Walking through the hutong of Beijing, an outsider can miss a lot of the life that unfolds there. It seems like you see a great deal: people strolling out of their doorways in the morning in their pajamas; eagle-eyed nainai keeping watch on afternoon comings and goings; and in the evenings families perching outside their doorways on little stools chatting and joking, liaotian'r 聊天.
You think you have a good feeling of the rhythm of a neighborhood. But you don't. Not, at least, in the manner that Ian Johnson does.
His new book, Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, is the product of years of close observation and intimate contact with dozens of Chinese individuals as they go about making spiritual meaning of their lives. Religion is not the first thing most people want to talk about; indeed, it is a fraught topic (spoiler of many a Thanksgiving dinner). But Johnson has worked hard to forge close personal relationships with people, allowing him to witness and report on their religious practices and beliefs. He steps deep inside the hutong to reveal a diverse and lively spiritual life that most of us miss.
The core of the book follows three sets of religious adherents: The Beijing Pilgrims; The Shanxi Daoists; and the Chengdu Christians. What stands out about the first two groups is the syncretic quality of their beliefs. The Beijing Pilgrims center their activities on a Temple dedicated to a Daoist goddess, the Lady of the Azure Clouds, but they also venerate, among others, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guanyin. Defending some sort of doctrinal distinction between Daoism and Buddhism (which are defined as distinct practices by the state) is not their concern. They draw from a wide array of indigenous spiritual symbols and discourses to construct meaningful rituals.
Similarly the Shanxi Daoists are open to creative variation of the religious traditions they enact. In a moving passage toward the end of the book, Johnson describes the re-internment ceremony, a "ghost burial" - guizang, that a man has requested for his parents. He had not been able to have proper ceremonies performed when his parents died and wanted to do the right thing: have them disinterred and reburied under the watchful eye of a Daoist practitioner. In the course of the reburial, the daughter of the deceased couple steps forward with a suggestion:
"I would like to drape this [red cloth] over the coffins," she said.
Li Bin [Daoist adept] looked at her in surprise but instantly understood. White was the color of death; red used for a wedding. This was something he had never seen before, but it touched him and his eyes reddened.
"Good, yes, of course, what a good idea."
What matters for Li Bin, a man widely respected in his community for his understanding of Daoist rites, is not rigid adherence to formal liturgical procedures. Rather, it is intention and context that are most important: the spirits of the deceased can be respected and put at ease in more than one way, and his challenge is to find the subtle blend of custom and innovation most suited to the moment.
It is that sensibility the runs through much of Johnson's account of the revival of religion in China after Mao. The "moral crisis" wrought by dizzying economic and social and cultural change of the past several decades has been well and widely chronicled (see here, and here, and here). What Johnson shows us is how various Chinese individuals use a variety of religious traditions to recreate, or perhaps even build from scratch, personal and spiritual meaning in the face of very rapid urbanization, commercialization, and individualization. His work certainly rebuts the rather lazy assertion, derived from badly worded surveys, that China is overwhelmingly an atheist society. Quite to the contrary, religious and spiritual beliefs are diffused widely across contemporary Chinese culture and society, and those beliefs are creatively expressed in myriad ways.
This is true as for Chinese Christians as for others. Johnson describes how a Protestant congregation in Chengdu discusses and interprets their theology. This is not simply a passive imposition of a "Western" system of belief into a Chinese context, but a productive formulation of a distinctively local Chinese expression of Christian beliefs. People face uncertainty and personal crises in their lives, they seek solace in religious wisdom, and they come together to mutually articulate a common faith. Whether they draw from indigenous or international traditions, the pattern is replicated in countless locations across the country.
Johnson is well aware of the political implications of the upsurge of religion in China. The short Afterword is a smart account of the Party's ambivalence toward spiritual faith. On the one hand, the CCP is officially atheistic and its leaders must forswear formal religious affiliation. Yet the state's obsession with rapid modernization, which is still consistent with its core Marxist-Leninist ideology, has produced the social anomie that inadvertently fuels the popular turn toward religion. The irony: the godless Communists have created conditions for the return of the gods in China. Party leaders are wary that their political legitimacy could be undermined by the expansion of religious practice; many people have more faith in the Lady of the Azure Clouds than in Lei Feng. Thus, on the other hand, Party leaders must publicly demonstrate a certain understanding and tolerance of religion. Comprehensive repression would create massive public anger and pose an ever more serious problem for political legitimation. We therefore see the apparently contradictory stories of Xi Jinping supporting the reconstruction of a Buddhist temple in Hebei, even while the government demolishes a Tibetan Buddhist community in Sichuan. An obvious political calculation is a work: some religions, especially indigenous practices, are to be tolerated, maybe nurtured, while others, especially those with connections to "hostile foreign forces" - Tibetan Buddhism, Islam in Xinjiang, Christianity generally - must be contained and controlled and curtailed.
So while religion thrives in China, as Johnson so ably illustrates, it also suffers.
Johnson draws out the complexities of contemporary religious life in China in vivid and fine-grained detail. He is a master story teller, continuing in the vein of his excellent 2004 book, Wild Grass. His journalistic skill is enhanced by his scholarly proclivities. He is familiar with the academic literature on Chinese religion and he draws upon it to good effect. The overall result is a deeply knowledgeable, marvelously portrayed, admirably sympathetic, yet appropriately analytic exploration of the spiritual lives we might not otherwise see in our strolls through the Beijing hutong.