Ian Johnson

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By Ian Johnson

With all the attention to Confucius and Confucianism, it is easy to forget how important other philosophical and religious traditions have been in shaping China’s past and influencing its present. Ian Johnson helps rectify this imbalance of coverage with “The Rise of the Tao,” a long essay in the latest issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine that highlights the significance of the Daoist revival and introduces readers to an abbess who is part of this resurgence of belief. As the very first journalist China Beat ever interviewed for the site (and someone who took part in a China Beat-sponsored dialogue at UC Irvine on covering the PRC and Germany during a tour to promote his latest book, A Mosque in Munich), we turn to him now for suggestions of five things he’s read—by academic or non-academic authors—that have helped him think about Daoism:

There’s been an explosion of Daoist studies in recent years as we realize how China’s only (if you exclude Confucianism) indigenous religion underpins so much of the culture and politics of the past 2,000 years.

The problem in this field, as in many others, is there’s been the usual deep specialization but not too many efforts to synthesize and make the fruits of academic research available to a wide public. This is compounded by the fact that many academics use different terminology for the same phenomena—if they can’t agree on the terms, how can outsiders understand it? Thus people talk about “popular religion,” “folk religion” or “common religion” for the broad swath of beliefs that form the Massif Central of Chinese religion, out of which Daoism, Buddhism and other systems arose. But which term is better? No one can agree. Maybe this is normal for a still-young field but it’s sometimes frustrating.

But don’t be discouraged, arguments are the spice of (academic) life and the field has produced many interesting books. Before I offer them, let me dispense with two really obvious kinds of books: the key philosophical works and the one-volume intros.

Everyone knows about the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, so I’ll let you explore which version of these texts you prefer. Burton Watson does a great version of each and Red Pine (more on him below) does a super version of the DDJ. If you want more on the basic philosophy, the slam dunk must-read is Disputers of the Tao by A.C. Graham, one of the finest works on ancient Chinese philosophy.

I’m also going to get this list down to five books by forgoing one-volume intros. These are invaluable but are a bit too easy to include. The two best ones here are Daoism and Chinese Culture by Livia Kohn, the grande dame of Daoist studies, and James Miller’s Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (aka Daoism: A Short Introduction). Both books give reliable overviews from early philosophy to the development of organized religion and modern practices.

Finally, a note on spelling. In my New York Times article, the copy editors insisted on using “Taoist,” figuring it is a loan word that has already been anglicized. And in fact many of the books listed below use “Taoist” or “Taoism” because publishers think that most readers still recognize this. But an increasing number of people use the more pinyin-conform “Daoist.” I’ve decided personally to go with “Daoist” but use whichever you like best.

With these fiddly comments out of the way, here’s my list:

1) Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter, aka Red Pine. This funny and lively book by the eminent translator is an eye-opener because he finds real hermits living in China’s mountains and also conveys the ideas that inspires them. Some of the hermits are Buddhists but this is a bonus because we learn how close the two religions are when practiced by real masters.

2) Taoism and the Arts of China by Stephen Little. This accompanied a path-breaking exhibition on Daoist art curated by Professor Little, which makes clear the huge influence Daoism has on the arts. The book is beautifully illustrated and really one-of-a-kind. Unfortunately it is out of print and rather pricey but most libraries should have it.

3) Taoism: The Enduring Tradition by Russell Kirkland. This slim volume by a veteran historian of Daoism grapples with many key questions that ordinary readers or students of Chinese religions will have, such as if it’s valid to speak of a difference between “religious Daoism” and “philosophical Daoism.” At times he delves perhaps a bit too deeply into the historiographical battles in the field but like Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China, Kirkland provides an engaging and illuminating discussion of the field and its arguments.

4) Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China by Eva Wong. My academic friends will rip me for including a book published by Shambhala and this has the publisher’s usual disregard for basic sourcing (like which version of the novel is Wong using?) but it’s a really good read and gives a lot of basic information on how one of Daoism’s two main sects, Quanzhen, was formed in the Yuan dynasty.

