AAR Reading Room
One of the best parts of writing a crossover book like Souls of China is getting reviewed in two kinds of outlets: mass media and academia.
This review by Queens University Professor James Miller (who is now teaching at Duke Kunshan in Shanghai) is especially welcome because Miller is one of the leading scholars on Daoism who also aims for a broader audience.
I have to say that the review is more than I could have hoped for: he gets the structure of the book, likes it, but also gently points out areas where it could have been better.
First the praise. He writes:
"The Souls of China is a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise. It is the work of a generalist who is comfortable conversing with dissident Christians, Buddhist gurus, and conservative Confucian intellectuals, and one who has the social, cultural, and linguistic fluency to navigate the complexities of myriad encounters with people from diverse cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. Johnson, ever the modest Canadian, never vaunts these skills, remarkable though they are, and infuses many of his encounters with a self-deprecating humor that portrays him as the typical confused and ignorant foreigner stumbling through the complexities of Chinese culture. Do not be fooled by this literary device for one minute. Johnson is a master of his material, fully conversant with the latest academic scholarship on China, and has written an instant classic that deserves high praise and a wide readership."
This is the sort of review that authors dream of, but what makes it especially credible is he doesn't hesitate, however politely, to hint at things that could have been better:
"The more remarkable truth, towards which Johnson’s book distantly points, is that the revival of religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century did not somehow take place over and against the will of the CPC, but in fact because of it. Indeed, as the book hints from time to time, the revival of religion, the rise in China’s self-confidence in the world, and its miracle of economic growth are all interconnected phenomena."
This is a great point. I write in the book that some parts of the Communist Party support religion but probably not as explicitly as could have been the case. Partly this was hampered by access--I was turned down innumerable times by the State Administration of Religious Affairs--but I probably did have preconceived notions of conflict between the party and believers. This conflict is real but in many cases the Party's policies have enabled and even explicitly undergirded religion's revival in contemporary China. So I appreciate Miller pointing this out--it's a valid point and shows he really thought about the book.
Finally, a quote from Miller that I wholeheartedly endorse:
"In this regard, Chinese and American societies seem more and more like mirror images of each other than many may care to admit. Indeed, I would even argue that scholars of American religion might be the ones who would benefit most from Johnson’s text."