Sparks: Reviews

Reviews of Sparks:

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 writer, MacArthur fellow.


“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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