China’s immense size, enormous population, and long history undermine broad generalizations about the country. Many statements about it can be true but, like the yin and yang of traditional Chinese cosmology, their opposites can also be true. When a topic as large as the state of religion in China is a writer’s subject, we should appreciate the interpretive challenges it poses.
Ian Johnson certainly does. A former correspondent in the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau and among this generation’s best China-focused journalists, Johnson writes widely about Chinese politics and culture. His 2004 book, Wild Grass, based on travels around the country, is a classic. The Souls of China, another masterpiece of reportage, will soon join it.
Great journalists have different gifts. David Barboza, for example, won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work for the New York Times, the Pulitzer committee noting “his striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister.” He immersed himself in a welter of documents, which yielded their secrets to his painstaking research. Johnson’s gift is his capacity to gain the confidence of ordinary Chinese people who, having lived since 1949 in a Leninist police state, are not inclined to warm to anyone, especially a foreigner, who broaches politically sensitive subjects.
* * *
The Souls of China relates the story of China’s religious revival from the ground up, as recounted by Chinese men and women—people who were not afraid to tell Johnson their stories, open their places of worship to him, and invite him to observe intimate family moments. They discuss the revival as both a profound quest for meaning and a mundane search for a meeting place. We visit their churches, attend their funerals, and see their good deeds when natural disaster strikes their countrymen.
Politics is always nearby. Confucius (551–479 B.C.) advised rulers to “respect the spirits but keep them at a distance.” A proper mandarin should be wary of excessive religious enthusiasm. God knows, there were reasons. Anti-regime violence, instigated and led by Buddhist and Muslim religious sects, has been a threat for centuries. Johnson’s principal subject, Christianity, spectacularly revealed its own subversive potential in the mid-19th century Taiping (“Great Peace”) Rebellion. The Taipings’ 15-year war against the Qing dynasty, led by a man who thought himself Jesus’ younger brother, claimed nearly 20 million lives.
Johnson describes a resurgence of traditional Chinese religious thought and practice, but it is his portraits of Chinese Christians at yet another turning point in their history which will capture the Western reader. How many Chinese Christians there are is hard to know. A reasonable estimate is about 70 million, but some say far more. Whether the eclectic syncretism of many so-called House Christians qualifies them as “Christian” at all is a question for theologians. But there have been “real” Christians in China for centuries. Catholic communities trace their founding to the work of pioneering Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. China’s Protestant congregations derive from the wave of missionary effort beginning in the mid-19th century. Drawing on the enthusiastic support of Christians in Europe and, especially, the United States, Christian missionaries built a substantial infrastructure, mostly on the coast but much of it deep in China’s heartland. The West’s strongholds inside China made Christianity’s position powerful but precarious. Given Christianity’s foreign connections, could one be both a faithful Christian and a loyal patriot? Many Chinese managed the reconciliation, but it is always more difficult whenever China’s relations with the West are strained.
* * *
Though fashionable in the West to consider Christianity reactionary, it provides the bedrock teaching from which our central notions of liberalism derive—individual autonomy, personal accountability, limits on Caesar’s power, law, and contract. Christianity’s arrival in any “traditional” society can be revolutionary. Chinese Christians led Western-style reforms and revolutions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), a trained physician honored as the father of both Chinese republics—on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan—was a believing Christian, and also a believer in science and republicanism.
To many American Protestants, the post-Sun political hierarchy seemed providential, especially in the persons of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek—she from a prominent Chinese Methodist family, he brought to baptism through her efforts. But then a brutal European war enabled Japan to overrun Western positions throughout East Asia. Chinese Christianity, once a multinational enterprise, became isolated. Worse, the Communists’ unexpected victory in 1949 buried the visible success of Christianity—churches, clinics, schools, universities, a Western-educated professional class, well-schooled intellectuals adept at philosophical combat. The work of a century seemed suddenly gone.
The new Communist regime was atheist on principle and brutal in its methods. The Great Leap Forward of the 1950s claimed tens of millions of lives; the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the ’60s, though not as deadly, was enormously disruptive. At the same time, an important shift of opinion in the West, promoted by many intellectuals—Asia “experts” in particular—affected the public’s sense of Asia. China’s Christians, under unceasing attack from Communist oppressors at home, were abandoned by former supporters overseas. Mainstream American churches, once the backbone of the missionary effort, embraced a left-wing, anti-American interpretation of modern Asian history. “Enlightened” religious opinion not only absorbed anti-Christian prejudices, it turned decisively against those Asians who had embraced Christianity. Doubly discouraging for China’s Christians was the fact that their Communist oppressors were afforded a standing in the Western world not previously enjoyed by any modern Chinese regime.
