The revival of religion in China has been a curious thing to observe. On the one hand, it seems to be an innate human drive, which will survive any repression; on the other, it has a useful function, providing moral instruction and fellow-feeling in a society dominated by commercial instincts, though it has yet to be allowed the freedoms allowed in the west. This ambivalence and ambiguity create an atmosphere that veers between hope and despair, depending on how far the followers want to push against the invisible lines of China’s inchoate freedoms.
Ian Johnson’s book therefore takes a dual tack. In its opening sections it recounts the history of religion and religiosity in China – the folk religions, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, up to the imposition of state atheism following the 1949 revolution. He then introduces a number of characters involved in various religious scenes around China – from Beijing to Chengdu – and explores their own religious conversion in the pursuit of a more meaningful life.
Not surprisingly, religion seems to strike people in one of two different ways. They are either searching for meaning, or they are searching for answers. Those Johnson talks – the founders of churches or leaders in reviving religious practices – are generally the latter, most of them having experienced some grim episode earlier in their lives. This spurs them to seek answers that the authorities either cannot or will not give. Their parishioners or followers are usually the former, seeking meaning in a world that seems to have gained no greater purpose for all the wealth that China has accumulated. “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor,” Johnson quotes an interviewee as saying. “But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet were still unhappy. We realize that there’s something missing, and that’s a spiritual life.”
Religion, of course, satisfies several functions. Some of these are socially useful; its role in social ordering is one of its most profound and useful components. Johnson explains how, historically, folk religion in China was not a matter of specific rituals or practices, as with modern festivals from Easter to Diwali. Religion was “diffused” throughout society; it ordered the calendar, it gave a frame to the seasons, it explained what to do for births, deaths and marriages, but also for meals, friendship, work, and culture. It was the main pole holding aloft the tent of civilization. (Interestingly, JRR Tolkien also described the religion in The Lord of The Rings as “diffused” rather than institutionalized, understanding its anthropological importance in ordering and managing primitive societies). But China seems now lacking in such a broader guiding philosophy, a culture where money and power seem the only goals and where trust and empathy can be grievously lacking. Yet Johnson shows us that the hunger for a meaning greater than oneself is probably inherent, and China is in many cases turning to religion to provide the answers. We can only hope that this vast outpouring of longing comes to create a more civil society.
Published in Business Tianjin