Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future (Ian Johnson)

Sharing untold but true stories of a nation's past is important and necessary to help it learn about itself. While this can usually happen in America with little fanfare, it is much more dangerous in places where the state exerts full control. Ian Johnson's Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future details the stories of China's underground historians and their quest for truth, sometimes at the price of everything they have.

Chinese officials have oscillated over the seven decades of Communist control. In Mao's time and increasingly in Xi's time as leader, expressing an opinion different from the party line could find people ostracized or worse. Telling the stories of those who dissented, or weren't ideologically "pure" enough, was a fraught exercise that could end in prison time or death (see the Cultural Revolution as an example of this). Sparks highlights the brave historians who look for ways to bend and ebb around Chinese state control to ensure stories can be told.

Johnson is greatly effective at detailing several key points in Chinese history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiannemen protests, and the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan. The tales of the "counter-history" from these points in time and the people who told them are powerful reminders of the need for authentic storytelling before the stories of the past are forgotten.