Modern China's Religious Surge
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)