The Souls of China


"Shows how a resurgence of faith is quietly changing the country." —The Economist: Books of the Year 2017

"A deeply knowledgeable, eminently readable and important book that reveals a side of China that foreigners rarely explore." —The Christian Science Monitor: Books of the Year 2017

"a masterpiece of observation and empathy" —The New York Review of Books

"full of moving encounters with Chinese citizens ... Johnson succeeds in having produced a nuanced group portrait of Chinese citizens striving for non-material answers in an era of frenetic materialism."—The Guardian

"Compelling...a seminal piece of work taking the reader well beyond the prejudices and clichés that so often mark writing about religion in East Asia."—Times Literary Supplement

"With a subtlety born of years spent in China, Johnson explains how traditional rituals help people overcome urban anomie and answer the 'pragmatic but profound issue of how to behave' at critical life junctures."—The New Yorker

"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."—Washington Post

"Johnson’s writing is compelling and lyrical, and his research strikes a fluid balance between the political implications and the implications for daily life." —Publishers Weekly

"Engaging, timely, and humane." —Kirkus

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The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017) tells the story of one of the world's great spiritual revivals. Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled with new temples, churches and mosques--as well as cults, sects and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty--over what it means to be Chinese, and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is still searching for new guideposts.

This book is the culmination of a six-year project following an underground Protestant church in Chengdu, pilgrims in Beijing, rural Daoist priests in Shanxi, and meditation groups in caves in the country's south. 

Along the way, I learned esoteric meditation techniques, visited a nonagenarian Confucian sage, and befriended government propagandists as they fashioned a remarkable embrace of traditional values. These experiences are distilled into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle--a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world's newest superpower.