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BOOK REVIEW: The Souls of China
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The Souls of China

By Ian Johnson

BT 201707 BOOK 01提起美国记者张彦,可能人们对他的主要印象来自那2004年出版的关于中国变革的书:《野草:三个来自现代中国的有关变革的故事》(Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China)。张彦本名伊恩â€Â¢强纳森(Ian Johnson),是美国的一位作家和记者,也是普利策奖得主。他在1984年至1985年期间以学生身份在北京生活了一年,后又于1994年至2001年期间派驻中国。2009年,张彦再度来到中国。并于今年带来了他对中国的新思考--《中国灵魂:宗教在后毛泽东时代的回归》(The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao)。



Revival of religion in China has been a curious thing to observe. On one hand, it seems to be an innate human drive which will survive any repression; on the other, it has a useful function, namely providing moral instruction and fellow-feeling in a society dominated by commercial instincts though it has yet to be allowed the freedom allowed in the west. This ambivalence and ambiguity creates an atmosphere that veers between hope and despair, depending on how far the followers want to push against the invisible lines of China's inchoate freedom.

Ian Johnson's book therefore takes a duel tack. In its opening sections it recounts the history of religion and religiosity in China - folk religions, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity up to the imposition of state atheism following the 1949 revolution. He then introduces a number of characters involved in various religious scenes around China - from Beijing to Chengdu - and explores their own religious conversion in pursuit of a more meaningful life.

Not surprisingly, religion seems to strike people in one of the two different ways. They are either searching for meaning or they are searching for answers. Those Johnson talks to - the founders of churches or leaders in reviving religious practices - are generally the latter, most of them having experienced some grim episode earlier in their lives. This spurs them to seek answers that the authorities either cannot or will not give. Their parishioners or followers are usually the former, seeking meaning in a world that seems to have gained no greater purpose for all the wealth that China has accumulated. "We thought we were unhappy because we were poor," Johnson quotes an interviewee as saying. "But now a lot of us aren't poor anymore, and yet we are still unhappy. We realize that there's something missing and that's a spiritual life."

Religion, of course, satisfies several functions. Some of these are socially useful; its role in social ordering is one of its most profound and useful components. Johnson explains how, historically, folk religion in China was not a matter of specific rituals or practices, as with modern festivals from Easter to Diwali. Religion was "diffused" throughout society; it ordered the calendar, it gave a frame to the seasons, it explained what to do for births, deaths and marriages, and also for meals, friendship, work and culture. It was the main pole holding aloft the tent of civilization. (Interestingly, JRR Tolkien also described the religion in The Lord of the Rings as "diffused" rather than institutionalized, understanding its anthropological importance in ordering and managing primitive societies).

But China seems now to be lacking in such a broader guiding philosophy, a culture where money seems to be the only goal and where trust and empathy can be grievously lacking. Yet Johnson shows us that hunger for a meaning greater than oneself is probably inherent and China is in many cases turning to religion to provide answers. We can only hope that this vast outpouring of longing comes to create a more civil society.


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