Journalist Ian Johnson documented in this book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao how an estimated 350 million Chinese citizens found solace in religion, despite a ambiguous governments. In TimesOut Shanghai he tells how he feels that movement will develop in the future.
How do you think religion will develop in China?
‘They’re definitely all going to exist in the future, but I think they’ll appeal to different people. Big urban churches, like the one in Chengdu I describe in the book, appeal largely to white collar people in big cities, who are less interested in traditional culture and feel Christianity is more modern. But many other people are eagerly embracing traditional Chinese culture. This might be people who go fasting for a weekend with monks, or go to temples and read Buddhist mantras, or practice calligraphy. On one hand, this can be just seen as a hobby, but often there are religious statues, incense – some kind of a spiritual meaning and ritual, even if it’s not explicitly religious. But there is no interreligious dialogue in China. There are a lot of areas where religions could co-operate and it could be helpful, but people remain siloed in their religions. Christians don’t know anything about Buddhists, Buddhists don’t know anything about Christians, and nobody knows anything about Islam.’
You met so many fascinating people throughout the book. Who made the biggest impression?
‘I think it’s the Beijing pilgrims who go to the Miaofengshan temple every year. More than 80 pilgrim associations from Beijing attend – groups you would just never think existed. They are really devoted people. They were typical in the sense that they really believed in actions – don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, just go and do charitable things, acts of faith. In a lot of Chinese cities, you don’t see any sign of religion. It’s not like European cities with big churches; in China you have to really look, and then you find all these people with their own faith and rituals just beneath the surface.’
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