Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize0 winning American journalist based in Berlin and Beijing. When he went to China three years ago as a student, he noted that religion there was “dead”.
Now, Johnson is witnessing a transformation, and has documented it in this new book, “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao”, to be published in April.
Johnson writes that China is experiencing a great revival. “Across China,” he says. “Hundreds of temples, mosques and churches open each year, attracting millions of new worshippers. … Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.”
He commented that it is not the China of the past.
China is officially atheist, but has increased in growth since the Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Migrations from the countryside to the city disrupted families and support systems. Many have been distrustful of the government since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Globalization created outside influences in China despite government control via the internet and popular culture.
Johnson commented that as a result, China is a society adrift, “confused and looking for mooring”.
China today is much different. Johnson reports that religious societies provide a sense of community, belonging, and values. They perceive society to be corrupt and chaotic void of any centre of gravity or morality. Therefore the Chinese seek refuge in religious associations to flee from the outside radical secular society.
One individual that Johnson interviewed commented that the perception of the people was that they were unhappy because they were poor. However, this particular person noted that they aren’t impoverished anymore, but they are still unhappy. They discovered that what was missing was a spiritual life.
A lack of religion has not always been the case for China. The end of the 19th century has 1 million temples, and religion was part of life. Under Mao’s reign, however, over half of the temples were destroyed forcing religion underground. A 2015 WIN/Gallop poll discovered that 61% of Chinese were atheists. Only 7% reported any religious affiliation.
A survey conducted by a Chinese University found different numbers. 31% reported to be religious (300 million people), with 2/3 Buddhist, Daoists, or a member of other folk religions. 40 million reported to be Christian.
“I think what Ian conveys is the diversity of religious beliefs that are being revived,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a University of California, Irvine, professor of history who specializes in China and appeared with Johnson at the Davis talk. “He does ethnographic work — getting to know people who practice these beliefs, where an academic would probably just specialize in one of the traditions.”
However, the revival does have a ceiling. The Chinese government recognizes only Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. State-run churches are being led by clergy who the government employs, and who solely give government-sanctioned messages.
“When the Cultural Revolution — a 30-year period — ended, people wondered, ‘Are there any Christians left in China?’” he said. “But what is happening is Christianity, especially Protestantism, exploded underground during the Mao period. There were 1 million. Protestants in 1949 and there are 50 million today. That is huge.”
However, Christianity may only go so far as the government refuses to give up control. Although China’s official “religion” is atheist, Johnson says that they still want to control it as they fear its impact.
“It is a force that is outside of political control. You can try to control it, but if you are religious your allegiance is partly to this world but the allegiance to God is higher and sometimes stronger.”