The Souls of China, Return of Religion After Mao

by Ian Johnson

Compiled by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Spirituality has long been a fundamental element of Chinese society and culture, but when China came under the influence of Western and Japanese powers in the nineteenth century, traditional religion was seen as holding China back from modernization. Since the first Opium War against the British Empire began in 1839, successive Chinese leaders have sought to rid China of its “backward” traditions in order to build a strong China based on modernist ideas and technological innovation. Under this pretext, religious institutions came under attack by Chinese authorities and believers were forced to practice their faith in hiding. Following the death of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, religion was gradually allowed to resurface. In less than half a century, Chinese spirituality has returned to prominence, and in some ways, far surpassed the importance it held before it was forcibly removed from the Chinese faithful.


This is where Ian Johnson takes up his book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. Granted intimate access to spiritual customs and ceremonies rarely witnessed by foreigners, Johnson chronicles the development of various religious traditions in China from before Mao to the present day. As a participant observer, he presents the accounts shared to him by Chinese believers deeply involved in the survival, and in many cases the revival, of these longstanding traditions. Guiding the reader through the seasons of the ancient Chinese lunar calendar and the major celebrations of traditional Chinese society, the book drifts between historical accounts of the country’s relationship with religion and spirituality, and the personal experiences of several key interlocutors, each of whom have played an important role in their own respective faith communities.

In the outskirts of Beijing, the Ni family exemplifies the melding of different religious and cultural traditions. Each year, they carry a statuette of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin to Miaofengshan to honor the Daoist deity Our Lady of the Azure Clouds as part of a pilgrimage. Like many religious rituals, pilgrimage societies disappeared during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when religion and other cultural traditions were eliminated by the Communist Red Guards, only to be revived following the death of Chairman Mao. Ni Zhenshan, the late patriarch of the Ni family, began the Whole Heart Philanthropic Salvation Tea Association in 1995, offering tea to pilgrims every year to thank the Daoist deity for a successful cancer surgery years prior. Ni Jincheng, his 56-year-old son, continues the tradition since his passing, as increasing numbers of pilgrims and tourists arrive on the mountain during the two-week ritual, seen by many as culture rather than religion.


In rural Shanxi province, Johnson spends time with the Li family, who for generation after generation, have served as the Daoist yin-yang men for Yanggao County, performing music and rituals for weddings, funerals, and religious festivals. As the residents of their rural county move to nearby cities to seek better jobs, like many rural Chinese, these ancient Daoist traditions have lost some of their appeal. Li Bin straddles the two worlds, often performing rituals with his father and their music troupe in the county’s villages while living and expanding his family business in the city. Although their musical performances have now been deemed intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, and the troupe has performed at Carnegie Hall and worldwide, Li Bin struggles to teach city people the correct rituals and his own son is uninterested in learning the tradition to carry it on.


Johnson also documents the growth of Christianity in China, visiting the newly established seminary and prayer hall of the Early Rain Protestant Church in Chengdu, run by Pastor Wang Yi. Here, we can see a clear divide between the traditionally Chinese religions (Buddhism, Daoism, folk religion) which have enjoyed support from the CCP in recent years, and the non-Chinese religion of Christianity, which faces restrictions because Beijing fears its foreign ties and rapid growth. Even worse restrictions are imposed on practitioners of the new religious movements like Eastern Lightning (325–332) and the rapidly popularized qigong movement Falungong (106–120), both outlawed by the CCP as “evil cults”.


All of these restrictions are imposed in an effort to protect the authority of the CCP from being challenged by Chinese followers of foreign religions. Following centuries of Chinese rulers supposedly mandated by heaven, the CCP had sought to deify itself, issuing propaganda saying “long live the CCP” and enshrining its leaders’ political ideologies like religious scriptures (278–279). But the Chinese people need spirituality, and the CCP has gradually come to accept that. Johnson cites the relatively supportive approach of Xi Zhongxun towards ethnic and religious minorities (Hui Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists) during his time as a local official in western China (218). He posits that this could explain the openness of Xi’s son, the current Chinese president Xi Jinping, towards certain religious groups, particularly early in his political career, when the younger Xi helped to rebuild and register the Linji Temple 临济寺 in the small county of Zhengding (219–221).


Johnson does not address two small, yet significant religious groups in Chinese western peripheries, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, whether for lack of access or level of contention. Under President Xi’s leadership, the CCP has sought to marginalize these religions along with Christianity, in favour of supporting more traditionally Chinese religions which Beijing sees as less threatening to social order and stability (334–335). In the end, many Chinese need to aspire to heaven, and the CCP simply wants to control their pursuit of it to protect central authority over China (397–398). Overall, this book presents an excellent overview of China’s religious landscape and could serve as excellent background reading for scholars of Chinese religion, politics, history, and culture.

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