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:
 
The Financial Times
17 April 2017
"Aborbing and often surprising"
Read the review here.
 
The Wall Street Journal
12 April 2017
"China's Great Awakening," read it here.
 
The Guardian
7 April 2017
"Full of moving encounters with Chinese citizens struggling to find the 'lost middle.'" Read the review here.
 
The Economist
31 March 2017 
"a sweeping panorama"
Read the review here.
 
The Useless Tree
27 March 2017
A generous review by Sam Crane, a scholar and writer, 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 full 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 full 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.