Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book review: The Souls of China, Ian Johnson (2017)

This book provides something like an introduction to religion and culture in China. I gave it a good go but I didn’t find much in the way of a narrative arc and I felt that it was repeating itself past a certain point. The chapters are colourful and interesting on their own terms but the book itself has no single, dominant story to tie it together and to keep you turning the pages. In this sense it was disappointing but from what I read it is clear that Johnson is a worthy chronicler for his chosen subject.

Johnson has a gentle character and this comes out in the journalism that makes up this book. As far as the author’s persona is permitted to be known by the reader, I presume from what transpires that he is himself religious. He is obviously a fluent Chinese speaker and reader, and these skills open doors for him when he wants to get information about the religiosity of the Chinese people. It appears that Johnson is a practicing Christian and he certainly sympathises with people who are devout, regardless of the specific creed they obey.

It is such a shared view of the place of the individual in the world that allows Johnson to extract so many interesting stories about religion in China. He speaks to a large number of people – including Buddhists, Daoists, and Christians – in order to write the book. What is of interest for Westerners is the persistence of religion in China despite the ravages of the bad years, when the Party outlawed any and all religious observance.

The decision of various Chinese people at various times to jettison religion as practiced over millennia because of losses experienced in contests with the West lies at the heart of the temporary demise of religion in the country. But from what Johnson describes, it is clear that the need of the people to have a guide for conduct as well as relief from suffering remain strong motivators for the embrace of religion for contemporary Chinese. As in Japan, religious form is as important for people as the content of whatever texts are used to guide observance. This reliance on form is a particularly Asian phenomenon, it appears to me, and is something that marks out as different the way the Chinese do religion from the way that Westerners normally do it (with some exceptions of course).

There are now probably over 100 million Christians in China and religion is tolerated under a policy that values “intangible cultural heritage”. There are more Protestants than Catholics by far but it is hard to know exactly how many people practice regularly as there is no official count. If you go to a church service in China however you have to provide the local policeman with your name and address.

Books related to religious observance were hidden by the devout during the Cultural Revolution and people now flock to ceremonies. The way that certain types of observance, such as that which is practiced by people who follow the way of the Falun Gong, has survived in the face of official censure, indeed of outright bans, is instructive for people who want to understand Chinese people’s attitude toward such things as mortality and virtue.

The use of marked sticks to tell your fortune, which many Chinese who observe traditional forms of religion still use during ceremonies, hearkens back to the earliest known form of writing in the area that is known now as the heartland of China. In the old days, in prehistory, the shells of turtles and the shoulder bones of oxen would be placed in fire until they cracked. The cracks would them be “read” and the “meaning” would be written on the same artefact, in an effort by religious practitioners to foretell the future. So many aspects of Chinese culture, including fung shue, are predicated on this same need to know what is going to happen. The way that culture and religion and history are intricately intermingled in China means that religion can never be eradicated, regardless of the express aims of the government.

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