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Culture Q&A

Ian Johnson

Eastern upheaval

Understanding the resurgence of religion in China

Eastern upheaval

Ian Johnson (Sim Chi Yin/VII)

Ian Johnson is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the persecution of Falun Gong adherents in China. His new book is The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (Pantheon, 2017).

When did you first realize religion in China was resurging? In the 1990s more people were interested in spiritual issues, and the radically secular and economically focused society around them wasn’t providing the type of answers they needed. You could see there was a searching for something else, but at the time I thought I only noticed this because I was interested in the topic.

When did you realize it was a crucial issue in China? I came back to China in 2009 and realized this isn’t just me being interested in this topic, it’s a crucial national issue that gets to the heart of a lot of social issues. In some ways it is the issue: What are the shared values of China?

How is this resurgence of religion in China different from what we see in the West? A lot of people in the West—as well as Chinese Communist ideology—think that as countries get more prosperous, society “progresses” and religions fade in importance. Religious attendance is going up in China, as it’s still in a period of growth rather than a period of entrenchment. A lot of people are still looking for answers.


‘The 85 million CCP members in China are all supposed to be atheists. Yet the government keeps issuing orders telling its members to stay away from religion.’

How does the Chinese government differentiate between culture and religion? In China a lot of practices were derided as superstitious and outright banned throughout the 20th century, even before Communist rule. Now the government has allowed traditional folk religions to come back, but they call it traditional Chinese culture. Pilgrimages to holy mountains get support from government not as a religious movement but as a cultural event, even though they are quite religious. The government is helping out those kinds of groups because it hopes they can give society some sort of moral compass.

Are there some kinds of Buddhism the government would crack down on? They worry about foreign ties, so that could apply to Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, but they have more trouble with Christianity and Islam because both have strong overseas ties. Many of the unregistered churches have some overseas ties, maybe informal. They are also skeptical about Christianity because Christians believe that while religion is mainly about the transcendent, it also applies to this world and how society is organized. The Chinese government wants to control society.

How has the Chinese migration from rural areas to urban centers affected the different religions? At the end of the 1970s, 80 percent of Chinese people lived in the countryside. Now it’s about 50/50 in rural and urban areas. That’s changed the religious structure of China on a couple of levels. A lot of the religious infrastructure of traditional religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion was more present in the countryside than the cities. The move to cities has helped other religions, especially Christianity, as the church has more of a missional role to go and reach people coming to the cities. It’s incredibly attractive because when people are thrust into these alienating cities, they have no friends and no network of people. Churches can provide that.

How has the urban move helped Protestantism in particular? Protestantism has been very successful at attracting young, white-collar people who go to cities to study and work. Also, you can set up a Protestant church anywhere in a way you can’t with traditional religions, because temples need infrastructure. A church service can be held in someone’s home or in an office building, like Pastor Wang Yi’s Early Rain Reformed Church.

What’s lost in this transition? A lot of culture gets left behind. With (until recently) 80 percent of the people living in the countryside, 80 percent of the culture was there as well: traditions, ritual, dramas. Temples in China had a lot of stage performances and operas, and that is harder to transfer to the big city, because you don’t have enough space. For most people, the sense of community is lost as well.

Are people in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also looking to religion to find meaning to their lives? I think so. The 85 million CCP members in China are all supposed to be atheists. Yet the government keeps issuing orders telling its members to stay away from religion, which makes me think that maybe some of them aren’t atheists or else the government wouldn’t need to issue these orders. The cultural side of religion is easier for them to accept. I write about one Buddhist master who had a lot of party officials come to seek advice from him and do some meditations, but they’d say, “This isn’t religion, it’s just culture.” It’s a way out.

What surprised you when you visited Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu? It drove home to me that if you walk past the building where it is located, you wouldn’t think it’s a spiritual home to hundreds of people. You’d think it’s another seedy office tower in downtown Chengdu. That is a good reminder of how a lot of religious sites in China operate. Because of the government’s control and destruction in the past you don’t see outward signs of religion, but it’s still there.

What about the government’s attempt to increase control of foreign religion? Last year the government had a religious affairs work conference for the first time in 15 years: No radical changes, but officials did say religions have to indigenize or have more local content. They don’t want civil society in China, and they don’t want the kind of thing that happened in Poland in the Cold War with the Catholic Church, or in East Germany with the Protestant church. If religion is just personal piety, they’re OK with that. They just don’t want people who have what they consider “ulterior motives.” They are worried in Xinjiang with the terrorism problem they blame on Islam. With Protestantism, they noticed a quarter of the human rights defenders are Protestants and probably wondered: “Why is this religion so socially active?”

How did writing this book affect you spiritually? In some ways we go through phases in life when your spiritual life is on autopilot and you don’t think much about the stuff you do. Writing this book forced me to re-engage in my faith. I had a good time with Early Rain Church. I found it very refreshing there: They were very unapologetic with what they did, such as the length of the sermon. [Pastor Wang Yi’s sermons are typically over an hour long.] Often churches in the West race through it with everyone trying to get back for Sunday dinner or the football game.

The Chinese are much more genuine and it’s better in the long run, or else you’re constantly in this apologetic downward spiral of trying to make sermons shorter and more accommodating to the outside world.