A Chinese history to start a fire

  • Themes: Books, China

Underground historians have provided a beacon of hope for resistance in Communist China. Ian Johnson's new book chronicles their struggles to produce and disseminate their scholarship.

CCP Poster from the Cultural Revolution stating 'Proletarian revolutionaries unite under the great red banner of the thoughts of Mao Tse-tung'
'Proletarian revolutionaries unite under the great red banner of the thoughts of Mao Tse-tung' - CCP poster from the Cultural Revolution, 1967. Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, Ian Johnson, Allen Lane, £25

The Cambridge polymath Joseph Needham said that the writing of history as we know it began in ancient China and classical Greece. He meant the assembly of facts and interpretation in the works of men such as Thucydides and Sima Qian, China’s first great historian, who was castrated by an emperor he had displeased but went on defiantly to write his opus.

Such books remain as monuments. Yet history has democratised even if authoritarian systems have not. Ian Johnson’s new work  Sparks  tells how post-revolutionary generations in China turned to journals, films, posters, pamphlets and PDFs to disseminate their truths, each using the technology of their time to dodge censors and secret policemen. These are not the big battalions of history, they are its foot-soldiers.

Sparks is a tough read because so many brave ventures ended in the labour camp or the execution ground. The book takes its title from Spark, an experimental journal started in 1960 by a group of half-starved students exiled in rural China during Mao Zedong’s great famine. They cheekily echoed Mao’s phrase xinghuo liaoyuan – ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire.’ All Communists knew that Lenin himself founded a militant newspaper called Iskra – The Spark – which had entered party lore. In their innocence, they may have felt safe.

Their leader, Zhang Chunyuan, rustled up a mimeograph machine, the team carved handwritten stencils and ran off a first run of thirty copies. It was classic student journalism: impassioned, erudite and poetic. These were highly educated young people who could observe and write. Their essays criticised the party leadership for letting the peasants starve. With heart-breaking naivete they mailed copies to high officials. As Johnson says, they were like faithful Russians sure that their evils would cease if only the Tsar knew what his ministers were doing. The end was predictable. Flight, prison, torture, sham trials and execution. More than half a century on, it still numbs the soul.

New characters come onto the scene as technology marches ahead and China supposedly opens up. Most of them survive. There is Ai Xiaoming, a film-maker descended from a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. A group of scholar-writers produces Remembrance, a serious historical journal that carries footnoted articles and is sent by email as a PDF to readers. Others use video blogs and social media to slip past the regime’s internet vigilantes for long enough to spread their messages on subjects from daring new theatre to Covid-19. ‘I call these people historians as a shorthand,’ explains the author.

There is no better person than Ian Johnson to record these voices for posterity. He has spent more time than any other western journalist immersed in the day-to-day life of China. His command of the language and his dogged commitment have delivered books on religion and social change that are landmarks. This is a bolder assignment in complicated territory. It poses the eternal dilemma for a specialist: how much information is too much for the ordinary reader?

As one enormity succeeds another and the story jumps from deserts to cities, the pace of change and the complex biographies of the underground historians make them a hard-to-define group. For example, many critics of the Communist Party did not join the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, doubting the ideas and intentions of what was broad brushed as a democracy movement. Some feared a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, gruesomely documented in Johnson’s pages. Others seemed overawed by the prospect of change. Intellectuals are not always the best people to run a revolution even if sometimes they can start it. When a society has been terrorised for half a century by a violent ruling party, one cannot expect bravery of everyone.

Johnson is modest and thoughtful enough to avoid sweeping conclusions but there are several big themes among his encyclopaedia of little-known facts about life in modern China. Some stem from his deep appreciation of Chinese culture. He singles out language as one way the state destroyed self-esteem by its aggressive moves to make everyone a proletarian. It is hard to remain one of the refined literati when most people talk in what Johnson calls ‘the barking peasant Chinese that the Communist Party had imposed on the country’.

