In This Review

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
By Ian Johnson
Pantheon, 2017, 480 pp

Johnson practices what might be called “slow reporting”: a form of patient watching, listening, and asking that produces deep insight into China’s multifaceted religious revival. He sits with a Christian prayer group, practices Taoist meditation, participates in a raucous yet spiritual mountain pilgrimage, and attends burial rites. As a curious foreigner, he is welcomed by Chinese hosts who graciously instruct him on their idiosyncratic beliefs. His deft descriptions of these encounters distill the results of broad scholarly research with gentle humor and quiet emotion. Chinese Muslims and Christians—especially Protestants, who number in the tens of millions—are forging their own understandings of faiths that are centered abroad. The religions with longer histories in China—Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion—are short on theology by Western standards but long on ritual practices. In all these faiths, the Chinese are struggling to rediscover or reimagine their traditions across the historical chasm of the Mao years. For the time being, a fragile mutual tolerance prevails between the repressive state and a wounded society yearning for meaning.