Reviews of The Souls of China

 

Souls of China map
    Souls of China map, from the book's frontispiece. By Angela Hessler
 
 
  
Advance Praise 

This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity. —Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for GodFields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, and The Great Transformation: The World in the Times of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah.

Ian Johnson peels back the gleaming surfaces of modern China to reveal a sacred landscape underneath – a web of ritual and tradition, myth and faith, that has sustained Chinese for centuries and is doing so anew. Over a year in the traditional calendar, Johnson takes us on an extraordinarily rich and intimate journey—from pilgrimages on holy mountains, to the thriving Protestant congregations in the nation’s booming cities, to the village farmhouses where Daoist funerals are held and fortunes told. Johnson shows us what is really in Chinese souls and hearts. This vividly written, deeply researched book will be the primary work about religious faith in China for years to come. —Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

The Souls of China is a rich, informative, and timely book, which explores a major aspect of Chinese life. Ian Johnson carries erudition lightly and describes the people and events with deep insights and personal involvement. Section by section, the writing shows long-term dedication and meticulous research. At heart this is also a personal book, full of feelings and exuberance. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. —Ha Jin, author of War TrashA Free Life, and the National Book Award-winning Waiting.

The Souls of China is a marvel of reportage.  For more than five years, Ian Johnson travelled all around China to observe rituals that few outsiders ever witness:  funerals and temple fairs, fortune-telling and internal alchemy, Daoist cultivation exercises and underground Christian church services.  Johnson writes about Chinese believers with detail and insight, but also with great heart – their stories are often inspiring and moving.  At a time when most China books focus on politics or economics, this is the best exploration of the cultural and moral life of everyday citizens. —Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years of the Yangtze and three other books on China. 

On one level Ian Johnson’s book is about sages and spiritual pursuits, but it also embodies critical insights into Chinese society and its looming existential concerns. His engaging stories reflect a deep understanding of Chinese traditional religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as the rebellious groups and sects popular among those in the bottom rung of society. I wonder if I can attribute such knowledge and insights to the author’s deep roots in China? Since the 1980s he has spent most of his time there, traversing the countryside and the city streets, calling on the impoverished and downtrodden, and immersing himself in the lives of ordinary folks. His tripartite masterpiece Wild Grass and his newest book, The Souls of China, are the most remarkable works to come from a western author in the past two decades. —Liao Yiwu, exiled Chinese author of God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist ChinaThe Corpsewalker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, and For A Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison.

Ian Johnson has long been a resourceful and bracing guide to the biggest national transformation of modern history. In The Souls of China he masterfully opens up a little explored realm: how the quest for religion and spirituality drives hundreds of millions of Chinese.  —Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present 

Ian Johnson breaks new ground with a brilliant approach,  mixing theoretical explorations with real life vignettes from a convincing insider-outsider-combined perspective, making them commenting each other, illuminating in the same way as through the traditional Chinese criticism paradigm of  ‘I commentate the six classics which commentate me.’ The Souls of China is a must read for an understanding of China. —Qiu Xiaolong, author of The Inspector Chen Novels 

The great Chinese writer Lu Xun once wrote that when many men pass along the same way, a new road is made. The Souls of China shows us how the Chinese people, some with heroic steps and others with hesitant ones, are making a new road for Chinese religion in the twenty-first century. The reappearance and flourishing of religion is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic changes in China in recent decades. With great sensitivity Ian Johnson guides us on a tour of the rituals, festivals, and above all some of the remarkable characters who make up this new Chinese religious world. This is a beautiful, moving and insightful book. —Michael Szonyi, author of Cold War Island and director, Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.