The Souls of China by Ian Johnson – the resurgence of religion after Mao

Source: The Guardian


In the spring of last year, Xi Jinping – China’s paramount leader – presided over a national conference on religion. He seized the opportunity to declare Chinese Communist party (CCP) authority over questions of faith. Religious matters, Xi announced, are of “special importance” to the CCP: “We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values.” Believers must “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favourable for the building of a healthy and civilised society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture”. Members of the CCP, he further emphasised, must remain “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the party’s tenets”.

Xi’s remarks exemplified the fierce tensions that surround the past and present role of religion in communist China. While the party acknowledges and accepts the resurgence of religious belief made possible by the post-Mao thaw, it retains an ongoing compulsion to regulate faith – a compulsion that has resulted in violent suppressions of spiritual movements such as Falun Gong.

In his fascinating odyssey through contemporary Chinese religion, Ian Johnson uncovers the roots of these tensions, and the contradictory, complex face of religion in China today. He begins by describing the interlocking relations in pre-20th-century China between politics, society and multiple faiths. In the west, he argues, we are accustomed to thinking “in exclusive terms: this person is Catholic, that person is Jewish, another is Muslim. These faiths have … set places of worship, a holy book and, quite often, a clergy.” In pre-modern China, religious attachment lacked this absoluteness: believers veered between the “three teachings” (Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism) according to social and ritual need. Religion blurred ubiquitously into political power. Control of local temples and religious practices gave local bigwigs community clout; religious authority constituted the “lifeblood” of imperial rule. “The emperor was the ‘Son of Heaven’, who presided over elaborate rituals that underscored his semi-divine nature.”

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