Opinion

The Underground Historians Keeping the Truth Alive in China

In 1959, a group of university students in the northwestern Chinese city of Tianshui embarked on a quixotic plan. China was in the midst of the Great Famine, a catastrophe caused by government policies that would kill as many as 45 million. These young people had witnessed farmers starving to death and cannibalism; they also saw how the government had brutally punished or killed people who appealed for help. They felt someone needed to do something to spread word of what was happening. They decided to publish a journal.

The students called it Spark, after a Chinese expression, “xinghuo liaoyuan,” or “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” They hand-wrote the essays onto plates and, with the help of local officials, used a mimeograph machine to run off copies.

At just eight pages, and with no photos or graphics, Spark looked primitive. But it was filled with articles that got to the heart of China’s authoritarian politics — then and now: Farmers weren’t allowed to own property, all of which belonged to the state; top leaders brooked no opposition; corruption was endemic; and even critics loyal to the regime were persecuted. The lead article on the first page set the tone:

“Why did the once progressive Communist Party become so corrupt and reactionary less than ten years after coming to power, with complaints and rebellions at home, and falling into an embarrassing situation abroad? This is because the people’s world is regarded as its private property, and all matters are managed by party members.”

There would be no second issue. Within months, 43 people associated with the magazine were arrested. Three were later executed, and the rest sentenced to years in labor camps.

Documents related to Spark, as preserved in police files.Credit…Tan Chanxue
Four of the founders of Spark: Tan Chanxue, Sun Zijun, Zhou Shanyou and Ding Hengyu.Credit…Tan Chanxue

Spark had lasted less than a year and seemed extinguished. Over the Chinese Communist Party’s nearly three-quarters of a century in power, it could have been forgotten, nothing more than one of countless small acts of outrage against the party’s unchecked powers. Instead, for many Chinese people, its story is now synonymous with resistance to one-party rule.

How? Through the efforts of China’s counterhistorians, a group of citizens united in their desire to tell the whole story of Communist Party rule, to include in China’s collective memory events like the famines of the last century and the virus outbreaks of today. One key member of this movement is a 49-year-old journalist named Jiang Xue, whose determination to tell the true story of what happened in her hometown — to not let yet another piece of China’s history get lost or distorted — helped turn Spark into a source of inspiration to those who follow in its creators’ footsteps, making it a testament to the limits of even the harshest measures to crush resistance.

Around the world, history has become a battleground for the present. Americans debate the centrality of slavery to their country’s founding. Europeans grapple with the brutality of their colonial empires. Young Africans unearth buried memories of the Nigerian civil war and the apartheid era. One could easily include Japan, Singapore, India and dozens of other countries where events that occurred before most people were born have become crucial to shaping their future.

But nowhere is this idea more potent than in China. For modern Chinese leaders, history is the key to their legitimacy: History chose the Communist Party to save China; history has determined that it has succeeded; and history blesses its continued hold on power. This history is of course written by the party, which employs armies of scribes, filmmakers, videographers and journalists to push its version of events, both recent and ancient. Through them, the party controls textbooks, movies, television documentaries, popular history magazines, even video games.

The result is a population that is often unaware of the recent past. The Great Famine of 1959-61 is still known euphemistically as “three difficult years” caused mainly by natural disasters. Discussion of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, a time when state-led violence claimed as many as two million lives, shuttered schools and sent educated people to work as laborers, is increasingly taboo. The erasure goes beyond events of last century. Even the Covid crisis has been scrubbed, with whistle-blowers turned into pro-government heroes and the harsh lockdowns now off limits in public discussion.

Eight people accused of being “counterrevolutionaries” are forced to kneel before their execution on the outskirts of Harbin in 1968.Credit…Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images

China’s Great Famine, resulting from disastrous government policies, killed as many as 45 million people.Credit…Pictures from History/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

But a growing number of Chinese see this monopoly on the past as the root of their country’s authoritarian malaise. If people grow up thinking that the Chinese Communist Party is led by a group of meritocratic officials (instead of leaders appointed in backroom deals), that it rules China with a strict but fair civil service (instead of one lacking checks on its power) and defends national borders that have existed for centuries (instead of the inherited territories of a gunpowder empire), then they will have a hard time understanding why China is prone to purges, corruption and ethnic clashes. In short, if they believe that only the Chinese Communist Party can rule China, they will never question its right to rule.

