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. (October 2019)

Follow Ian Johnson on Twitter: @iandenisjohnson.


The Eastern Jesus

Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well; illustration from the Mirror of Holiness, an account of the life of Christ by the Jesuit priest Jerome Xavier for the Mughal emperor Akbar, India, 1602–1604

Jesus in Asia

by R.S. Sugirtharajah
In Jesus in Asia, R.S. Sugirtharajah shows how Jesus has been promoted, despised, and utilized in Asia. He begins in China around the seventh century and ends in twentieth-century South Korea and Japan, but is mainly concerned with thinkers from the Indian subcontinent. He introduces us to intellectuals—some believers, many not—who grappled with Jesus as a historical figure and a person with a place in Asian religions.

What Holds China Together?

Protesters outside the Hong Kong Space Museum holding illuminated cell phones as part of the ‘Hong Kong Way’ human chain, inspired by the 1989 ‘Baltic Way’ protests against the Soviet government, August 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 …

China’s ‘Black Week-end’

Demonstrators and troops during the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing, June 1989

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.

China: A Small Bit of Shelter

Chen Hongguo lecturing on King Lear at Zhiwuzhi, an arts and culture space in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, 2018
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 …


How China’s Rise Has Forced Hong Kong’s Decline

Police watching as people formed a line at a polling station to vote in district council elections, Hong Kong, November 24, 2019

Journalists expecting to cover Tiananmen II flew in for the most promising global story of the year, its allure bolstered by the protesters’ ability to speak English and the easily digestible narrative of David vs. Goliath, democracy vs. authoritarianism, right vs. might. Beijing, though, will spin recent events as another staging post in its policy of “strategic patience”: that despite protesters’ having launched Molotov cocktails and set up petrol-bomb production lines, China hasn’t sent in the People’s Liberation Army. But these arguments obscure a bleaker fact: while the activists have made their mistakes, the Hong Kong protests are mostly an epic failure of China’s soft power—and we are witnessing Hong Kong’s descent from leading international city to collateral damage in Beijing’s rise to a strident superpower.

A Radical Realist View of Tibetan Buddhism at the Rubin

Kingdom of Shambhala and the Final Battle, Mongolia, nineteenth century

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.

‘One Seed Can Make an Impact’: An Interview with Chen Hongguo

Chen Hongguo in Zhiwuzhi, the reading room he established in Xi’an, China, 2018

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.”

A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: ‘Mr. Democracy’

Pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

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.


A Worldwide Reading for Li Bifeng

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.