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One of the Best Books of the Year: The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor
China is in the midst of one of the world’s great spiritual awakenings: some 300 million Chinese currently practice a faith, while tens of millions more follow personal gurus, populist masters and New Age sages. This astonishing revival began in 1982 when the Communist Party pledged to allow what it thought would be a small-scale practice of religion under government supervision. But the faithful have expanded far beyond the Party’s expectations: Today, China’s cities and villages are filled with new temples, churches, and mosques as well as cults, sects and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Fueling this resurgence is a popular desire to rediscover a moral compass in a society driven by naked capitalism.
For six years, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Ian Johnson lived for extended periods with three religious communities: the underground Early Rain Protestant congregation in Chengdu, the Ni family’s Buddhist pilgrimage association in Beijing, and yinyang Daoist priests in rural Shanxi. Johnson distills these experiences into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle that reveals the hearts and minds of the Chinese people—a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.
About the Author
Ian Johnson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times; his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and National Geographic. During more than twenty years of working in China he has won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and the Shorenstein lifetime achievement award for covering Asia. An advising editor for the Journal of Asian Studies, he also teaches university courses on religion and society at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is the author of two other books that also focus on the intersection of politics and religion: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in China, and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He lives in Beijing.
“Wonderful. . . . A masterpiece of observation and empathy.” —The New York Review of Books
“Chinese society is not religious. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. . . . Ian Johnson brilliantly demonstrates that the conventional wisdom is wrong.” —The Washington Post
“Moving. . . . A nuanced group portrait of Chinese citizens striving for non-material answers in an era of frenetic materialism.” —The Guardian
“A fascinating panorama.” —The Economist
“Compelling. . . . A seminal piece of work taking the reader well beyond the prejudices and clichés that so often mark writing about religion in East Asia.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“With a subtlety born of years spent in China, Johnson explains how traditional rituals help people overcome urban anomie and answer the ‘pragmatic but profound issue of how to behave’. . . . He sees believers’ recurrent invocation of ‘heaven’ as an aspiration for justice and respect, couched as an appeal to a power higher than the government.” —The New Yorker
“Produces deep insight into China’s multifaceted religious revival. . . . Distill[s] the results of broad scholarly research with gentle humor and quiet emotion.” —Foreign Affairs
“Absorbing and often surprising.” —Financial Times
“A deeply knowledgeable, eminently readable and important book that reveals a side of China that foreigners rarely explore.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“[Johnson] is at his best, showcasing his mastery of immersive reporting as he travels with Buddhist pilgrims and lives with Chinese Christians.” —Foreign Policy
“Takes us on an extraordinarily rich and intimate journey. . . . Johnson shows us what is really in Chinese souls and hearts. This vividly written, deeply researched book will be the primary work about religious faith in China for years to come.” —Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls
“A rich, informative, and timely book. . . . A tremendous accomplishment.” —Ha Jin, National Book Award–winning author of Waiting
“This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.” —Karen Armstrong, author of Fields of Blood
“In Ian Johnson . . . the faithful have found an ideal chronicler. With the patience of the ethnographer, and the precision of a journalist, Johnson has produced an enduring account of China’s inner life at a time of disorienting social and economic change.” —Asian Review of Books
“Remarkable. . . . Recounts extraordinary tales of courage and heartbreak.” —The Irish Times
“Captivating. . . . The Souls of China is written like top-flight journalism—it is driven by the stories of real people, and the analysis flows out of their lives. At the same time, a reader who knows the literature (and who reads the endnotes) will see just how thoroughly grounded Johnson is in the broader range of scholarship.” —Current History
"In touching, descriptive prose, Johnson brings his subjects to life amid a colorful backdrop. . . . Engaging, timely, and humane." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Johnson’s writing is compelling and lyrical, and his research strikes a fluid balance between the political implications . . . and the implications for daily life." —Publishers Weekly
"Unique in the wide scope of culture and history of China that is woven into the gripping personal narratives." —Healing Tao
"For anyone interested in looking beyond the headlines to understand the complexity of religious life in China today, The Souls of China is a must-read." —Gospel Coalition