An Interview with Ian Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer on China

January 23, 2018

“I think [China] see[s] religion as a useful tool in the overall effort to restore some sort of order in society.”

IAN JOHNSON IS a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who focuses on Chinese religion and history. He lives in Beijing and writes essays and features for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. He teaches undergraduates at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, and he advises several academic journals and think tanks in China.

The Politic: You have been living in China for almost 20 years, so I was wondering, why did you decide to go there, and what made you stay?

Ian Johnson: I have to admit it was a random series of events. I was in university and there was a language requirement, so I decided to take Chinese for fun. I came from Montreal, and I already spoke French, so I thought, “I don’t want to learn another European language, I’ll try something different.”

I had a really good teacher who made the language like a game, and we had a lot of fun learning Chinese, so I decided to take another year, and then another year. [My university] had an exchange program in Beijing and I thought, “If I really want to learn Chinese, I have to go to China because the environment is so important.” I knew that from growing up in Montreal that you can’t just learn [a language] in isolation, so I went there, and I found the country so interesting.

You just published The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, which talks about the spiritual revival of the country. Can you share a little bit of what happened? Why, after a century of intense anti-religious campaigns, is a spiritual revival is taking place?

I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that after the century of destruction, nothing really new came up. Communism after the thirty years of Mao was pretty much discredited, people don’t really believe in communist ideals anymore. The old system is destroyed, so people are looking for answers in society to problems that are familiar around the world like materialism—that our societies are based too much on economics—and that’s especially true in China, where the government over the past 30 or 40 years has been giving people a lot of freedom to make money, but not to do other things.

I think people felt that this is not an adequate answer to the values that form a society. So, people are looking at these traditional ideas, almost to try to go back and bridge the century of destruction. People realize you can’t go back, you can’t recreate the past, it’s impossible, but there is this feeling to try to recapture as much as possible.

You see it not just in the way people think, but in the way the cultural centers are rebuilding temples, historically important monuments. There’s this idea that we have to somehow rebuild what was destroyed. It reminds me a bit of Germany after World War II—there was so much destruction that people reacted in different ways, and it’s similar in China. Some people say, “Let’s build something new,” other people say, “Let’s try to rebuild the past.”

There is a very eccentric businessman, I did an article about him in The New Yorker—he made money doing film studios, big, outdoor studios which look like the Forbidden City. And he has his own project to rebuild the old Summer Palace. He is actually redoing it, the whole thing, one-to-one scale, not a miniature version. This is enormous. It is the size of a university campus. He is building it not in Beijing, but in southern China. This was a palace that was destroyed by British and French soldiers in 1860, and it has become a symbol for the destruction of the old.

What do you think the effects of these reconstructions will be for China’s population?

If we think of the political implications, it can be to make people satisfied. I think that’s the government’s hope. Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses, and I think sometimes the government believes that. They like it, they want it.

For some people it probably is. Some people think, “As long as I´m happy in my little church or my little pilgrimage association, my temple, I don’t care what happens outside.” But I think that all of these ideas—religious or ethical Buddhism or Daoism or Confucianism—they all have actually subversive messages, and the message is that there is a higher form of justice, a higher form of truth beyond what the government can tell you.

The Communist Party just ended its Party Congress, and Xi Jinping Thought is part of the Party constitution. [Xi Jinping Thought] is supposed to be the high, important thing. But all of the [religious] ideas are higher ideas because they have some kind of divine or spiritual message.

The interesting thing about Confucianism is that people often say it is very hierarchical, that it supports the status quo, which is true, but Confucianism is not the idea of the emperor. Confucianism is an ideal that people learned, and if they thought that the emperor was not following Confucian ideals, you had many officials over the years who would stand up against the emperor and say, “No, I won’t do that, that’s wrong,” so it creates an independent moral framework, and I think that’s the subversive angle. At the end of the book, I talk about this Tian, “heaven.” It is a vaguer idea of what heaven is, and it has a similar effect on daily life. It creates a moral framework, and that’s difficult for the government to control.

So you don’t think it works? Using religion to try to control the population?

It will work for some people, sure. I mean we see it in Russia; Vladimir Putin is trying a similar strategy. People have tried this over time, but it tends to get more complicated. Governments through history have tried to harness religion. But it is inherently hard to control because it’s something very personal, it is in their heart. The government thinks they can control it, and it’s a very alluring, attractive idea because if you can get religion in your side then you really have a lot of influence, but it’s often hard to control.