Mao – himself a calligrapher, poet and polemicist steeped in history – laid waste to intellectuals. Johnson quotes the editor Tan Heching, who has dedicated himself to documenting the murders of more than nine thousand people in one rural county in 1967, and is bitter in his scorn:

‘China’s literati have always aspired to self-improvement and to guiding their country toward peace and prosperity, but ultimately they’ve never been anything more than subjects, commoners and slaves.’

Tan is wrong. Just because scholars and intellectuals are weak does not mean their output is worthless. Nor, as Johnson shows, do they need a campus or a study. His protagonists ride trains, hide their memory sticks in cars, tramp up mountain paths to ruined temples and squat in the sand dunes looking for bones. Then they get their information out in bits and pieces. They have no big books on sale in Chinese bookstores, but the facts are all there in data particles floating in cyberspace or published overseas. The author calls this minjian lishi, or grassroots history.

Johnson’s big message is that we have got it wrong about China in the era of Xi Jinping. To be sure, the emperor’s rule is harsh and surveys claim most of his subjects believe in the party line. The supposed Marxist-Leninist regime is ‘a quasi-hereditary caste’ of the families that founded the People’s Republic. But to depict the Chinese people as a mass of unthinking consumers obedient to every whim of the party’s xenophobes and warmongers is a mistake.

Opposition exists, people talk, writers write, historians accumulate, data whizzes across oceans and the human instinct for freedom, the author argues, is unstoppable. Living under a technological watchtower-state fosters distrust and betrayal. Some fall, others work on. Today the party likes to divide and isolate its enemies, not to execute them. This does create space for action, albeit temporary and dangerous. Motive is everything in most of Johnson’s stories. And some people just yearn to tell their truths.

Here Johnson’s optimism, indeed his perspective, differs from scholars such as Frank Dikötter of Hong Kong University, whose latest book China After Mao  depicts a dictatorship that has used economic success to build a Leviathan, a rich state with poor people brainwashed by a neo-Stalinist clique. Dikötter’s scholarship has been founded on documents, Johnson’s on oral histories, which lend themselves to shades of grey. Both are valid.

The divergences show us how hard it is to write history about a place where everything that matters is a state secret. Even Xi Jinping’s date of birth – 15 June 1953 – is not advertised. Names themselves can be confusing – Johnson cites a girl who met Mao in a rapturous moment of the Cultural Revolution and changed her name twice. Christened Binbin meaning ‘refined,’ she became Yaowu or ‘be militant’ at the chairman’s command, then later emigrated and called herself Yan, ‘a stone’. This did not help the people tasked with tracking her down for her role in the mob murder of a college principal.

Basic tools, such as archives, depend on access and serendipity. One researcher spent days reading agricultural reports in a library in Lhasa until they noticed a stack labelled neibu wenjian or ‘internal documents’. A casual perusal found these included a set of fiery speeches by Tibet’s Communist Party chief decreeing a crackdown on Buddhism. Such good luck is rare.

Johnson pays tribute to a self-taught historian, the late Gao Hua, who wrote an enormous work, How the Red Sun Rose, at his kitchen table, piecing together the story of Mao’s purges in Yan’an between 1930 and 1945; a template, Johnson says, for how the party would operate when it took power and proof of its addiction to violence and coercion.

The book has gone through twenty-two printings, is translated into English and is considered definitive. Gao did it without tenure, assistants or privilege but he did benefit from visits to the Universities Service Centre in Hong Kong, a repository of books and documents, while his book was published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

That might well be unthinkable today. Although Xi Jinping’s father was himself a survivor of Mao’s purges, the son has taken a lesson, says Johnson: if his parent was a victim of history, Xi would seek to control it. That is why he has turned on Hong Kong with a vengeance to quench its fount of learning, memory and evidence.

This is a book that asks us to have hope, even if the author acknowledges that ‘these are dark times’ when the works of a handful of people may be admirable but irrelevant. After all, the samizdat writers did not bring down the Soviet Union, American power did; nor did a group of doomed pamphleteers overthrow the Nazis, the Red Army did.

It is still fitting that the motto of Johnson’s book comes from Hannah Arendt, who wrote of ‘the uncertain, flickering and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances.’ We do not know, says Arendt, if it is the light of a candle or a burning sun.


Michael Sheridan