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Video: Ian Johnson on Sparks, his look at China's Underground Historians

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson spent a decade researching the work of these unofficial historians of China's recent past. This compelling study introduces readers to writers, filmmakers and artists, determined to preserve stories about mass movements that affected millions but get scant attention in the party-state's official history.
November 14, 2023
Ian Johnson, author of Sparks, speaking at the USC U.S.-China Institute on October 16, 2023.

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. 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.

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has spent twenty years in China writing for The New York Review of BooksThe New York TimesThe 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.




This video and others are also available at our YouTube channel.