Ian Johnson

Xi Jinping has put much effort into rewriting China’s history. China expert Ian Johnson, author of Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, looks at underground historians, and how they oppose that trend. He discusses his discoveries at NPR. “There are still people who are keeping alive the idea of a more decent, humane China that confronts its problems of the past and thereby lays the groundwork for a better China of tomorrow,” Ian Johnson says.


One of the first things Xi Jinping did after being named general secretary of China’s ruling Communist Party was tour an exhibition at the National Museum on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square.

It was called “the Road to Rejuvenation.” News photos showed Xi and other top leaders standing reverently before photos and artifacts that traced the long arc of China’s modern history. The symbolism was hard to miss.

In his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson says Xi unveiled the concept of the “China Dream” at the museum on that fall day in 2012. “That goal was closer at hand than at any time in recent history, Xi said, because the nation had learned from its history,” Johnson writes.

In the following years, Xi would put on display a dogged obsession with controlling the historical narrative — shuttering independent journals, muzzling outspoken scholars, jailing critics he accused of “historical nihilism,” and re-drawing the boundaries around school curricula.

Yet through it all, a handful of people chronicling China’s “grassroots history” has been fighting back. Johnson calls it a movement, and his book tells their stories.

They are people like the filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, who made a documentary about an all but forgotten forced labor camp in the desert. And the journalist Jiang Xue, who has protected the history of an underground journal from the late 1950s that attempted to record the privations, and desperation, experienced during the famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward.

Click here to read the NPR interview with Ian Johnson.

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