[Book review] Telling the truth in China - a book review of Sparks

By Swells in the Middle Kingdom |

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future by Ian Johnson. Oxford University Press, 2023, 400 pages. ISBN-10: 0197575501, ISBN-13: 978-0197575505. Available from Amazon.

Sparks Book Review

Anyone familiar with Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson’s previous writing on China has likely already picked up a copy of his most recent book, Sparks. Johnson’s ability to combine his intimate familiarity with life in China today with heartfelt interviews from people throughout Chinese society makes his writing insightful and often deeply moving. His latest book is no exception, and should be read by all who care about the people of China. As ChinaSource Vice President Joann Pittman described the book to me in a recent email: “It’s excellent and depressing and inspiring. How do totalitarian states produce such courageous people?” This seems such an apt description of the book that the rest of this review will simply flesh out those comments.


Johnson’s book explores both the ways in which Chinese authorities seek to use fear to control how the past is remembered as well as the ways in which a bold minority of Chinese citizens resists this push from above by creatively preserving the historical record.

At its most basic level, Sparks presents readers with a host of remarkable women and men who persist in talking about what really happened. In an environment focused on silencing certain aspects of the past, these are the stories of the Chinese citizens who say the quiet part out loud.

All of this makes for a fascinating read that paints a century of recent Chinese history with vibrant personal details of tragedy and struggle against adversity.


Over the course of the book, the theme of violence appears again and again, making it difficult to refute Johnson’s core contention that the repeated eruptions of violence that mark the passage of China’s recent history are not interruptions in the nation’s course of development, not a fault in the system, but rather a built-in feature, a tool intentionally created to be used by authorities to ensure their continued rule.

As the counter-historians at the center of this book are all keenly aware, the people of China should expect the state to use violence against its own citizens. In one of the book’s most profound insights, Johnson notes that it is important to avoid simplifying this pattern of violence into a battle between good citizens and an evil state. For complicated historical and psychological reasons, there is often little actual difference between the victors and the victims of Chinese history: in far too many cases, those who suffered at the hands of the state did not hesitate to abuse others when given the power and opportunity to do so. Today’s victims of state violence may simply be yesterday’s victors who have for some reason lost their power to rule.

Sparks is a moving testimony of the complex, long-term effects of living in a society where violence is accepted, and trust is so fleeting.


Taken together, the groups and individuals whose efforts to preserve the past are the life of Johnson’s book present the reader with a moving example of courage and endurance. Despite the persistence of violence and venomous threats against those who do not accept the Chinese Communist Party’s bowdlerized version of the past, it is increasingly clear that the Party’s project is doomed to fail.

To begin with, the army of counter-historians is self-replacing: knock down one rebellious researcher and another invariably rises in its place, as the networks and generations traced through Johnson’s book reveal. In later chapters, Johnsons brings attention to the special role of technology—not only as a weapon of oppression, but especially as an empowering and increasingly effective tool for circumventing official censors.

The porous nature of the internet (the Great Firewall notwithstanding), the ubiquity of recording technology, and the ease with which digital versions of records are copied, stored, and accessed is actually making it easier to preserve history in the face of the would-be revisionists.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, these counter-historians are certain that time is on their side. As Johnson writes in the final chapter, the heroes of his book “know that their works will probably never be freely aired in China in their lifetimes. But they continue in the belief that their work will matter in the future.”

For Those of Us Non-Citizens

Reading through Sparks was a surprisingly emotional experience for me. I could not help but think of all the women and men I have known over the last three decades, some heroic resistors, some seemingly cowed by the persistent threat of violence. As Johnson’s subjects recounted their stories, I swung wildly from depressed to inspired, ultimately joining Johnson in his conviction that victory will eventually belong to the counter-historians.

For those of us non-citizens who have had the privilege to witness first-hand the lives of China’s own citizens, Johnson has several lessons.

First of all, Sparks is a powerful reminder that even in the era of the securitization of everythingthe lives and witness of Johnson’s counter-historians are living proof of the limits of state control: alternative historical narratives persist, despite the efforts of a phalanx of would-be censors.

Second, Johnson closes his book by warning outsiders to avoid seeing China as an example of out-of-control authoritarianism: there is a rich, active, and diverse community of citizens who are resisting that narrative and telling a very different China story. This lines up with global trends, as digital technologies enable the marginalized in nations across the globe to make their voices heard. China is more than the sum of its official statements. Let’s be sure we are listening to all those other voices as well.

More personally, I realized that almost all expatriate Christian workers living in China are (admittedly amateur) counter-historians.

We are the product of our own passport and home cultures and educations, and we see China and her past through lenses primarily crafted outside of China. As our stay in China lengthens, we too begin to collect the same kinds of disruptive memories—either our own, or those of close Chinese friends—the same kinds of experiences Johnson’s counter-historians are working so hard to preserve.

What is our role as truth tellers? What truths are we telling? Are there some truths we do not tell? What fires may be ignited by our sparks?

This book review was first published on ChinaSource. It was republished with permission.