Sparks: Reviews

Reviews of Sparks 

Times Literary Supplement
1 March 2024

Stephen Platt’s review “A Light That Never Goes Out,” read it online here (paywalled) or download a PDF here.

30 January 2024

A review in the leading online publication about Christianity in China calls it “excellent, depressing, inspiring” and reflects on what it means for non-Chinese citizens. Read the full review here.

Public Discourse
22 January 2024

Robert Carle, formerly at King’s College in Manhattan, looks at the spiritual implications of Sparks. Read it here.

Los Angeles Review of Books
6 January 2024

A joint review of Sparks and Tania Branigan’s Red Memories by Craig Calhoun.

Best of 2023 Lists
20 December 2023

Read this post for a list of the five publications that included Sparks on their “best of 2023” lists.

China Book Review
30 November 2023

Writing in the newly launched China Book Review, Yangyang Cheng calls it “stunning portrayal of some of the most courageous individuals in China today…The China that emerges from the pages is both real and magical. In a landscape pregnant with memory, the past echoes in the present, and the personal is always political.”

The Guardian
1 November 2023

“It is deeply satisfying to read a book about China that could only have been written after decades of serious engagement with the country… Johnson’s skill lies in demonstrating the philosophical links between China’s geography and its political and cultural landscape. Just like the jianghu, the counter-historians are stubbornly ungovernable. They are driven by a sense of morality rather than economic self-interest.”
Amy Hawkins writing in The Guardian. 

The Financial Times
25 October 2023

Johnson is “one of the country’s most perceptive and talented foreign chroniclers. In The Souls of China (2017), he provided richly revealing portraits of its religious minorities. In Spark, he turns to “underground historians” — writers and filmmakers holding out against Xi’s reappraisals.” 
James Crabtree writing in the FT. Read the review here.

The New Statesman
9 October 2023

A very informative review by Katie Stallard ( author of Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea) in The New Statesman. Read the review here.

The Wire China
8 October 2023

:Simon Leys, followed by Geremie Barmé and Michael Schoenhals, showed how entering the world of Chinese language could make very large differences. In his new book Sparks, Ian Johnson writes entirely from the indigenous side of the seam.” Perry Link writing in The Wire China. Read the essay here.

The New York Times
30 September 2023

“an intimate and compelling portrait of China’s underground history movement.” Fan Jiayang in The New York Times. Read the full review by The New Yorker’s Fan Jiayang here.

The Atlantic
28 September 2023

In a long, profound review taking in my earlier work in Wild Grass, Han Zhang writes that “Johnson’s work is not unlike that of his subjects: They ask their audiences to shift their vantage point and to reconsider an overlooked group or a sanitized past to truly comprehend the country they live in.” Read the full review by Zhang Han here.

The Economist
27 September 2023

“a rare insight into the extraordinary risks that some Chinese take to illuminate the darkest corners of Communism.” Read the full review here

The New Yorker
25 September 2023

Writing in The New Yorker, Ian Buruma calls it “superb, stylishly written” in a long essay looking at the broad topic of counter-history and dissent in China. Read the full review by Ian Buruma here.

The China Project
22 September 2023

The Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne writes that “Johnson combines a researcher’s scholarly discipline with a reporter’s eye for detail and storytelling. His previous book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, published in 2017, remains one of the best works for understanding modern China published in the last decade.” Jenne calls Sparks a “celebration of the human spirit.”  Read the full review here.

The Wall Street Journal
22 September 2023

Melanie Kirkpatrick calls it an “illuminating” book that “offers a rare hopeful perspective” on China. Read the review here.

The Times (London)
17 September 2023

Sparks is a work of scholarship, investigative journalism of a kind that rarely happens in the age of slashed budgets, with eyewitness accounts of brutality that will chill your blood. Read the full review here.

Publishers Weekly
5 September 2023

“Johnson (The Souls of China) delivers a striking account of people who have defied authority to document negative aspects of life under the Chinese Communist Party. . . . This immersive survey combines interviews, firsthand reportage, and historical research to paint a moving group portrait of China’s political dissidents.” Read the full review here.

Literary Review
September 2023

One of the best-known China historians (and BBC radio host) Rana Mitter writes in the London-based Literary Review:

“Johnson’s account is moving and full of human character and detail. It’s a compelling read, beautifully written, and the product of deep research carried out in China over many years.

