Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who lives in Beijing, his home for more than twenty years. His most recent book is The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. (September 2019)
As another humid Beijing summer passes into a crisp autumn of wind-swept skies and chrysanthemum-decked parks, it’s easy to put oneself in the minds of government propagandists and feel that things are going quite well in China. Yes, faraway Hong Kong is in crisis, with huge antigovernment protests going on …
The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown
edited by Bao Pu
For authoritarian regimes like China’s, history is power, because their political systems are legitimized through myths. In the case of the People’s Republic, the story goes that earlier efforts to modernize China were failures and that only the Chinese Communist Party was able to bullwhip the country into the future. This is the history that every child learns in textbooks, that museums serve up in exhibitions, and that the media push in countless television dramas, news reports, and popular books. The problem for the government is that historical truth is hard to suppress.
At night, a spotlight illuminates four huge characters on the front of the Great Temple of Promoting Goodness in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in northwestern China: mi zang zong feng, “The Esoteric Repository of the Faith’s Traditions.” Twelve centuries ago, during China’s Tang dynasty, the temple was a …
Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality
by David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler
China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future
by James Miller
Last year I got a call from Abbess Yin, an old friend who runs a Daoist nunnery near Nanjing. I’ve always known her as supernaturally placid and oblique, but this time she was nervous and direct: a group of Germans were coming to spend a week learning about Daoist life; …
For many people in the West, Buddhism is completely divorced from its history. So many of the beliefs and rites have been stripped away that many Westerners regard it purely as a philosophy, rather than a religion. As well-intentioned as this version of Buddhism might be, it is also a fantasy that places its practice on a higher moral and spiritual plane and erects an unbridgeable distance between us and its real, historical significance in Tibet. This exhibition offers an unsentimental, non-Orientalist perspective on Tibet, in which violence is a normal part of the political and religious discourse, as elsewhere in the world.
Ian Johnson: You got your PhD in law from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. You could have kept teaching in the capital but you chose to come to Xi’an. Why did you do that?
Chen Hongguo: You don’t realize how pitiful the students are here. The quality of teaching isn’t that good and they don’t get to hear good speakers. So I began to invite prominent intellectuals… I set up reading clubs to interact more closely with the students… We met in the stairway. People called it the “stairway lectures.”
Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. The government is, of course, adept at marginalizing such voices. As a result, Xu and his supporters are unknown to the vast majority of Chinese people. That makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era.
Ian Johnson: Haven’t some people given up on civil society?
Jiang Xue: It was our hope. Now, a lot of people have lost hope. The way society has developed under the Communist Party, it’s impossible to develop civil society. Public media has been killed. Public institutions have been closed. Teachers who dare to speak up have been driven off. It seems that civil society has no force.
But I don’t agree with this view. Civil society is something we have to struggle for. It’s something we can fight for bit by bit.
The exiled Chinese author Liao Yiwu, the International Literaturfestival Berlin, and a group of prominent international authors are jointly appealing for an international reading in support of the imprisoned Chinese author Li Bifeng.