from Asia Program


China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future

A sweeping portrait from the 1940s to the 2020s of one of humanity’s great battles of memory against forgetting, including some of China’s best-known public intellectuals.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future describes how some of China’s best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.

The past is a battleground in many countries, but in China it is crucial to political power. In traditional China, dynasties rewrote history to justify their rule by proving that their predecessors were unworthy of holding power. Marxism gave this a modern gloss, describing history as an unstoppable force heading toward Communism’s triumph. The Chinese Communist Party builds on these ideas to whitewash its misdeeds and glorify its rule. Indeed, one of Xi Jinping’s signature policies is the control of history, which he equates with the party’s survival.

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Chinese Politics and Society

Xi Jinping

But in recent years, a network of independent writers, artists, and filmmakers have begun challenging this state-led disremembering. Using digital technologies to bypass China’s legendary surveillance state, their samizdat journals, guerilla media posts, and underground films document a regular pattern of disasters: from famines and purges of years past to ethnic clashes and virus outbreaks of the present—powerful and inspiring accounts that have underpinned recent protests in China against Xi Jinping’s strongman rule.

Based on years of firsthand research in Xi Jinping’s China, Sparks challenges stereotypes of a China where the state has quashed all free thought, revealing instead a country engaged in one of humanity’s great struggles of memory against forgetting—a battle that will shape the China that emerges in the mid-twenty-first century.

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Chinese Politics and Society

Xi Jinping

Reviews and Endorsements

An indelible feat of reporting and an urgent read, Ian Johnson’s Sparks is alive with the voices of the countless Chinese who fiercely, improbably, refuse to let their histories be forgotten. It is a privilege to read books like this.

Te-Ping Chen, author of Land of Big Numbers, and Wall Street Journal national correspondent

For more than three decades, Ian Johnson has conducted some of the most important grassroots research of any foreign journalist in China. Sparks is a powerful reminder of the ways China’s future depends on who controls the past. 

Peter Hessler, New Yorker correspondent

Sparks is an extraordinary work of history and reportage, and a book of exceptional beauty. Ian Johnson details the lives of individuals who have committed themselves to acts of remembrance and possibility. 

Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Sparks is a grand narrative of counter history set against what is officially “right and true.” This is a necessary book charged with historical urgency.

Ha Jin, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, Boston University 

Sparks tells the stories of underground historians who are determined to write down China's hidden histories of famines, political campaigns, massacres, and virus outbreaks. These stories show why Xi Jinping wants to control history—because memories like these are sparks of light in a heavy darkness. 

Li Yuan, New York Times columnist

Illuminating. . . . [Johnson] offers a rare hopeful perspective.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, Wall Street Journal contributor

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