The historians, chroniclers and filmmakers celebrated by Johnson are doing their best to prevent that from happening. This book is an exemplary tribute to their efforts, made lucidly comprehensible to a Western audience.”

Foreign Affairs
22 August 2023

“Vividly describes the independent documentary filmmakers, journalists, historians, novelists, and memoirists who obsessively pursue the forbidden truths of totalitarian misrule in China.” Read the review by Andrew J. Nathan in Foreign Affairs.  


Advance Praise for Sparks:

“An indelible feat of reporting and an urgent read, Ian Johnson’s Sparks is alive with the voices of the countless Chinese who fiercely, improbably, refuse to let their histories be forgotten.”—Te-Ping Chen, author of Land of Big Numbers, and Wall Street Journal national correspondent.


“For more than three decades, Ian Johnson has conducted some of the most important grassroots research of any foreign journalist in China. With Sparks, he turns his attention to history—not the sanctioned, censored, and selective history promoted by the Communist Party, but the independent histories that are being written and filmed by brave individuals across the country. This book is a powerful reminder of the ways in which China’s future depends on who controls the past.”—Peter Hessler, New Yorker staff writer.


“Sparks is an extraordinary work of history and reportage, and a book of exceptional beauty. Ian Johnson details the lives of individuals who have committed themselves to acts of remembrance and possibility. Their writings, art and actions shed light not only on China, but on every place in which underground history is passed — through principled actions, driven by faith, sorrow or hope — into the hands of the future.”—Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Sparks tells the stories of underground historians who are determined to write down China’s hidden histories of famines, political campaigns, massacres, and virus outbreaks. These stories show why Xi Jinping wants to control history—because memories like these are sparks of light in a heavy darkness.”—Li Yuan, New York Times columnist and host of The Bumingbai podcast.

“China’s most famous modern writer Lu Xun predicted that ‘as long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire will not die.’ In Sparks, Ian Johnson introduces us to a new generation of unofficial historians—modern-day ‘seeds of fire.’ Their work will survive the Xi Jinping era, both to shed light on the past and to illuminate China’s better future.”—Geremie R. Barmé, editor, China Heritage


Sparks is a grand narrative of counter history set against what is officially ‘right and true.’ This is a necessary book charged with historical urgency, and the sparks, left by the eponymous underground magazine suppressed in the 1950s, are preserved here and ready to burst into a firestorm.”—Ha Jin, William Fairfield Warren  Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, Boston College.

“Ian Johnson has presented a powerful narrative of how the human spirit has survived the cruel repression of Maoist totalitarianism and is still doing the same against Xi Jinping’s determined efforts to impose a new form of digital totalitarianism. In telling the individual stories of Chinese citizens who choose to defend freedom and dignity, Johnson has also provided a powerful illustration of how Xi’s repressive regime works.  A must read for anyone interested in the Chinese and China.”—Steve Tsang, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“In the long years of Chinese people’s pursuit of justice and equality, preserving historical truth has always been a fierce but unseen battle As Ian Johnson’s Sparks shows, today’s fighters for the truth are backed by vast armies—the seen and unseen, the living and the dead—who together are prying open the lies on which totalitarianism is built.”—Cui Weiping, Beijing Film Academy professor, translator of Vaclav Havel into Chinese.

“Ian Johnson uncovers the extraordinary and inspiring story of  the army of citizen historians, writers and filmmakers who keep the flames of  memory alive in China’s People’s Republic of Amnesia, devoting themselves to the discovery, recording and sharing  of history as lived  by China’s people, from the 1950s labor camps to the present.”—Isabel Hilton, Contributing Editor, Prospect Magazine.

“Ian Johnson’s Sparks was a revelation: this historian from overseas spent years penetrating the world of underground Chinese historians, becoming in his own right a recorder of pioneers such as Hu Jie, Ai Xiaoming, and Jiang Xue, who use text and video to record China’s lost history.”—Liao Yiwu, author of The Corpse Walker, God is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, and recipient of the 2012 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

“This compelling and highly enjoyable book will greatly enhance the general reader’s understanding of the subtle counter currents of resistance at work in Chinese society below the smooth surface of control and compliance. In fifteen chapters and a conclusion, the author provides a comprehensive and detailed picture of what he calls “underground history” and its practitioners in mainland China—amateur or one might say guerilla historians who devote considerable efforts to reconstructing the past through independent inquiry, bypassing and challenging state-condoned narratives of the past.”—Sebastian Veg, author of Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectual

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