The Souls of China: Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist Explores China’s Search for Spirituality

Ian Johnson sits down with Professors Glader and Park. Photo: Angel Boyd. 

Ian Johnson sits down with Professors Glader and Park. Photo: Angel Boyd. 

Journalism faculty of The King’s College recently sat down with a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist to discuss his book on the resurgence of religion in China after the Mao administration.

Professor of Journalism Paul Glader and Assistant Professor of Journalism Youn-Joo Park asked Ian Johnson, an international correspondent and bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing and Berlin, to elaborate on how he observed this revival in China over the past several decades.

“Probably the earliest idea that came to me was when I went to Beijing for the first time all the way back in 1984,” Johnson said. “I come from a fairly religious background, and I was interested in what people believed in China. There must be some faith or belief that people have.”

The book itself extrapolates on Johnson’s experiences discovering how the revival of religion in China has taken place, from its history to its future implications for the country. “Souls of China” delves into the current political and religious conflicts in China, the individual stories of parishioners and underground church-goers, and why the instigation and growth of many new churches and mosques is significant, given the religious suppression that China has recently experienced under communism.

After returning to China in 1990, Johnson claimed the religious climate had dramatically changed.

“Religious life was flourishing,” Johnson noted. “Churches were growing and getting more and more members. The Chinese people were searching for more meaning in life, but the big problem was that … traditional spiritual life ended in the early 20th century when traditional China collapsed. It was replaced by a variety of things, like communism.”

Still, Johnson asserts in his book that this deterioration of traditional religion in China did not last. Part of this, according to Johnson, is due to the Chinese economic boom.

“Then [Mao’s communism] was sort of replaced by this crazy, economic, kind of ‘growth at all costs’ model, … and that’s left a lot of people feeling dissatisfied,” Johnson stated. “This has caused this big spiritual search.

Johnson asserted that this search was not individualistic, but national. “I realized that this is not just some personal interest … or esoteric or obscure topic,” Johnson said. “It’s at the center of China, and Chinese people’s concerns.”

Glader noted that the manner in which Johnson combined historical framework and journalistic reporting was conducive to the message of the book.

“I find [it] very valuable and interesting,” Glader said. “…And to me, that’s really compelling the way you show the impact of religion.”

This impact can already be seen in Johnson’s analysis of the statistics of religion in China.

“I think it’ll probably continue to grow because people are still searching for answers in their society,” Johnson said. “Although there’s been rapid growth in China, I think there’s still a lot more room. …There may be three or four hundred million people who are practitioners of different faiths, but out of a population of 1.4 billion, it’s still less than 25 percent of the population.” 

Statistics aside, Johnson claimed that the discussion of national values remains primary in modern Chinese culture.

“There is a big debate about this in China; what kind of society are we?” Johnson said.

During the Q&A that followed the interview, Johnson gave audience members some practical advice on tackling a story of this size, including being your own translator and following up with interviewees.

In preparation for writing the book, Johnson claims he followed a traditional procedure.

“Like any journalistic assignment, you have to read a lot in preparation, and follow up a lot,” Johnson added.

CampusAnne Sraders