Interesting. Your book was a six-year project. What motivated you to do it? To spend so much time in it?

It is a topic I wanted to write on for a long time, since the first time I went to China. I thought at first it was just a personal interest, but then with time, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, I began to see it was becoming important for Chinese people. This whole spiritual quest or vacuum they were trying to fill, and then I realized it was actually important.

The way I work is, I tend to follow groups of people over time, kind of like an anthropologist or ethnographer—to try to embed yourself in the community and follow them over time, so it’s not like you just go interview them and that’s it. You try to have a sequence of events that are happening in real time, where I can actually see the events.

It’s much more effective when you are writing to see it, than just to have somebody describe it. When somebody describes it is, “Oh you know, my father died two years ago and it was very sad,” but it is hard to write that as a scene unless you have photos and recordings, and even then it is second hand. It’s much better if you can witness it. So that was the idea, to follow these groups around, and first of all, I needed to find the right groups.

How did you choose them?

I chose them by trying to keep a few things in mind. First of all, I live in Beijing, but I didn’t want to [cover only] Beijing. Beijing is not typical of China, just as if you live in Washington, D.C., it’s not the United States. So, I wanted to have geographic diversity.

I also wanted to have urban and rural diversity, so one of the stories is in the countryside, rural Daoist priests; another story is in southwestern China, another in central south China, and the fifth story is the government’s policy story. I also wanted to have different religions. I didn’t want to only have Christianity in China. Westerners are often really interested in Christianity or Catholicism, and these are interesting religions, they have interesting, colorful history, but the reality is that there are many, many more Buddhists and Daoists in China, and I wanted to reflect that. So of the five stories, only one is Christian, that’s the South Western story.

Did you study anthropology?

No, not formally. I’m not trained as an anthropologist, but I have done a lot of academic work. The great thing about journalism is that you have a story with people, and it’s first hand and it’s lively, but the downside can be that it’s random. The stories have to have some representative value; they can’t just be the first five people I meet or the four or five most colorful stories. The stories should be colorful, but they have to have representative value.

During those six years, you traveled and visited different spiritual places like Protestant churches and meditation caves, and you also met people from different religious beliefs. Could you share which part you enjoyed the most? Or the one that surprised you the most?

I joined this meditation group, and I was always interested in Daoist meditation. I chose this because in China there are a lot of spiritualities personally focused, and you learn on your own.

So, I learned this meditation technique, and then I went on a couple of retreats, each retreat was ten days, and we had to meditate in caves. You know, I have a little claustrophobia. It was kind of weird because they had lights in the cave, but you walk really far in, and then you find a place to set your little pad.

You sit in double lotus position and then put a blanket over yourself to keep yourself warm enough, and then they turn off all lights; it is really dark. I could hear bats flying around. And then the teacher said, “Yesterday a bat landed on my shoulder, so I just tried to calm down, and I made my breathing match the bat’s breath.” Wow. I don’t know if that’s possible, but that was fun. It was really interesting because these were people from a middle-class background, fairly well off, yet they found some value in this. And they will probably not say they are religious, but they had some spiritual yearning.

And did you find any spiritual value in it?

Well, they have all these things, that you’re supposed to see light and you bring the light in through your forehead and you circulate it through your organs, and you build this thing called the Dantian. This is where immortality is supposed to reside, just above your belly button. I’m not sure I felt all that, but I feel that anytime you sit quietly, you get something out of it because nowadays our lives are so busy.

Even if you don’t know how to meditate, just sitting down for half an hour quietly. The teacher had a really good analogy, she said: think about a movie reel going and just let it go. An old projector lets it go and go, and eventually, it ends, and they have just a white light on the screen. Just let all that garbage go through your brain, and then it will all eventually go away.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, you wrote about the government abuses the Falun Gong movement. Could you talk about how is it to report on oppression and human rights abuses? And if you encountered any ethical questions?

That’s a good question. The hardest thing with human rights abuses is getting the stories verified, because people will tell you stories, and even if you believe the person, you still have to find some kind of verification. You’ll see the tears in their eyes while they tell you torture, but you still have to get verification.

The ethical issue, in a place like China, is if you write about the person, and you use their real name—which you’re supposed to do, as a journalist at least. But you get the person in trouble. When I wrote about Falun Gong, I wrote about a woman who was beaten to death in prison and her daughter’s effort to fight injustice.

