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Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for The Future

September 27, 2023 @ 7:00 pm


September 27, 2023
7:00 pm
Event Category:


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138 United States


Harvard Book Store
(617) 661-1515
Ian Johnson at Harvard Book Store
China’s Underground Historians
and Their Battle for The Future

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future

Harvard Book Store welcomes IAN JOHNSON— journalist whose work has won numerous prizes for his coverage of China, including a Pulitzer Prize—for a discussion of his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for The Future. He will be joined in conversation by reporter, columnist and entrepreneur, ANNIE JIEPING ZHANG.

About Sparks

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future describes how some of China’s best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the 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.

But in recent years, a network of independent writers, artists, and filmmakers have begun challenging 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 regular pattern of disasters: from famines and purges of years past to ethnic clashes and virus outbreaks of the present–powerful and inspiring accounts that have underpinned recent protests in China against Xi Jinping’s strongman rule.

Based on years of first-hand 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.

Praise for Sparks

“An indelible feat of reporting and an urgent read, Ian Johnson’s 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

“For decades, 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. A powerful reminder of how China’s future depends on who controls the past.” —Peter Hessler, National Book Award-winning author, and New Yorker writer

Sparks tells the stories of underground historians who are determined to write down China’s hidden histories of famines, massacres, and virus outbreaks. These stories show why Xi Jinping wants to control history—because memories like these are sparks of light in a heavy darkness.” —Li Yuan, New York Times columnist