An exploration of the role of faith in contemporary China.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Johnson (A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, 2010, etc.) delves into the lives of several families and communities as they live out varying faith traditions in China. Along the way, he provides useful history lessons on how religion in China has come to be what it is today. In touching, descriptive prose, Johnson brings his subjects to life amid a colorful backdrop. The author explains that early communist rule had largely tolerated religion as a necessary component of controlling the vast population, especially in rural areas. Under Mao, however, that tolerance evaporated. The leader’s war on faith was part of a larger war on civilization itself and served only to destroy much of the fabric of society. “When the Cultural Revolution ended,” writes Johnson, “many wondered if they could ever trust anyone again.” In the wake of Mao, the state found religion to be a useful tool in rebuilding society and civil trust. However, this did not mean there was to be any meaningful freedom of religion. Johnson points out that China’s traditional religions of Daoism, Buddhism, and harder-to-define folk religions enjoy the most latitude. Traditions with foreign ties, such as Christianity, are viewed with much more suspicion. Nevertheless, readers may be surprised to read of church groups such as Early Rain, which seem to operate complex organizations with somewhat limited state interference. Throughout this worthwhile study, the author touches on a wide array of issues related to faith in Chinese culture, including the advent of the technology age, urbanization, respect for the dead, the role of family, and the ever looming communist state. Some may argue that Johnson’s work is anecdotal in nature and therefore presents only a sliver of religious life in such a vast nation as China, but the author uses his anecdotal approach to the best possible advantage.
Engaging, timely, and humane.