So, the daughter was willing to interviewed, but then we talked about it with my editors, and then I went back to talk to her about the implications. And the implications were if I write this article, are you going to get in trouble? So, we had to talk about it quite carefully.

Often Chinese people are quite brave and quite outspoken, and they will often say something like, “Yes! You can put my name. Here’s my ID card, you can photograph it.” So, you often have to talk to people about this. And that’s the ethical issue, because for me there’s no real danger involved. The worst that could happen to me is that I get expelled. It’s bad for my career, but it’s not the end of the world, but for these people it used to be three years, they could lock people up for three years without a trial, they called it custody. So, you have to consider this.

Surely. Coming back to today, President Xi Jinping´s administration has embraced different traditions, including religious ones, that serve his party. Can you talk a little bit about this, what has he done, and why is it important now that he has been re-appointed for another five-year term?

After he took power in 2012, he very quickly made a series of highly symbolic visits. He visited the hometown of Confucius in Qufu, and he prayed to Confucius. He made another visit to UNESCO in Paris and praised Buddhist tradition, and he also had public meetings with Buddhist leaders. So then, they began to push this propaganda campaign of the China dream—this is Xi Jinping’s signature slogan—and this dream is a national rejuvenation, but it’s also social justice, and they use traditional images and traditional ideas and concepts to promote that.

That was the beginning of the efforts. This is one of the reasons he is very popular, and it’s probably because they feel that society went out of control. His campaign against corruption is very popular, [the thinking is], “Yes, we need to stop corruption, but we also we need some kind of frame to get society in order.”

If you think about it broadly, you got the Mao Era, and the Reform Era, and then the government backed away from the control of society, and they let people do what they wanted to do as long as they didn’t challenge the government. By the 2000s, people thought that things had gotten out of control. The internet was coming up, [new] NGOs were forming, and they didn’t want the Party to be challenged. So, starting before Xi Jinping, but especially after he took power, there’s been this effort to reassert control over society. I think they see religion as a useful tool in the overall effort to restore some sort of order in society.

From what I understand, in the 19th century, religion and politics were very intertwined. And now, apparently, it is becoming intertwined again, so how are people receiving these changes? And what are the implications of this?

Well, I don’t think they can go all the way back. In the old system, the emperor was a quasi-deity, the son of heaven.

One implication is that there are other religions in China besides the ones the government is happy to support. The government is comfortable with Buddhism, Daoism, these so-called traditional religions, but it is less comfortable with Christianity and Islam, which also have significant populations. I think this could be a source of tension in the future. Already there are quite Islamophobic bloggers who write against Islam and question whether Islam is part of China. Actually, Islam has been in China for over a thousand years, so it’s not like it arrived last year. And about half of the Christians of China are not part of the official church, they are part of unregistered churches. I think they want to make them register with the government, those roughly thirty million Christians, and that’s going to be difficult, it can cause a lot of tensions.

Why do they oppose Christianity and Islam?

I think they don’t oppose it per se. I think what they don’t like is the foreign influence, foreign ties. It is the same with NGOs. NGOs in China can form, but they can’t take foreign money. So, with Christianity and Islam, you have inherent foreign ties. In Catholicism, bishops must be appointed by the Vatican, and in Protestantism, you also have ties with global, Evangelical movements. They send, not missionaries, but trainers, especially Chinese-Americans who come with a tourist visa and then teach and train pastors. Then, Islam also has a really strong global component, for example with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Some countries also want to donate money to build mosques, and the government is always trying to limit that.

Do you have any advice for college students?

I think it is important to have some kind of immersive experience in another country, to be really familiar with at least one other culture. It gives you a different perspective. Things you take for granted, you see them differently.

You don’t even have to accept it, just to be aware of how things are done differently. Learning another language is also good. Especially as the world becomes more and more globalized, we have to, at least, be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and I think the best way to do that is to be immersed in another culture. Take a year abroad or a gap year or something after graduating. Go and try not to worry about your career and jumping on the treadmill, climbing the ladder—in university you have actually a lot more flexibility than you think. And just try to do something different, outside your comfort zone.

Where do you get your news?

Actually, Twitter. I focus on people who follow China, but I’ve made my feed like a newswire for both China and global news.  

What place would you most like to visit?


If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

Probably I’d be a frustrated academic wishing I could write more, instead of being a frustrated journalist wishing I could study more.

What is a book you’ve enjoyed recently?

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.


The Politic

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