The Hidden Stories of China’s Past

A review of Ian Johnson, “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for Their Future” (Oxford University Press, 2023)

Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts, People’s Republic of China, 1968 (

“To destroy a country’s people, start with destroying their history,” Gong Zizhen (1792-1841), a famous Chinese poet and intellectual from the Qing dynasty, wrote over a hundred years before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rose to power.

Today, Xi Jinping and the CCP exercise a tighter control than ever over China’s past. The CCP Propaganda Department and other government entities censor all information sources—textbooks, museums, news outlets, novels—to ensure they fit the CCP’s prescribed narrative. This history whitewashes periods of suffering and turmoil, such as the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, focusing instead on the contributions of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping to China’s rise. 

Yet the CCP has not succeeded in effacing these tragic events. Underground historians, hermits, and rebels—known as the jianghu, or the “rivers and lakes” of China—have existed beneath China’s mainstream culture for generations, dedicating their lives to ensuring the CCP cannot make Gong’s fear a reality. 

Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who lived in China for two decades, tells their story. “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for Their Future” highlights the significance of the jianghu’s mission and why they sacrificed their lives, families, and futures to search for a truth that many, even the victims’ relatives, refuse to hear. 

Johnson’s first section, “The Past,” establishes the importance of attempts from ancient counter-historians—such as Su Dong Po, an 11th century Chinese poet and essayist, and Sima Qian, a Han dynasty academic—to contemporary activists in uncovering China’s past. “In China,” he writes, “history and morality are inseparable.” National history shapes normative decisions about society, culture, and diplomacy, and understanding the past reveals crucial elements of modern China. He then overviews specific accounts of jianghu after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

The story begins at “The Ditch,” or Jiabiangou, a forced labor site in Gansu province during the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Famine. From 1957 to 1961, the camp held approximately 3,000 inmates. These prisoners toiled for years, suffered in horrendous conditions, and often starved to death. However, official recollections in China omit this atrocity. If not for writing and film from various jianghu, such as Ai Xiaoming, a Chinese filmmaker, and Yang Xianhui, a contemporary Chinese novelist, the CCP may have entirely erased this camp’s existence from historical memory.

A thousand kilometers from Jiabiangou in Tianshui, Jiang Xue, an independent investigative journalist, researched a concurrent incident: the creation of Sparks, a journal dedicated to exposing the party for the tragedies it incited.

Sparks arose after the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the period from 1956 to 1957 before the Anti-Rightist Campaign, when Mao encouraged Chinese citizens to denounce local officials and speak out against the party. The CCP, Mao worried, had become corrupt. However, when complaints raised deeper qualms with the CCP leadership than he anticipated, Mao punished those who spoke out. As retribution, the party sent these people, most of whom were students, to remote, rural areas for “Reform through Labor.” 

As part of this movement, Lanzhou University expelled the creators of Sparks and shipped them to Tianshui for reform. While in Tianshui, they met often under the leadership of Zhang Chunyuan, a gutsy student assigned to operate Tianshui’s single allotted tractor, to discuss the disparity between communist ideals and the atrocities of the Great Famine. These discussions inspired them to create Sparks.

Yet the party’s reaction to Sparks illustrates the hardship that accompanied this type of activism. After publication of the second underground edition, Party officials discovered Sparks and arrested the creators. Zhang, the leader, spent his life in prison and died by firing squad for anti-party conduct. Tan Chanxue, Zhang’s lover and co-creator of Sparks, suffered in prison for 14 years. Lin Zhao, a Beijing-based poet who inspired Zhang to publish Sparks, also lived in and out of prison. When officials questioned Lin about her criminal activity, she retorted that the “real question” should be what crimes had the party committed. Police sent her back to prison, where she died, writing poems in her own blood.

While only two editions were published, the legacy of Sparks endures, representing the importance and sacrifice of exposing historical injustice in China.

Johnson explains that Mao and the CCP dealt with history in this harsh manner because they viewed history as a source of legitimacy. Since the party lacked roots in ancient, empirical China, Mao decided the party must create this historical credibility themselves—through a curated narrative that prohibited alternative thought.

The first crackdown occurred in 1942. As part of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, Mao’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Arts” purged writers and artists who published works different from his version of history. This famous speech issued the mandate that has held since: All artistic endeavors in China must advance the official party line. Three years later, control solidified. Mao issued China’s first official resolution on history, “The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party,” which unified the CCP’s outlook on history as something that must uphold Mao Zedong Thought. 

