The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

by Ian Johnson, Allen Lane, £25

China has been through much in the past hundred years, discarding traditions and trying out new ideologies like suits of clothes, with warlordism, fascism and communism giving way to a hybrid authoritarian-capitalist system which, while bringing prosperity, has left people with an urgent question: with so much lost, what makes them Chinese?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson explores this in The Souls of China – an insightful, compelling and often moving study of the lives of a handful of spiritually aware Chinese families over the course of a year as they practise their faiths and consider the role of ancient rituals in today’s world, putting them at what the author suggests “might actually be the forefront of [a] worldwide search for values”.

A long-time resident with the deep trust of his subjects, Johnson eschews easy answers and brings to life the thrilling complexities of modern China through their small personal triumphs, worries and failures.

He deftly telescopes back to give historical context and imbue what could have been a dry and academic work with a compassion appropriate for the subject matter. One senses a personal investment in his quest to find meaning in a world hurtling into an unknown future, the author as much a seeker as those he is describing.

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