Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao is readable anthropology that explores the resurgence of organized and institutional supernatural beliefs over the last generation in the People’s Republic. Though there is some general historical narrative at the beginning, the core of the book involves chapters on various local informants. Evangelical Protestant pastors, Buddhist lay devotees, and Daoist ritualists.
One of the most interesting and illuminating aspects of The Souls of China is that Johnson has to explain that religion, as it is understood in the West, did not entirely exist in China until the past century or so. Or, more precisely, a broad understanding of religion as it is in the West was not totally understood. By this, I mean the idea of strict and exclusive adherence to a particular institutional religious system with a package of beliefs and practices.
I stipulate broad understanding because the reality is that China has long had exactly these sorts of groups as part of its religious landscape. The first Ming Emperor, in fact, was affiliated originally with a group that had its origins in the White Lotus Society, a cult with Buddhist and Manichaean origins whose members were exclusive and devout adherents. But, these were historically marginalized, and only came to the fore during times of revolution. The first Ming Emperor discarded his radical religious connections upon obtaining power, becoming a patron of Neo-Confucianism.
Rather, typical peasant religion in China was not exclusive, nor was it bound up in a tight system of beliefs. Rather, it was customary, traditional, and part of the organic environment in which people were born, grew up and died. In this way, Chinese popular religion resembled ancient Roman paganism and folk Hinduism today. Buddhist and Daoist priests might perform particular services, but they did not have any particular owner of the identity of a community. Another way of saying this is that villagers in rural China were clients of a religious firm, they weren’t seen as part of the religious firm. This explains why Chinese and other East Asians have been rather liberal about borrowing from and participating in various religious practices (Chinese and Japanese initially assumed Roman Catholicism was a variant of Pure Land Buddhism).
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals underwent a crisis of confidence. In an attempt to modernize, they embraced Western science and a Western understanding of religion. They distinguished between religion and superstition. The former was what we consider institutional religions. Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter, Chinese folk religion. Long before the time of Mao progressive intellectuals and cadres destroyed and tore down the monuments to this folk religion, such as temples and shrines to city gods.
What arose in its place? Though the organic and locally rooted religions of rural China are shown to be coming back in The Souls of China, the explosion of Protestant Christianity, and the attraction of urban Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism, illustrates that urban people have different needs. I think these sorts of religions are very peculiar historically. I’m convinced that the Protestant Reformation, and in particular sectarian forms of Reform and Calvinist Christianity, would not have been possible without the economic and technological changes of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe.
The rise of movements such as fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Salafist Islam, and “Western Buddhism”* make sense in light of a world of globalization, urbanization, and the detachment of individuals and families from localities. These religions are often the “public face” of religion, but really I think they are religions adapted toward a certain atomized, unmoored, and cosmopolitan world. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is not very thick and can be moved from exurb to exurb rather easily.
What this suggests for the future of religion, I’ll leave as an exercise to readers.
* The highly non-supernatural forms of Buddhism promoted by people of European background.