‘Sparks’ author Ian Johnson on Chinese ‘challenging the party’s monopoly on history’

Ian Johnson, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future,” discusses the individuals undertaking grassroots historiography in spite of Chinese Communist Party’s control over the historical narrative.

The context: Xi Jinping, the general secretary of China’s ruling Communist Party, has shown a resolute focus on controlling historical narrative, from closing independent journals to imprisoning critics termed “historical nihilists.”
* Despite these challenges, a selection of individuals has stubbornly preserved and propagated China’s ‘grassroots history’.
* Their work focuses on forgotten and overlooked aspects of China’s past, such as an obscure forced labor camp and an underground journal from the 1950s that documented the hardships of the Great Leap Forward famine.

On the record: Ian Johnson emphasizes that the grassroots history movement dates back to before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
* He counters the notion that China is solely a dystopian surveillance state, asserting that there are those who are still striving for a future China that fully confronts its past.
* Johnson labels this practice as a movement due to its reliance on personal, individual connections, which he describes as the foundational work for any successful social shift.
* By leveraging basic digital technologies like email, PDFs, and digital cameras, they help preserve and circulate this grassroots history.

What’s at stake: Despite the substantial obstacles and sacrifices, these historians possess a strong belief that China must confront its past in order to progress.
* Johnson notes that many of these individuals are patriotic, desiring to conduct the exploration and critique of China’s history within China itself.

The implications: While the impact of this movement seems minor in the face of China’s authoritarian state, the preservation and circulation of grassroots history can counter the official narratives, providing an alternative understanding of China’s past.
* This struggle to document genuine historical narratives also signifies the conflict with Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to shape history according to its ideology.
* Johnson contends that this represents a resilience in the pursuit of ‘righteousness,’ a lasting value of Chinese civilization.

View original article on NPR

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