Ian Johnson’s fascination with China began with his own study abroad experience in Beijing in the mid-1980s. This sparked a life-long interest in the country, its people and in particular its approach to spirituality and faith. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a regular contributor to The New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications. Johnson has taught at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies (TBC; the Jesuit study abroad program in Beijing) since 2010, leading courses on Chinese Religion and Society and supervising undergraduate research in Loyola University Chicago’s prestigious Ricci Scholars program. Johnson received his MA in Chinese Studies from Freie Universität Berlin, and is fluent in German and Chinese.
Dr. Amanda Barry, Director of Academics at TBC, found a few moments to chat with Johnson about his life in China, his work, and his forthcoming book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.
AB: How long have you lived in Beijing?
IJ: All told, 15 years. I first came to Beijing as a student from 1984-85. Personally, it was a chance to really immerse myself in a foreign culture, as different from my own as I could imagine, a chance to grow and to find new ways of looking at things and develop independence being abroad and away from family and friends. After a stint in Taipei from 1986-88, I returned to Beijing in 1994 and worked there until 2001. And then I returned once again in the start of 2009.
What is it like being a foreign correspondent in Beijing?
It's fascinating because we have a chance to understand many different parts of China, from culture to economics. It's also an important role because many Americans get their information on China from the media.
What drew you to your interest in religions in China?
I grew up in a fairly religious home, where we often talked about faith and belief. So when I began to study a country as different from mine as I could imagine, I naturally wanted to learn about its beliefs. But back in the 1980s, few Westerners seemed interested in this topic. Bookstores were stocked with copies of Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching, Confucius' Analects, and the Buddha's Sutras, but these were often shelved under "Mysticism," "Philosophy" or "Eastern Religions." And these books were mostly classics written thousands of years ago. I wondered if these ancient works still mattered. And what about Christianity and Islam? I knew China had believers in these monotheistic faiths, but they didn't seem part of the Chinese religious landscape.
You have published two important books on religion and society in China and Germany. Tell me about your latest book, coming out in April 2017.
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao presents a big-picture view of how religion has not only recovered, but thrived since China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). This challenges the secularization theory that as countries get richer, they care less about religion. In China, we see the opposite: the very prosperity that economics reforms have created has led many people to wonder what else there is in life [beyond] getting rich. They seek universal answers to age-old questions about the meaning of life.
Is study abroad in China important for American youth today?
Yes! And the easy answer is economics. China is the world's second-largest economy and will overtake the United States in the coming decade or two. But it's also a place struggling with the same questions we all have: how to live a decent life in a society where all that seems to matter is the bottom line. You talk to Chinese people and you realize they're interested in the same questions that all of us care about. And not only that, but the Chinese are really warm and friendly people, who will always invite you into their homes and are genuinely curious about the outside world, especially the U.S.
What changes do you see in students who come to study at TBC?
TBC students sometimes come to China with preconceived notions about the country, and the experience at TBC turns those ideas on their head. They get a much more nuanced view of China: they see it for the dynamic, vibrant place that it is, and I think they get to know and meet Chinese people and see different ways of living and thinking. It’s a great introduction to living in our global world because you really do see how differently other cultures operate. That’s a huge advantage going forward into your life no matter what your profession is and what you’re going to be doing.
Ian Johnson will be in the U.S. on a book tour in April 2017. Colleges and universities that are interested in inviting him to speak about his book may contact Dr. Amanda Barry: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Johnson, please visit ian-johnson.com.