It seems contrary to accepted wisdom about the country, usually thought of as a place where faith is marginalised, but indicates growing levels of doubt among the population about the society in which they live. In traditional Chinese society, the role of religion was ‘diffused’ – there was little theology and few fixed places of worship; instead, religion was spread over life, making its presence felt through the shared values it implemented. Work was sacred, with most professions boasting a god, and there was little sense of religion being separate: ‘It was how you lived. It was what you did.’
When Christianity arrived in the country all that changed, and a divide between ‘real religion’ and superstition appeared, but Christianity was purged in its turn, come the Cultural Revolution. And even with the wheel revolving once more, the word ‘religion’ still carries dangerous overtones – burning incense and making pilgrimage aren’t religion at all, he’s told: ‘That’s belief. That’s culture.’
Johnson clearly has a deep affinity for the country, and his book, far from being an academic study, gets under the skin of its subject: it’s packed with conversation and anecdote, the gleanings of long familiarity with the land and its people. China’s contradictions are huge and growing; it’s a society grappling with modernity, but in which ritual remains core to many lives; which is settling into a role as a global power, but in which anyone can become a ‘non-person’ if political lines are unwisely crossed. That religious belief can flourish there is evidence, if more were needed, that oppression can encourage faith.