Reviews of The Souls of China

 

Souls of China map
    Souls of China map, from the book's frontispiece. By Angela Hessler
 
 
  
Published Reviews
In reverse chronological order:
 
American Academy of Religion Reading Room
13 March 2018
"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."
Read the full review by Queens University Professor James Miller here.
 
The World of Chinese
25 December 2017
"The book is just as much about urbanization, alienation, economic development, competition, aspiration, corruption, city planning, agricultural reform, globalization, nationalism, and politics as it is about any particular religious group."
Read the review by Jeremiah Jenne here.
 
The Economist
10 December 2017
One of the best books of 2017.
Review here.
 
Australian Book Review
December 2017
A review by David Brophy of the University of Sydney.
Read it (paywall) here.
 
VoegelinView
11 November 2017
"A compelling read."
Read the review here
and
VoegelinView one of best books of 2017 here.
 
 
Times Literary Supplement
12 September 2017
"Compelling...The Souls of China is a seminal piece of work taking the reader well beyond the prejudices and clichés that so often mark writing about religion in East Asia."
Read the review by Yuan Ren here.
 
Healing Tao
6 September 2017
"Souls is also unique in the wide scope of culture and history of China that is woven into the gripping personal narratives. It is so skillfully done you don’t even realize you just got a Masters Degree in the evolution of multiple religions under 'scientific' communism. It not only covers Taoism, China’s indigenous religion, but the foreign Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam as well."
Read the rest of the review by one of North America's foremost popularizers of Taoism, Michael Winn, here.
 
Current History
September, 2017
"The Souls of China is written like top-flight journalism—it is driven by the stories of real people, and the analysis flows out of their lives. At the same time, a reader who knows the literature (and who reads the endnotes) will see just how thoroughly grounded Johnson is in the broader range of scholarship."
Read the full review by Robert Weller of Boston University here.
 
Asian Review of Books
26 August 2017
"With the patience of the ethnographer, and the precision of a journalist, Johnson has produced an enduring account of China’s inner life at a time of disorienting social and economic change."
Read the full review by Jonathan Chatwin here.
 
The Irish Times
"Johnson provides the broad background so essential to telling the story of China, a country where the scale and size of population makes events difficult to grasp, and he renders the data meaningful by listening to ordinary people and telling us their side."
Read the full review by Clifford Coonan here.
 
Providence
22 August 2017
"Johnson’s deep familiarity with China, keen observations, and excellent Chinese language skills enable him to provide rich descriptions on social and political practices."
Read the review by Rana Siu Inboden here.
 
ChinaSource
19 July 2017
"To call Johnson’s work monumental would not be an overstatement. For anyone seeking to engage in the spiritual life of China, it is a must-read."
Read the review by ChinaSource founder Brent Fulton here.
 
The New Yorker
3 July 2017
"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."
Read the "Briefly Noted" review here.
 
The Deskbound Traveler
28 June 2017
"written in prose that’s rhythmical but unshowy, with scarcely a metaphor, and with a gentle sense of humour."
Read the review by Michael Kerr and explore his interesting blog on travel writing here.
 
The Christian Century
13 June 2017
"exceptionally valuable and moving study"
Read the in-depth review by Baylor professor emeritus of global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, here.
 
The New York Review of Books
8 June 2017
"a masterpiece of empathy and observation." 
Read the review by Roderick MacFarquhar here.
 
Literary Review
June 2017
"This is a well-written, rich, and thoughtful book that deserves to reach a wide audience."
Read the full review by Nick Holdstock here.
 
God, Gold, and Generals
6 June 2017
"I recommend this book very highly. Read from a secular perspective, it's a very insightful and moving account of all how kinds of belief in China have not only survived but flourished. For a Christian, it shows that God has done, without really any outside "help" from anyone, an astounding miracle."
Read the full review by Jeremy Marshall here.
 
The Gospel Coalition
31 May 2017
"For anyone interested in looking beyond the headlines to understand the complexity of religious life in China today, The Souls of China is a must-read."
Read the full review by Joann Pittman here.
 
The Washington Post
19 May 2017
"Ian Johnson brilliantly demonstrates that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Under the surface lies a world of vividly imagined hopes and dreams. Johnson ventures far off the beaten path and listens to ordinary Chinese who introduce him to their world of the spirit.... 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."
Read the review by the pioneering sociologist of Chinese religion, Richard Madsen, here.
 
Christian Science Monitor
12 May 2017
"Ian Johnson has written a deeply knowledgeable, eminently readable and important book that reveals a side of China that foreigners rarely explore. He is an excellent and companionable guide."
Read the full review by Peter Ford here.
 
The Spectator
10 May 2017
"He skilfully relates his vivid reportage to the wider political and social context."
Read the full review by Roger Garside here.
 
Los Angeles Review of Books
2 May 2017
"It is precisely Marx’s notion of how religion serves a purpose for several different Chinese communities that Ian Johnson’s wonderful book captures so well."
Read the review by Johan Elverskog here.
 
The Financial Times
17 April 2017
"Aborbing and often surprising"
Read the review by Maura Cunningham here.
 
The Wall Street Journal
12 April 2017
"These lives represent China’s immense diversity of experience. Yet they also reveal a widespread desire for spirituality. The lack of a moral “bottom line” at every level of society has left Chinese grasping for something to believe in."
Read the full review by Hugo Restall here.
 
The Guardian
7 April 2017
"Full of moving encounters with Chinese citizens struggling to find the 'lost middle.'"
Read the review by Julia Lovell here.
 
The Economist
31 March 2017 
"a fascinating panorama"
Read the review here.
 
The Useless Tree
27 March 2017
"draws out the complexities of contemporary religious life in China in vivid and fine-grained detail."
Read the review by Sam Crane here
 
Kirkus
21 February 2017
"In touching, descriptive prose, Johnson brings his subjects to life amid a colorful backdrop. Engaging, timely, and humane."
*Starred review.*
Read the review here
 
Library Journal
15 February 2017
“Through interviews conducted with a wide variety of practitioners, Johnson paints a vivid picture of the diversity of Chinese religious life….He provides a fascinating account of how traditional activities recovered after enduring severe repression during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). An excellent work that is highly recommended for readers interested in Chinese culture or religion.”
*Starred review*
Read the review here (paywall). 
 
Publishers Weekly:
February 2017
"Johnson’s writing is compelling and lyrical, and his research strikes a fluid balance between the political implications of a resurgence of spirituality in a society that for so long suppressed any official religious presence, and the implications for daily life and society found in the complex and human details of this new populist cultural development."
Read the review here.
 
 
Advance Praise 

Comments from early readers of the book:

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 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

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.

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.