4a) I said I’d get this down to five and I will by including this novel as a (more serious) alternative: The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal by Yang Erzeng, translated by Philip Clart. This is the story of one of the Eight Immortals, Han Xiangzi, a historical figure who became deified. Unlike Wong’s book, it’s state of the art and has a very useful introduction. The novel is longer and not as catchy as Seven Taoist Masters but is much truer to the original, containing poems, digressions, multiple narrator viewpoints and so on. It also serves another function by showing how many Ming-era novels have not been translated into English.

5) The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper. An ordained priest and patriarch of modern Daoist studies, Schipper’s book reflects his fieldwork in 1970s Taiwan and shows how Daoism is intertwined with local society, with priests performing rituals to help people through good and bad times. His description of a ritual—creating a space in heaven in front of the temple, summoning the gods—is excellent. This book is probably guilty of overgeneralizing about one form of Daoism but if you want to understand the religion at its grassroots level, it’s great.

Finally, as my final cop-out, let me relegate this to a post-script: For fun, I’d suggest borrowing from the library The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang, edited by Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen. This is a three-volume set that gives a short synopsis of each of the 1,500 texts that make up the Daoist Canon, or Daozang, a Ming-era compendium of Daoist texts. It is a towering work of academic achievement, taking 30 years to complete and involving dozens of scholars in numerous countries. It makes it possible for the first time to get a sense of just how rich Daoist religious practice really is. The book is also a real pleasure to flip through, illustrated with fascinating prints and drawings. You’ll find all kinds of works, from alchemy and meditation, to medicine and ritual, all clearly explained by leading scholars. Obviously this is meant as a reference tool but like the OED, it’s easy to lose oneself in this rich, esoteric landscape.

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Earlier this week, we held the final event of this year’s “China Lecture Series” at UC Irvine, featuring a dialogue between Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah. Johnson, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, is author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Shah is a freelance writer and blogger; her work has appeared at the Far Eastern Economic Review, Global Voices Online, Zócalo Public Square, and The China Beat. Below, a summary of the conversation between Johnson and Shah.

By Miri Kim

Angilee Shah’s first set of questions touched upon civil society in China and its relationship to the Chinese government. When asked if the government has made any progress in winning over the faith of the people since Wild Grass was published (2004), Johnson noted that at the larger level, there has been no real change in the degree of official control on what can be discussed; however, in areas such as religion, the government has allowed more leeway in what can be practiced and expressed, perhaps learning from the lesson provided by the now-banned Falun Gong, which flourished where officially sanctioned religions could not go at the time. And while the creation of grassroots networks on the national level has been discouraged, examples like the earthquake relief efforts for Sichuan show that there are instances when large sectors of Chinese society can mobilize for a common good. Organizing is definitely a frustrating process for many Chinese, but, Johnson emphasized, their efforts are often not overtly dramatic or political. Even so, he suggested, such low-key political activity is a double-edged phenomenon; on the one hand, it can channel goods and services where they are needed without being threatening; on the other, it brings in an “embarrassment factor,” showing exactly where and how the government is unable to do certain things.

Johnson Shah talk

Angilee Shah and Ian Johnson

Shah then asked a few questions about how the role of the journalist can shape the narrative and asked Johnson to comment on balancing the good news with the bad, as well as dealing with the gravity exerted by US foreign policy concerns, the news cycle (the danger of becoming irrelevant if you stick too close to something that is “hot”), and the tendency of stories about China to be sorted into either positive narratives of China as a rising nation or negative narratives of China as an entity to be feared.

Johnson talked about the hurdle of dealing with the gap between the China in people’s imaginations, which might be shaped by older stories and images, and the current reality. He pointed to Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls as one recent work that uses individualized stories to make workers into agents, not victims, of China’s rapid economic growth, in contrast to, for example, the largely negative recent coverage of the the Foxconn suicides. Even though his new book, A Mosque in Munich, is not about China, Johnson commented that in it, he is still interested in the ways civil society gets instrumentalized by the government. He also emphasized the importance of keeping one’s eyes open when tackling sensitive topics.

