In 1999 the Chinese government launched a campaign against practitioners of Falun Gong, a system of t’ai chi and meditation influenced by Buddhism and Daoism. There were tens of thousands of arrests; the media denounced Falun Gong as an ‘evil cult’ based on ‘superstition’. The students in the college where I was teaching at the time had to sign a proclamation in support of the ban or face expulsion. I didn’t find this particularly surprising: the opposition of religion and communism seemed axiomatic. I didn’t expect the Communist Party to be supportive of any kind of religion, albeit an apparently benign one mainly practised by elderly people in parks. But even in my small town there were signs that this was too simplistic a view. On a nearby hill there was a red temple devoted to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. In the town centre a six-foot cross was perched on top of a building that contained a church.
Ian Johnson’s book is a much-needed corrective to the persistent notion that China’s rulers are implacably opposed to all forms of religion. The Souls of China explores the extraordinary religious revival that has taken place throughout the country since the death of Mao. While there’s some debate over the exact