How Tiananmen Sparked Desire For 'Spiritual Revolution' in China

Ian Johnson and Ian Buruma discuss two pivotal events that caused many Chinese to look away from the state and toward religion. (3 min., 14 sec.)

After China’s 1989 Tiananmen movement was violently suppressed, many of the surviving protest leaders went on to convert to Christianity.

Speaking at Asia Society in New York Thursday at the launch of his new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, journalist Ian Johnson said that many had believed China’s salvation lay in democracy. “They felt after Tiananmen that [the uprising] had failed because China had not had a spiritual revolution,” Johnson said. “We have to have a spiritual revolution before we can have a political revolution."

He noted that a widespread feeling of China being “spiritually adrift” continues to this day, as breakneck marketization has left many feeling they've lost basic morality. Even Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has appeared to address this in his drive to “rejuvenate” the Chinese nation and adhere closer to traditional Chinese values. “This has been one of his big domestic planks,” Johnson said. “… to try to solve the national malaise, this lack of values in China, and the sense that anything goes.”

Journalist and author Ian Buruma, moderating the discussion, compared this situation to Japan in the mid-19th century when its leaders sought to understand how they had fallen so far behind European powers. Part of the answer, they concluded, was religion. “Christianity was clearly the state faith [in Europe] and it’s what made people obedient to their rulers and created moral order,” Buruma said. “And [lacking it] is why Japan was decadent and weak. Therefore, what the Japanese needed was their own state religion. Hence, Shintoism.”

In the above video clip, Johnson and Buruma discuss how the Tiananmen crackdown prompted conversions to Christianity, and how the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake gave a similar spur to religious groups. Watch the complete program in the video below.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Johnson discusses his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao with Ian Buruma and Orville Schell. (1 hr., 9 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.