The issue of writing and craft then came up around A Mosque in Munich, which tells the story of how radical Islam was exported to the West by the CIA the 1950s and ‘60s, through a particular mosque and the Muslim Brotherhood. The book, Shah mentioned, is more about the US than about Islam, discussing the effects of American efforts to harness religion for foreign policy objectives.

Asked about parallels between US-China relations today and the US during the Cold War, Johnson replied that present-day American propagandizing in the case of China is much more explicit than for it was for the Soviet Union, and that it is likely to be unsuccessful at creating a lot of influence.

Shah then noted how A Mosque in Munich reads like a mystery, as well as being an analysis of big geopolitical issues largely based on archival research, and asked how Johnson went about “translating” dry documents into “real life” in the book. A very insightful behind-the-scenes look at the researching/writing of the book followed, introducing the audience to figures such as Bob Dreher, who had rather interesting hobbies to go along with his interesting job with the CIA. (To my chagrin, I’m afraid that I’m not able to reproduce for you here how wonderfully Johnson brought this character to life during the talk.) A part of research is luck, Johnson admitted, and is dependent on the willingness of relatives and acquaintances to share information about a subject, but it seemed clear from the discussion that the intense investigative footwork underpinning this book is a major factor upping the chance of encountering this kind luck. The other side of that, however, is the sheer amount of time and sustained effort involved in gathering information and bringing it together in writing a book like Wild Grass or A Mosque in Munich, in a publishing environment/market where readers have to deal with limited time and favor quick takes.

We had many great questions from the audience, of which I’ll highlight just a couple. One concerned journalists’ responsibility to their subjects. Johnson panned cavalier attitudes about sources in foreign countries where the worst things that might befall a journalist is deportation, versus imprisonment or worse for informants. He also disagreed with the stereotype of Chinese people as being reticent and not willing to talk, commenting that in his experience, he has had to tread carefully concerning the frank outspokenness of his sources — for example, when the discussion is about politically sensitive topics.

Johnson had a very interesting and nuanced response to a question about whether or not better reportage on China comes from those with language and area expertise, characterizing language as just one of the many tools a journalist needs to have — perfect Chinese would not be that useful to a journalist if not accompanied by analytic skills or the writerly know-how to turn pieces of information into an coherent piece. As an example, a journalist with a deep knowledge of an industry, just from being familiar with things like mechanical specs and factory conditions, would be able to parse out much more intimate information than someone with only spoken/written language or general area expertise. Johnson suggested that what we conventionally think of as “language” is just one (albeit important) component in the the foreign correspondent’s toolkit.

Other questions dealt with the impact of the Internet on the news and newspapers. Johnson suggested that it has hastened the demise of strong regional newspapers while concentrating readership at national newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which have ramped up their foreign coverage, but in a way that encourages short pieces rather than long-form investigative pieces.

Angilee Shah’s questions, connecting A Mosque in Munich with Ian Johnson’s previous work, and drawing from her own experiences covering Indonesia and Sri Lanka, made for an engaging but also really fun talk. The question-and-answer at the end provided an excellent opportunity to pick the brain of a writer thinking deeply about some important issues — and the messy history behind them — shaping our world today. A great way to wrap up China Beat talks for this academic year!

Miri Kim is a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Irvine, and has most recently reviewed An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy for The China Beat.

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We’re returning from a two-week hiatus just in time to call your attention to the final event in a series of author talks that China Beat has produced in cooperation with several other UC Irvine organizations during the 2009-2010 academic year. Tomorrow’s dialogue at UCI, featuring Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah, is free and open to the public (details here).

Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah poster

Johnson and Jeff Wasserstrom will also appear together tomorrow evening, at the Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, CA (event details here). If you can’t make it, listen to this broadcast of Jon Wiener: On the Radio, in which Wasserstrom comments on the recent strikes at Honda’s Foshan factory and Johnson discusses his new book, A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

Mosque cover

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A grab bag of readings around the web that we wanted to share — loosely connected by a “China in the world” theme that the site editors have been thinking about a lot lately, as we’ve begun discussing the possibility of a second China Beat book to follow up China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance. Though it’s presently more an idea than a plan, now it seems that everywhere we look, we see China Beatniks being talked about in different parts of the world, connecting China with different parts of the world, and simply moving from writing about China to writing about different parts of the world . . .