How did Chinese Christianity survive the oppression by Maoists and the widespread indifference of once-close cousins in the non-Chinese world? Some among the faithful see a miracle, but whether the explanation is to be found in theology or sociology Chinese Christianity is once again energized and of great interest to many evangelical friends overseas.
* * *
Johnson guides us on a nationwide tour of this spirited revival, bringing us close to the Christian men and women on the frontline. The cumulative effect of the details he presents is both enlightening and moving. One of his favorite examples is a man named Wang Yi, founder of an “underground” or “house church” based in Chengdu, in the western part of the country. Wang is a charismatic preacher who has gained, via the country’s internet and homegrown versions of Twitter, a nationwide following. On the face of it, his message is wholly non-political, but he makes it plain that the individual human being and his convictions, not the Communist Party and its moribund sloganeering, is the source of right conduct.
If millions of Chinese are responding to this message, the Communist Party has only itself to blame. It created the moral vacuum which contemporary Chinese Christianity is filling. Caught unprepared for this great awakening, the regime is becoming more tactically flexible, shelving its prior efforts to crush Christianity and opting instead for containment. Yet, in the best dialectical fashion, the party’s continuing political repression serves only to strengthen, not weaken, a Christian faith which is Communism’s natural enemy.
Moreover, though 19th-century style Christian Internationalism may be a thing of the past, Chinese Christianity has contemporary allies close by. Christianity is an ever-growing force for political liberalization in Asia, and that is unsettling for the Beijing regime. In the Philippines, the Catholic hierarchy opposes Rodrigo Duterte, as it opposed Ferdinand Marcos in his time. South Korea, a functioning electoral democracy, is now about 30% Christian; it has had Christian presidents in the past and its new president, Moon Jae-in, is a Roman Catholic. Vietnam’s Catholics continue to press for human rights and for economic and administrative reforms. But most disturbing for Beijing is that in Sinophone Asia, millions are affirming Sun Yat-sen’s belief that Christianity has a role in China’s political renovation. Li Teng-hui, a Presbyterian, was a major architect of Taiwan’s transition to a multi-party constitutional democracy and, in Hong Kong, Christians are important leaders of the pro-democracy movement.
The world’s major faiths are in China to stay. But though today’s Communist regime may not be the murderously crazed totalitarian system of 1950–1976, neither is it an enlightened regime whose “reforms” aim at liberal democracy. Increasingly, the regime jails and brutalizes courageous human rights activists and the lawyers who stand up for them. Liu Xiaobo, a democracy advocate and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, imprisoned since 2009, was moved this past summer under guard to a hospital, where he died on July 13 at age 61. The world’s indifference to Liu had helped Beijing keep him locked up. Only in death has he begun to gain greater recognition.
* * *
Johnson captures the power and challenge of the religious revival in many ways, but none more moving than his account of a congregation’s search for a Christmas Eve service that did not materialize until the afternoon. Congregants feared the police would intervene and close down the service, but for some reason they didn’t. One part of the service was a one-act play. “The play ended with the cast recounting their real stories. The psychiatrist had been on medication before finding God. The couple were close to divorce before rediscovering Jesus.” Johnson recounts how, after the pastor’s sermon,
a murmur of prayers filled the room…. Please let me open the Bible and understand what is inside…. Lord, I am a sinner and need your help…. Lord, help me find peace…. Save me.
Johnson has seen personally what the regime can do when it feels threatened—he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for reporting on the regime’s savage repression of the Buddhist Falun Gong group. Buddhist Tibet and Muslim East Turkestan (“Xinjiang” as the Chinese call it) are now under virtual lockdown; in these strategically important areas, unrelenting repression is the policy. But to borrow a phrase Mao Zedong once made famous, the regime is lifting a rock only to drop it on its own feet. Christianity is too widely diffused throughout the country for crude oppression to succeed. Instead, as Johnson suggests, the regime must gamble that Christianity will come to play the very role Marx attributed to religion in general—an opiate of the people. The regime hopes that religious faith will devolve into an amusement, a diversion, a bagatelle, just like the other opiates the regime tolerates—soap operas, tennis matches, golf tournaments, amusement parks, auto races, even NBA basketball and NHL hockey—shiny objects to keep minds off politics. When Johnson traveled the country gathering material for Wild Grass 15 years ago, he reported on a surge in popular discontent that was pushing the regime ever closer to the brink. The religious revival he beautifully describes in The Souls of China has brought the regime still closer to a fall.