The Guardian praises Ian Johnson’s book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao and his well-documented tour along Taoist musicians, rebel Christians and celebrity Zen Buddhists, and where the CCP is still firmly in charge.
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.”
Religion’s saturation of political life made it an obvious target for reformers and revolutionaries discontented with a China torn apart by foreign enemies and domestic rebels. In searching for the roots of the country’s crises, many early 20th-century radicals blamed religious tradition – particularly but not only Confucianism – for holding China back from becoming a cohesive, modern state populated by rational, dynamic citizens. This antagonism towards religious tradition peaked during the Mao years (1949-76): temples and monasteries were destroyed; clergy were beaten, imprisoned and killed; Christians were automatically suspect as adherents of a “western” faith. (The religious impulse, of course, did not disappear through these decades: especially from the 1960s onwards, Mao was worshipped as an infallible deity.)
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