1. Two China Beat consulting editors have new translations of their work available: as we’ve previously mentioned, Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy was recently released in a French edition, which received a lengthly review in Le Monde earlier this month. And last week, the Polish translation of Jeff Wasserstrom’s 2007 book China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times was published, with an appropriately Huxleyan cover photo:

CBNW Polish cover

2. Some interesting readings from Australia: the latest issue of China Heritage Quarterly focuses on “The Architectural Heritage of Tianjin,” and features articles by Maurizio Marinelli, Michael Szonyi, and Elizabeth LaCouture. In the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut tells the saga of “Mao’s Last Farmer,” Yu Changwu, who is fighting for the return of land taken from him by the municipal government in 1994.

3. Howard French has a piece in The Atlantic’s May issue discussing China in Africa — “The Next Empire.” French’s article follows him from Dar es Salaam to central Zambia, as he rides a railway built with Chinese funds in the 1970s. Today, as French notes, the Sino-African relationship is once again marked by a surge of Chinese investment in African countries, though not without controversy (see Angilee Shah’s review of Deborah Brautigam’s book, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, for more on the topic):

“The idea that big influxes of wealth will help Africa has never really panned out,” Patrick Keenan, an Africa specialist at the University of Illinois, told me. “When the path to wealth goes through the presidential palace, there are enormous incentives to obtaining power and to holding on to it. This kind of wealth incites politicians to create economically wasteful projects, and it relieves them of the need to make politically difficult choices, like broadening the tax base.”

Indeed, the same objections raised by the Zambian aid critic Dambisa Moyo—that foreign aid breeds corrupt, lazy, and ineffective government—can be applied toward any foreign investments that focus on mineral extraction, especially ones that deliver cash and services directly to governments with no conditions attached. All things considered, resource-based or infrastructure-driven development—even development as massive as the ongoing Chinese wave—appear unlikely to lead to a meaningful African renaissance. . . .

And ironically, while Beijing is extremely well-positioned to help Africa improve its governance—a second area of great need throughout much of the continent—it seems deeply reluctant to do so. No developing country has understood the importance of a strong, results-oriented public administration better than China. But so far, in part because of China’s history of subjugation by Westerners, as well as its defensive stance over its human-rights record, Beijing has remained attached to its rhetoric about noninterference.

Readers in the Connecticut area can hear more about Asian-African relations this weekend at Yale University, where the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies is hosting a two-day symposium on the topic.

4. Friend of the blog Pankaj Mishra also discusses China’s stance toward Africa, placing it in a broader context of declining Anglo-American hegemony and legitimacy throughout much of the world, in this essay at The Guardian.

5. China Beat is co-sponsoring a dialogue between Angilee Shah and Ian Johnson, to be held at UC Irvine on June 7 (more details to come as the date draws closer). Shah has previously written for us about China-India matters, among other topics, and is currently posting (at her website) about her recent monthlong stay in Indonesia. Johnson, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, will publish A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West in early May. A schedule of his other tour dates and locations can be found here; you can also read an interview with him from the early days of China Beat.

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The China Beat will be posting periodic interviews with journalists who cover China in widely read newspapers and magazines in the US and UK. Our first interviewee is Ian Johnson, China journalist for the Wall Street Journal, and author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. In 2001, Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China.

1) What was the most intriguing, amusing, inspiring, or eye-opening story that you have covered in China?

I think the favorite story I covered was about farmers in northern Shaanxi who were filing class-action lawsuits against the authorities for overtaxing them. I had been aware of Chinese class-action lawsuits, at least from the 1990s when I read about them in China Quarterly. But I never thought that they would be used in such a poor area and, to some degree, to such effect. This is a really poor part of the country and yet people were aware of their rights and had banded together to try to protect them. In one particular case I wrote about, the farmers succeeded in reversing illegal fees. In another they didn’t, but overall I think that such lawsuits had an effect. The government has since repealed most of these fees and the situation has improved a lot.

