Mod­ern China's Re­li­gious Surge

Global Asia - - BOOK REVIEWS - Re­viewed by John Nils­son-wright, Se­nior Lec­turer, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, Se­nior Re­search Fel­low for North­east Asia, Chatham House, and a re­gional ed­i­tor for

With po­lit­i­cal life in many coun­tries seem­ingly ever more de­tached from En­light­en­ment ra­tio­nal­ism, it is in­ter­est­ing to con­tem­plate the role of emo­tion in a state seem­ingly com­mit­ted to sci­en­tific think­ing. Mod­ern China, through its 1949 Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion, nom­i­nally em­braced the cer­tain­ties of eco­nomic ma­te­ri­al­ism in­her­ent in Marx­ism-lenin­ism, a trend re­in­forced by the state-sanc­tioned pur­suit of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment un­der Deng Xiaop­ing and his suc­ces­sors. Equally im­por­tant, the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion from 1966 sought to im­pose a sec­u­lar mind­set to rid the “back­ward” in­flu­ences of re­li­gious su­per­sti­tion.

Ian John­son, in his in­no­va­tive study of mod­ern China, shows such a view to be too sim­plis­tic. Not only did re­li­gion have deep his­tor­i­cal roots in pre-mod­ern China, op­er­at­ing at the lo­cal level via a be­wil­der­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of “city gods” and pro­fes­sional deities, it was also widely dif­fused through an elab­o­rate se­ries of rit­u­als that blurred sharp dis­tinc­tions be­tween the spir­i­tual and sec­u­lar in daily life.

Most im­por­tant, as John­son ar­gues, re­li­gion is mak­ing a come­back, and with state sup­port as it rec­og­nizes its crit­i­cal role in meet­ing the af­fec­tive needs of or­di­nary peo­ple for whom ma­te­rial progress alone fails to de­liver hap­pi­ness. To­day’s China is spir­i­tu­ally eclec­tic and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary “re­li­gious surge” — re­flected in mul­ti­ple re­li­gious iden­ti­ties, whether Bud­dhist, Daoist, Chris­tian or Con­fu­cian, and the re­vival of vi­brant folk tra­di­tions. Global Asia

The Souls of China: The Re­turn of Re­li­gion af­ter Mao By Ian John­son Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2017, 480 pages, $12.24 (Hard­cover)

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