The second historical resolution came in 1981, when Deng Xiaoping released the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.” This paper solidified the “success” of Mao Zedong Thought and Mao’s enormous contributions to China’s national independence and leadership. It noted how Mao expanded education, bolstered health care, and helped China gain economic self-sufficiency. The declaration briefly acknowledged the Cultural Revolution but attributed this event to Mao’s character flaws, not leadership weaknesses or the CCP. 

In 2021, Xi Jinping issued the latest document that cements history in law: the “Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century.” This resolution divided history into three periods: Mao’s reign that established socialist foundations with Chinese characteristics; Deng’s tenure that connected the Mao era to China’s modernity; and Xi’s own governance, the preceding two periods’ synthesis. The boastful resolution settled Xi Jinping’s leadership as the “key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” 

Xi has familial reasons to care about history. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, co-wrote a biography of his mentor, Liu Zhidan, that the CCP banned in 1962 due to the mention of the old Shaanxi Communist base area, which Mao regarded as glorifying Gao Gang, a deposed official. As punishment, Mao imprisoned Xi’s father and split up their family. Xi now wields the sword that led to his father’s demise.

To maintain this grip on a historical narrative, the CCP obfuscates cultural and communicative memory. Cultural memory, the “texts and beliefs that hold a society together,” usually operates as a distinct, abstract entity from communicative memory, the direct experience of an individual or a family. However, the CCP intermingles these two recollections. By using myths to describe the past, the CCP muddles truth and fiction.

The CCP established revolutionary sites, museums, and patriotic campaigns nationwide to rewrite communicative memory as cultural memory and promote myths about the CCP’s rise to power. Ian Johnson counted 36,000 “revolutionary sites” and 840,000 patriotic campaigns established in China since 2021. When I lived in China from 2022 to 2023, I saw these sites, “red education centers,” “red museums,” and “red memorial sites,” in every remote village and large city—from the mountains of Guizhou to the Gobi Desert in Gansu to the border of Xinjiang and Pakistan.

Fang Lizhi, one of China’s most famous dissidents, wrote that “the true face of history is thoroughly erased from the memory of Chinese society” approximately once every 10 years. Some people in China worry that time is now. Yet Johnson highlights various jianghu and “grassroots intellectuals” who have persisted under this control.

These people range from Chen Hongguo, an ex-professor who established the Zhiwuzhi (“I know I know nothing”), a club dedicated to free thought and the pursuit of knowledge as a homage to Socrates in Xi’An (since shut down), to Ai Xiaoming, an iconic scholar of women’s and public issues who won the 2010 Simone de Beauvoir prize for Women’s Freedom, filmed the “Vagina Monologues” in China, and posted a topless Twitter post in 2010 to protest a school principal’s rape of six students. 

Johnson experienced these historians’ passion firsthand. He traveled with Tan Hecheng, a reporter dedicated to exposing a mass murder that occurred in Dao County, Hunan, during the Cultural Revolution. Johnson describes Tan reciting poems and stories about the thousands killed next to a river that dead bodies had filled years earlier: Tan wrote a 600-page book, “The Blood of Myths,” to describe this story. He also visited Tiantongyuan, an abandoned city in the outskirts of Beijing, to see Wu Di, the editor of the Remembrance, one of the few independent journals still in mainland China. Wu Di circulates Remembrance via PDF to just enough people that it is considered private mail to circumvent harsh censorship laws. He relies on a network of scholars to forward as necessary. The drive of Tan Hecheng, Wu Di, and others emanates from the pages, and the reader can understand why history represents more than just facts. It is their identity. 

Johnson finishes the book with the future of jianghu in the post-pandemic era. He notes how COVID-19 led to a jianghu resurgence. Situations like the death of Li Wenliang—a doctor who officials silenced after he attempted to report COVID-19—incited an influx of anti-party complaints. Party criticism flooded online news feeds faster than censors could scrub them. The complaints culminated in the “White Paper” protests, when millions of Chinese, mostly students, took to the streets to condemn the severe “Zero-COVID” measures. While the party has since quelled these protests, Johnson argues that the movement lives on, flowing beneath the behemoth of CCP power in the whispers, streams, and rivers of Chinese society.

Christina Knight, Published courtesy of Lawfare

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