Chi­nese spir­i­tu­al­ity on its own terms

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY RICHARD MAD­SEN Richard Mad­sen is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego.

Chi­nese so­ci­ety is not re­li­gious. At least that’s the con­ven­tional wisdom, which ar­gues that there is no place for re­li­gion in a China con­sumed by ma­te­ri­al­ist cap­i­tal­ism un­der the con­trol of a dic­ta­to­rial gov­ern­ment. But in “The Souls of China,” jour­nal­ist Ian John­son bril­liantly demon­strates that the con­ven­tional wisdom is wrong. Un­der the sur­face lies a world of vividly imag­ined hopes and dreams. John­son, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his re­port­ing on the sup­pres­sion of the Falun Gong spiritual move­ment, ven­tures far off the beaten path and lis­tens to or­di­nary Chi­nese who in­tro­duce him to their world of the spirit.

In to­day’s China, the tra­di­tional Chi­nese lu­nar cal­en­dar, which was re­placed in 1929 with the mod­ern West­ern Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar, “still un­der­pins how many Chi­nese dress, eat, wor­ship, and pray.” In a nod to the cal­en­dar’s in­flu­ence, John­son or­ga­nizes his book around its sea­sons. In many re­spects, the Chi­nese ap­proach to spir­i­tu­al­ity does not fol­low the lines of the re­li­gious dog­mas that in­spire West­ern Chris­tians. The Chi­nese im­merse them­selves in a dif­fer­ent world of time and space where sa­cred moun­tain peaks (some ac­tu­ally no more than hills) rep­re­sent the meet­ing of heaven and earth. The Chi­nese draw on rit­u­als and po­etic sto­ries, some an­cient, oth­ers re­cently in­vented, that in their own way con­sti­tute a rich re­li­gious life.

In the most vivid and mov­ing chap­ters of the book, John­son fol­lows the Ni fam­ily, which leads one of the 80 pil­grim as­so­ci­a­tions in Beijing. The fam­ily or­ga­nizes the an­nual two-week pil­grim­age to the city’s most im­por­tant re­li­gious site, Miaofeng­shan, or the Moun­tain of the Won­drous Peak, to wor­ship a god­dess called Our Lady of the Azure Clouds. These as­so­ci­a­tions are in­de­pen­dent of the gov­ern­ment, with an author­ity that de­rives from tra­di­tion and faith. The work is un­paid and passed down from fa­ther to son. John­son spends the en­tire two weeks with the Ni fam­ily’s as­so­ci­a­tion, as­cend­ing the moun­tain with tens of thou­sands of pil­grims. The moun­tain is trans­fig­ured with stat­ues and flow­ers and gold-col­ored sheets and ban­ners; the air is redo­lent of in­cense; and time is filled with per­for­mances of singing and danc­ing, stilt-walk­ing and mar­tial arts. What was the mean­ing of all this? “The key,” John­son writes, “was that some­thing was here, now: a bridge to the fu­ture. Af­ter ev­ery­thing that China had been through over the past cen­tury, the fact that tem­ples were still stand­ing was the mir­a­cle. . . . In­stead of ap­prais­ing the stat­ues, I looked at the peo­ple, to see what was in their eyes.”

What was in their eyes was a kind of faith and hope, a be­lief that they were con­nected to their an­ces­tors and a wish that they could be­queath that con­nec­tion to their chil­dren. These as­pi­ra­tions are ex­pressed in dif­fer­ent ways by the re­li­gious prac­ti­tion­ers through­out the book. Li Bin from ru­ral Shanxi prov­ince is a ninth-gen­er­a­tion Daoist, a “yin-yang man,” who or­ga­nizes funer­als and tells for­tunes, help­ing the liv­ing both to un­der­stand their fate and to carry on the legacy of the dead. Qin Ling is a mas­ter of Daoist “in­ner alchemy” med­i­ta­tion tech­niques, who teaches in Beijing, with a clien­tele that in­cludes the chil­dren of high­rank­ing of­fi­cials. John­son stud­ies with her and then goes on a 10-day re­treat in south­ern China with her men­tor Wang Lip­ing and 500 oth­ers, in­clud­ing lawyers, busi­ness peo­ple and artists.

He at­tends an­other re­treat with a 94-yearold mas­ter of Chi­nese clas­sics named Nan Huai-chin, whose books on Chi­nese tra­di­tions have sold more than 60 mil­lion copies and whose stu­dents in­clude “air­line ex­ec­u­tives, bank man­agers, young schol­ars, ar­chi­tects, and the well-con­nected chil­dren of se­nior lead­ers.” He also trav­els to Chengdu in Sichuan prov­ince, were he wor­ships with Wang Yi, a former hu­man rights lawyer and now pas­tor of a dy­namic non-reg­is­tered (and there­fore of­fi­cially il­le­gal) “house church.” Some of Wang Yi’s friends re­gret that he is no longer a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, but John­son re­flects: “As a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual in a re­pres­sive state like China, what could Wang Yi re­ally achieve through ac­tivism? House ar­rest and a blocked In­ter­net con­nec­tion? . . . As a pas­tor and sem­i­nary teacher, Wang Yi could in­flu­ence hun­dreds of peo­ple and help plant con­gre­ga­tions across the coun­try. At the very least, here he was cre­at­ing his own so­ci­ety — a tiny cos­mos of or­der and jus­tice in the mid­dle of one of China’s largest cities.”

The re­li­gious space-time that John­son ex­plores is real, ro­bust and re­silient, and in­evitably, it im­pinges on the ev­ery­day world of com­merce and politics. The gov­ern­ment once tried to sti­fle the re­li­gious world, but un­der Xi Jin­ping, it is now try­ing to co-opt var­i­ous forms of tra­di­tional re­li­gion in the hopes that they will crowd out a resur­gent Chris­tian­ity. But the ef­forts are clumsy and are not stop­ping the many re­li­gious prac­tices from con­tin­u­ing on their own paths of de­vel­op­ment. In John­son’s telling, there is not one but many souls of mod­ern China, all en­gaged in a some­times ca­cophonous quest for mean­ing, com­mu­nity and jus­tice.

“Per­haps,” he con­cludes, “be­cause Chi­nese tra­di­tions were so sav­agely at­tacked over the past decades, and then re­placed with such a naked form of cap­i­tal­ism, China might ac­tu­ally be at the fore­front of this world­wide search for val­ues.”


A man takes in the view from a tem­ple on Miaofeng­shan, or the Moun­tain of the Won­drous Peak, Beijing’s most im­por­tant re­li­gious site.

THE SOULS OF CHINA The Re­turn of Re­li­gion Af­ter Mao By Ian John­son Pan­theon. 455 pp. $30

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