Ian Johnson on his new book, ‘The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao’
Te-Ping Chen writes: In parks scattered across Chinese cities are millions of brightly colored exercise machines, popular among the elderly. Ian Johnson’s new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, tells their unlikely backstory: They were installed after a wave of qigong fever swept China in the 1980s and 1990s, when people took to parks and engaged in a bizarre spectrum of meditations and exercises, from hugging trees to twitching to speaking in tongues.
Such scenes emerged as part of a post-Cultural Revolution psychological release, but were later cracked down upon, with groups like Falun Gong feeling the brunt. The government went on to install the exercise machines, often with signs reading “scientific exercise,” in their stead.
Mr. Johnson’s book chronicles the grassroots search for meaning in China, which has lately seen an explosion in the number of temples and churches under construction. It’s also a story of how such faith has coexisted with the state, sometimes uneasily — and its increasing official co-option. He recently spoke with China Real Time about his book, due out in April from Pantheon/Knopf. Edited excerpts:
What inspired the book?
Religion doesn’t shape our view of China very much. We tend to see China through an economic or political [lens]: China is the factory of the world or the rising superpower. If we think of religion it tends to be in terms of persecution and crackdowns. All that is true but doesn’t reflect the overarching, huge religious revival.
Now that, for a lot of people, the problems of housing and food have been solved, they’re turning to these eternal questions: Why are we here? What’s the deeper meaning of life?
You write that half of the million temples in China at the turn of the 20th century were destroyed even before the Communists took power in 1949. What happened?
People began to feel there was a contradiction between their belief system and modernity and not being overwhelmed by the West. So they began to attack their own religion. It happened in Turkey and the Middle East; it’s not uniquely Chinese, but in China religion and politics were extremely intertwined, so it was hard to change the political system without attacking the religious system that underpinned it.
What are some of the ways faith in China is misunderstood?
In polls, if you say, What zongjiao (religion) do you believe in? people still think it’s an odd question. The word zongjiao has been heavily politicized under the Communists. It’s better to ask people what they do rather than about labels. There was a very good study done that found something like 25% of respondents said that a god or a spirit or—I think they used a word like “Buddha”—had influenced their life in the past 12 months. That’s much higher than if you say, do you believe in zongjiao, when you get like a 10% rate [of people saying yes].
For most people there was no contradiction between, say, reading Confucian books on morality and going to a Taoist temple and then inviting Buddhist monks over to perform a funeral ceremony for your granny. It was all part of the same thing. They were not discrete organized religions in opposition to each other the way we think of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
You write that President Xi has helped boost Buddhism and traditional religions in China.
Xi has strongly ramped up support for traditional Chinese ideas, including religion. A lot of guoxue(the study of traditional Chinese culture) now being taught in schools are essentially religious texts—a lot of Confucianism, but they’re reading the [the Taoist classic text] “Dao De Jing” and Buddhist texts as well.
There’s been increased support for this idea of intangible cultural heritage, which includes formerly banned religious practices or things that were considered [superstition]. They’ll call it music or theater but it’s religious music and religious theater. They’ve given tons of money to these groups. You also see it in the incredible number of temples under construction. Look at Beijing, which used to have one to two Taoist temples and now there’s over 20.
There’s a redefining of all this as culture. At one temple in Beijing, I asked a guy, “Is this religion?” And the guy shrank back, saying, “No, this isn’t religion.” And I was like, “But they’re kowtowing.” And he said, “No, it’s culture.”
If you’re just a cultural-activities thing or a moneymaking tourist site, it’s more relaxed, you can do what you want. You can have a temple fair and say it’s intangible cultural heritage. … (read more)
—Te-Ping Chen. Follow Te-Ping on Twitter @tepingchen.