For decades, outsiders have thought of China as a country where religion and faith play marginal roles. Images of Chinese people overwhelmingly involve economics or politics: massive cities sprouting up, diligent workers laboring in vast factories, nouveaux riches flaunting their wealth, farmers toiling in polluted fields, dissidents languishing in prison. The stories about faith in China that do exist tend to involve victims, such as Chinese Christians forced to worship underground or groups such as Falun Gong being repressed by the government.
Such images fail to fully capture the reality of present-day China, where hundreds of millions of people are consumed with doubt about their society and are turning to religion and faith for answers they cannot find elsewhere in their radically secular society. They wonder what makes a good life and if there is more to it than material gain. As a 42-year-old pastor of a church in the western metropolis of Chengdu told me recently, “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing, and that’s a spiritual life.”
IAN JOHNSON has reported from and written about China for The New York Times, The
New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. This essay is
adapted from his forthcoming book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
This article appeared in the Foreign Affairs 2017 March/April edition. It is republished here with permission.
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