of China’s security organs at next fall’s party congress.

That would not bode well for Christians, or for other religious Chinese: Mr. Xia is a strong believer in tailoring faith to suit Communist party purposes.

But in the end, Johnson concludes, the rediscovery of religion in China is laying the groundwork for a broad transformation of society, winning over hearts and minds to a search for justice and decency that transcends anything the authorities might be able to organize.

“A government that rules by fear cannot instill morality; it can only enforce behavior,” he writes, and it is hard to disagree. 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.

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