Towards the beginning of Ian Johnson’s masterful new study, Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, one of his interviewees muses: “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.”
Souls of China is about religion and religious practice in China today, but it also tells a broader story. In this way, it recalls Leslie T. Chang’s 2009 book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. At first glance, both seem about a very particular aspect—the young, female workers of Shenzhen for Chang; religious practitioners, and groups from around China, for Johnson—of the “China Story.” Ultimately, both use that aspect to pry open a window which allows outsiders to develop a richer and more comprehensive understanding not only of the subject of inquiry but also of the profound, often unsettling changes going on in China today.