The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

Ian Johnson

A century of suppression failed to snuff out the faith of the Chinese people. While relatively few profess membership in an organized religion – an unpopular Western concept for many Chinese – religious belief and practice are alive and well. Almost one third of Chinese are religious, with roughly 200 million Buddhists and Daoists, 60 million Protestants, 25 million Muslims, and 10 million Catholics – with another 175 million still following at least some ancient Daoist or folk-religion practices.

Today, this book suggests, the number of faithful is exploding as people look for meaning and a moral compass. “A lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life,” one person tells the author.

Johnson, who has lived in China and studied its religions since the early 1980s, writes compellingly for one so knowledgeable. The book is amazingly personal: it follows families representing each faith through their history and daily life to uncover deeply held values and beliefs.

Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” crackdown on religion is well known, but the destruction of temples and churches started earlier, with the late emperors and the Nationalists also suppressing traditional Chinese religion in hopes of moving their country into the modern age. Mao sought to replace religion with the cult of Mao. But, as Johnson puts it succinctly, “there was one problem with Mao as a living god: he died.”

Persecution drove faith underground and actually may have served to finally sever the ancient link between state and religion. Now, after three decades of relative openness, the current government may try to rein in this latest spiritual renewal or to coopt it for political purposes – but the tenacity of faith in China over the last decades suggests that such efforts are unlikely to succeed.