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  • Published: 9 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241524947
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $55.00


China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future

An inspiring testament to China's dissident historians and activists, from the 1940s to the present

A documentary filmmaker who spent years uncovering a Mao-era death camp; an independent journalist who gave voice to the millions who suffered through Covid; a magazine publisher who dodges the secret police: these are some of the people who make up Sparks: China's Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, a vital account of how some of China's most important writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to challenge the Chinese Communist Party on its most sacred ground--its monopoly on 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, critical thinkers from across the land have begun to challenge 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-21st century.

  • Published: 9 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241524947
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $55.00

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Praise for Sparks

A revelation: this historian from overseas spent years penetrating the world of underground Chinese historians, becoming in his own right a recorder of pioneers such as Hu Jie, Ai Xiaoming, and Jiang Xue, who use text and video to record China's lost history.

Liao Yiwu, author of The Corpse Walker, God is Red and For a Song and a Hundred Songs

This compelling and highly enjoyable book will greatly enhance the general reader's understanding of the subtle counter-currents of resistance at work in Chinese society below the smooth surface of control and compliance.

Sebastian Veg, author of Minjian: The Rise of China's Grassroots Intellectuals

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

Te-Ping Chen, author of Land of Big Numbers

A powerful narrative of how the human spirit has survived the cruel repression of Maoist totalitarianism and is still doing the same against Xi Jinping's determined efforts to impose a new form of digital totalitarianism ... A must read for anyone interested in the Chinese and China.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies

Ian Johnson has conducted some of the most important grassroots research of any foreign journalist in China. With Sparks, he turns his attention to history - not the sanctioned, censored, and selective history promoted by the Communist Party, but the independent histories that are being written and filmed by brave individuals across the country. This book is a powerful reminder of the ways in which China's future depends on who controls the past.

Peter Hessler

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

A striking account ... This immersive survey combines interviews, firsthand reportage, and historical research to paint a moving group portrait of China’s political dissidents.

Publishers Weekly

Sparks is a work of scholarship, investigative journalism of a kind that rarely happens in the age of slashed budgets, with eyewitness accounts of brutality that will chill your blood ... Johnson’s stories bring these numbers, and this history, chillingly alive.

Christina Patterson, Sunday Times

Mr Johnson’s ability to evade controls and gain the trust of his subjects is evident in his compellingly written work. The result is a rare insight into the extraordinary risks that some Chinese take to illuminate the darkest corners of communism.

James Miles, The Economist

A skilful exploration… Johnson’s skill lies in demonstrating the philosophical links between China’s geography and its political and cultural landscape ... It is deeply satisfying to read a book about China that could only have been written after decades of serious engagement with the country.

Amy Hawkins, The Guardian