Review of Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future (Penguin, 2023) by Ian Johnson.
The gist of Ian Johnson’s fine new book is suggested by its epigraph from philosopher Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times (1968). This citation begins: ‘Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the timespan that was given them on earth’.
Johnson’s book is a history of and tribute to these kinds of men and women, as they have acted throughout the rule of the Communist Party in China, a period that has now extended for over seventy years. His particular focus is on the Party’s efforts to rewrite history, as its leaders realised the value of propaganda that presented its rule as nobly motivated, invariably beneficial, and obviously destined for a long future. When individuals or small groups realised that the Party’s version of events was usually a fabrication and tried to offer alternatives in their writing, their art, or their films, they were almost always suppressed and punished. But Johnson argues that these brave people’s challenges to the Party’s dominance made an impact, and continue to do so, however ‘uncertain’ and ‘flickering’ this may be. He also makes links between Mao Zedong’s China and Hitler’s Germany – the latter being one context for Arendt’s writings as well.
Johnson’s brief means that he covers activists from the 1950s to the present, and all the evidence he offers is very much worth pondering, although the descriptions of brutality and suffering can make for hard reading. I’m concentrating here on his coverage of figures from the early years of Party rule, and their afterlife in Chinese culture.
The abuses of the 1950s were wide-ranging. Mao invited public responses to his government in the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign (a perversion of the Confucian saying, ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’). But when these came in, even the mildest criticisms could lead to the persecution of those who made them: loss of work, banishment, imprisonment. People were labelled as ‘Rightists’, and this drive took out much of the thin layer of intelligentsia in Chinese society. The regime thrived on the demonisation of people.
Especially ghastly were the conditions in labour camps in remote areas of northwest China: long hours, terrible quarters, little food. But almost unimaginable were the consequences of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ from 1958. Small-holders were persecuted as evil capitalist landlords, and land made communal. Then taxes were imposed based on yields of grain that were impossible to achieve, while the seed corn was confiscated, leaving farmers with nothing to plant. Meanwhile Mao had become obsessed with steel production, urging everyone to concentrate on this: as they lacked the equipment to produce real steel, however, desperate people offered up their cooking implements as such. But with the fixation on steel and the confiscation of seed corn, there was nothing much to cook. All this brought on the Great Famine, which killed about 45 million people.
And the resistance? Particularly moving is the story of the small group behind Spark, the magazine that gives Johnson his title. This was a short-lived effort from the early 1960s, produced surreptitiously and with limited circulation, but drawing attention to some of the truths about China’s recent history. Key figures here were Zhang Chunyuan and his beloved Tan Chanxie, and the poet Lin Zhao, who wrote verse for the magazine and then, in prison, other writings that were sometimes literally in her own blood. Tan Chanxie survived, but Zhang Chunyuan and Lin Zhao were both executed.
The stories of these courageous dissidents had an afterlife as well. This was partly due to those who remembered them, and partly because the regime itself held on to masses of documentation. When the political climate became temporarily less repressive after Mao’s death (1976), survivors gained access to some of this material – so that Tan Chanxie could read the love poetry Zhang Chunyuan had written to her, Lin Zhao’s prison writings were revealed, and the issues of Spark came to light.
But there was also determination from later generations to preserve the memories and offer a counter version of history. Jiang Xue, a child in the 1970s, was haunted by the famine story of her grandfather, who, allocated one 6” corn bun a day to feed a family of six, chose to starve to death to save the rest. She researched and wrote up the story of Spark, and has been an active journalist for many years, often countering the Party’s version of events. Meanwhile the works of her friend the film-maker Hu Jie have further publicised this history, in his Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004) and Spark (2013). Poet Lin Zhao’s grave has now become a site of pilgrimage.
One thing Johnson’s book illustrates is how people in difficult and sometimes horrendous circumstances make very different choices. As well as the dissidents themselves, there are those who spoke admiringly of them, but only when it was safer to do so. And there are people who take the cue to manipulate the past themselves. Johnson tells the story of Xi Zhangxun, who from the 1930s was caught up in the internal politicking of the Party, but survived to participate in some history-writing which didn’t entirely follow the Party line. What Xi Zhangxun’s son seems to have taken on board, nevertheless, is that at one point in his turbulent life, his father happened to benefit from Mao’s obsession with reconstructing Party history in his own ideal image. Hence the son would continue this practice of Mao’s. This son is China’s current leader, Xi Jinping.
This book does then confront the reader with the question of what s/he might do when faced with tough choices. It also reminds us of how totalitarian regimes, whether characterised as left or right, share similar features and similar stories of resistance. Johnson adduces the novel Every Man Dies Alone (1947) by German writer Hans Fallada. This is based on a true story of an ordinary couple in Berlin, disillusioned with the Nazi regime, who undertake a postcard campaign against it. The campaign is small-scale, ineffectual in practical terms, and fatal for the couple, but is invested with an ethical value nonetheless. A more direct parallel between Nazism and modern China is that one of the central inspirations for Hu Jie’s documentaries is the work of Claude Lanzmann, whose epic Shoah (1985) shows some perpetrators of the Holocaust condemning themselves out of their own mouths.
Finally, recent years in China have seen a reassertion of the Party’s hegemony through the large areas subject to its control, including Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uyghur region of Xinjiang. On the other hand, the emergence of the internet and of digital technologies has offered great opportunities to independent thinkers. Digital cameras can be small, and what they film can be more easily disseminated than the efforts of earlier film-makers. And while we know that the Chinese regime does its best to control social media, it can be thwarted by savvy creators and readers / viewers. So there are now multiple versions of history to be found. Grim times, but also heady ones.