I remember one thing in particular—the farmers didn’t realize what their tax rate was supposed to be until they saw it on the television news. This showed the transformative power of electricity and mass communications, which essentially bypassed corrupt local officials. And of course the local people were extremely hospitable. I had never thought that a cave could be so comfortable.

2) If you could convince academics to do more work related to a topic in Chinese history or contemporary China, what might that be?

It’s hard to think of a topic that academics haven’t sliced and diced, but what I think would be an excellent service would be more accessible macro-histories of certain topics that our Bildungsbürgertum [educated middle-class] could read to learn about China.

This is an old gripe and one that many academics share. What bothers me is that it’s often hard to recommend one book in a certain field because most academic books are too specialized. Journalist books, by contrast, are often too perishable or too banal. So I think there’s a lack of books that serious, educated non-specialists can pick up and read on various topics. (To clarify, I don’t mean a book on just China, but even on something more specific, such as Chinese economic reforms or Chinese politics.)

I’ve read a lot of great books recently by academics but few that I could recommend, say, to my father. That’s because they are loaded with jargon and even coin words or dredge words out of the depths of the OED to describe what essentially are very ordinary phenomena. This is a pity because all that great work ends up hitting a tiny fraction of the population. Again, I don’t see an easy answer to this given the reward structures in academia, but it’s something worth considering.

3) Are there certain questions that you get all the time as a journalist covering China that just irritate you? In other words, are you commonly confronted with certain stereotypes or misconceptions about China which endure despite your multiple attempts to dismantle them?

Well, besides whether Chinese really eat dogs or whatever, I’m bothered by questions that reflect an overall lack of understanding. As a journalist, the most sobering experience I have is when friends come to China and are astounded at how China doesn’t fit their expectations. I think this is due to our failure in the media to convey China accurately.

One example is migration. If you believe most journalistic coverage, migration is a disaster, with exploited peasant girls getting sucked into Dickensian factories, the only escape from which is suicide or prostitution. This happens, but the bigger and more accurate story is one of urbanization, wealth creation, and empowerment. Young people with no future on the farm are going to factory towns to work and save money, which they send home or use on themselves. It’s not all Horatio Alger, but the dominant storyline of victimization is plain wrong.

The problem is that readers lack the ability to contextualize. If an American reads about an exploited worker in the U.S., he or she knows that this is atypical; most factory workers don’t work in brutal sweatshops. If they read about it in a foreign country, they often make a reverse assumption: that it is representative. This is a logical assumption because we want to know about what’s the big picture in foreign countries; we don’t want to waste our time reading about a bunch of exceptions. Who can figure out what’s exceptional if we don’t know what’s typical?

Journalists, meanwhile, are conditioned to report on the exceptional. You put the two together and readers are often misinformed. They think China is a polluted gulag on the verge of collapse. But when readers come here, they sense the dynamism and wonder how they got it so wrong.

4) What is the most exciting or rewarding aspect of working as a foreign correspondent?

Being able to barge into people’s lives and nose around.

5) What first drew you to China, and how has your job changed your life in ways that you never imagined when you first began?

I got interested in China for two reasons: one, my father worked for Swire (a big Hong Kong conglomerate that owns, among other things, Cathay Pacific airlines) and had made some trips to the company headquarters. I think that piqued my interest. Maybe because of that I signed up for Chinese as a lark—I certainly never intended to study it. I had attended the University of Florida because it was an affordable, local state school and had a good journalism program. The university had a language requirement and I didn’t want to learn another western language (I grew up in Montreal, so had French as a second language). A teacher posted a note somewhere saying he was looking for students to fill out his beginning Chinese section and so I thought this would be fun for a year. The teacher (Chauncey Chu) was an incredibly gifted and enthusiastic teacher. I fell in love with the language and changed my major after the second semester, and later continued my studies in Taiwan and Germany. So I have an academic to thank (and a linguist at that) for my engagement with China.