Not-So-Secret Histories

Not-So-Secret Histories
Not-So-Secret Histories

Journalist Ian Johnson explored the tension between China’s past and its present in his Zeidman Memorial Lecture.

The true history-telling of modern China has become the work of “underground” historians and archivists, journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Johnson told a packed audience at Sidwell Friends School on March 7.

Speaking at the annual John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture, Johnson described how a relatively small but committed group of brave truth-tellers are striving to overcome the country’s “authoritarian malaise,” to record history that runs counter to the official account and avoids the government’s aggressive censors.

Johnson’s latest book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, profiles more than a dozen such historians and public intellectuals across art, film, academia, and journalism. “History is a kind of religion in China,” Johnson said. “The historians of ancient China are celebrated: Speak truth to power, and in the end, right triumphs over might.”

In modern China, Johnson noted, history is presented through the lens of People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a means of extending their rule. For Xi, the lesson of the collapse of that other great communist power, the Soviet Union, was not about better relationships with the rest of the world; it was a warning of what could happen “if the party doesn’t more forcefully control things.” The CCP uses its own version of history—as a self-proclaimed historically and superlatively successful state—to shut down would-be critics.

And it has largely worked. Couple a curated—some would say, whitewashed—history with a booming economy, and a lot of Chinese people (particularly young Chinese people) find they don’t have the zeal to question the CCP. This, Johnson said, is why “public intellectuals in China think history is the central struggle” of the day. After a “steady diet of party-controlled history” that erases central facts, including the nation’s 20th-century famine, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and killing of the protesters, and even the recent COVID lockdowns, these renegade Chinese thought leaders want to “break out of the straitjacket of history.”

Johnson argued that thanks to technology and an ever more interconnected world, it’s starting to happen. He cited Spark magazine as an example. During the 1950s and 1960s, intellectuals who had been cast out into rural areas saw the Chinese famine firsthand. A group of them created a magazine, Spark, to spread the word about the crisis they were witnessing. The publication was eventually shut down, and the entire affair led to 40 arrests and three executions, but its legacy has been resurrected. Now, old issues of Spark that decry the famine are springing up on the internet, being spread via PDFs, and getting emailed around the world.

Spark has had a profound effect on Chinese society, Johnson said. Intellectuals feel their lineage is being returned, igniting a wave of materials, such as a new magazine called Remembrances and websites like China Unofficial Archives, that recreate history. Meanwhile, oral histories are all the rage in China. “Not everyone has a political agenda,” Johnson said. “But once you start interviewing grandma, the truth has a way of coming out.”

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