Ian Johnson and the Souls of China

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and booming big cities alike, what he came to see unmistakably over 6 years on the road was a restoration taking place across the peculiar mix of Chinese religion: Buddhist meditation, Daoist exercises, Confucian moral discipline.

In his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After MaoJohnson says the spiritual revival in modern China is centered not so much on the God questions as on how to organize Chinese life again around communities of belief, ritual and practice.  What Confucianist advice do you want before you invest? Do we head for a cave together for peace and quiet? What Johnson sees is a vast identity search in a people tossed and tussled by outsiders and now by a century of their own modern  revolutions, people still fiercely hungry in an historic boom time:

Theology does not play a huge role in Chinese religion… Using the tools of Greek logic to prove or disprove a proposition is not something you find too much in Chinese religion. Most people are happy to participate because they feel it gives structure to their lives, and ritual. Though we often think of ritual being empty or unimportant, it’s really the profound question of how you act in a certain situation. Like, what’s the proper way to mourn a dead person? What’s the proper way to behave in relation to other people in society? Those are pretty important questions. Those are actually quite profound. I think what also I found is that there’s a great exuberance in the religious life of China. If you think of a pilgrimage outside of Beijing to Myao Fung Shin, there’s a whole lot of people drinking and smoking cigarettes and cursing and yelling. It’s not all sitting, quietly meditating and saying, “Ohmm.”


– Ian Johnson in conversation with Christopher Lydon 4/10/17.

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