China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future


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In China today a nationwide movement emerges, defying crackdowns and censorship to challenge the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.

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 justify its rule.

But in recent years, a network of independent writers, artists and film-makers have challenged 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 pattern of disasters: from past famines and purges to the ethnic clashes and virus outbreaks of the present.

Based on years of 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.

©2023 Ian Johnson (P)2023 Penguin Audio


  • Ian Johnson is one of the most experienced and thoughtful Western journalists writing about China. Now he has turned his attention to one of the most important battles in contemporary China: the struggle to control history ... Moving and full of human character and detail. It's a compelling read, beautifully written, and the product of deep research carried out in China over many years ... an exemplary tribute.
    Rana Mitter, Literary Review

About the author

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has spent most of his adult life in China, working as a correspondent for The New York Times, New York Review of Books, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of other books that also focus on the intersection of politics and civil society, including The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, and Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.
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