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Ian Johnson on Sparks, his new book on China's Underground Historians

Throughout its history, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to dictate what is written and taught about its past. And some have always found ways to offer a fuller picture of what they and others have experienced.

October 18, 2023 4:00pm to 5:30pm

Wednesday, October 18, 2023, 4-5:30 pm
Wallis Annenberg Hall, ANN 106 (Sheindlin Forum)
University of Southern California
free, reservations required (see below)

Determined and creative Chinese writers, filmmakers and artists persist in documenting their country's past and sharing what they've learned. In his new book Sparks, journalist and scholar Ian Johnson introduces us to these individuals and their struggles against crackdowns and censorship. He shows how they and their audiences challenge the Chinese 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. We see this in his speeches, museum exhibits, state-mandated textbooks, the 2021 official CCP resolution on history, and through laws and policies controlling depictions of the past.

China is sometimes described as a "perfect dictatorship" of digital surveillance and endless crackdowns. This book shows that opponents are unbowed, challenging the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.

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-21st century.

The book is available from Oxford University Press. The photo above of Ian Johnson is by Sim Chi YIn. Are you a secondary school teacher? We have a special online program for you with Ian Johnson on Oct. 12. Click here for details.

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has spent twenty years in China writing for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, as well as serving for five years on the editorial board of The Journal of Asian Studies. He received the Pulitzer Prize for international affairs reporting in 2001. He is the author of three other books that 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. He is the senior fellow for China at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Event location:
Wallis Annenberg Hall (Sheindlin Forum, ANN 106) is at the lower left of this map.

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