This conviction of history’s importance is driving a national movement of underground historians that has slowly taken shape over the past 20 years. I call these people historians as a shorthand for a broad array of China’s brightest minds: university professors, independent filmmakers, underground magazine publishers, novelists, artists and journalists. Some might be thought of as dissidents, but most have one foot inside the system, where they continue to hold jobs, own property and raise families. All of them risk their careers, their futures and prison to publish clandestine journals, banned books and independent documentary films.

Underground historians have existed since the start of the People’s Republic, but for the first 50 years of Communist rule they were isolated individuals. Their articles, artworks and books were quickly seized by the security apparatus. They often did not even know of one another.

But over the past decade, I’ve accompanied these underground historians as they’ve formed a nationwide network that has survived repeated crackdowns. They share stories, heroes and common beliefs that they can now distribute relatively easily thanks to basic digital technologies, such as P.D.F.s, affordable digital cameras and laptop movie editing software. And when the government is overwhelmed by mass unrest, such as during the Covid lockdowns in late 2022, they are able to inject their ideas into the public debate.

The rise of China’s underground history movement challenges conventional wisdom on how to view the country. The dominant way of understanding China today is that nothing happens there except a string of dystopian horrors: surveillance, cultural genocide, mindless nationalism. As someone who has written extensively about religious and political persecution, I know these problems are real. But so, too, are Chinese people with other visions. Critical voices still exist.

The persistence of China’s counterhistory movement also calls into question assumptions about the Communist Party’s ability to dominate society. Despite overwhelming odds, people inside China still publish works and make films that challenge authority. Their ideas still spread, and when problems in society reach a boiling point — as they have over the past year — it is they who are often looked to for different ways of viewing the present.

Perhaps most important, the efforts of these people have allowed young Chinese to rediscover a lineage of like-minded people stretching back to the prehistory of the People’s Republic. Books that were once available only in foreign research libraries are now easily shared digitally. Stories of heroic resistance fighters are documented in films that are circulated on the sly. Where critical thinkers in China once often worked alone, they now share a powerful collective memory of Chinese people standing up to authoritarian rule.

Jiang Xue might never have felt the need to keep the memory of Spark alive if it weren’t for her own family’s story. As with many underground historians, her belief in the power of history started at home.

Jiang Xue: “How long can the common people be kept from the common knowledge they ought to have about the world?”Credit…Ka-Man Tse for The New York Times

In early 1960, during the Great Famine, Jiang Xue’s grandfather Zhang Rulin, his wife and their four children received a daily ration of one large corn bun to split among them. Zhang Rulin could see that they would starve, and so he made a decision: One of them would have to die so that the others could have enough to survive. But how to choose, and how to make the others go along with this sacrifice?

Jiang Xue tells the story the way her father did on every Chinese New Year’s Eve when she was a little girl:

“Grandfather was a just man. Every day he would take a knife and cut the bun into six equal pieces. One for each person. Each one the same. He weighed each piece on a scale. My youngest aunt — she was 1 year old — she got the same as her father. But he needed more. He was the only laborer in the family. But everyone got the same. They all survived. He starved to death. He sacrificed his life for us.”

A composite panoramic image of people threshing grain at a “re-education” camp in Heilongjiang province in 1969. During the Cultural Revolution, forced manual labor was intended to erase elitism and install socialist values.Credit…Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images

To make sure the children learned their family history, every year Jiang Xue’s father and mother would bundle them in their winter clothes and hike up the hill behind their house for half an hour to a small plateau where her grandfather was buried. The family paid tribute, bringing food and kowtowing on the icy ground three times. Then her father would tell the story, starting each time with the words “Back when we were starving ….”

These family experiences gave Jiang Xue a skepticism toward authority that only grew after she graduated from college. Her legal name is Zhang Wenmin, but when she first started out as a journalist, she took the pen name Jiang Xue — which literally means “river snow” — from a ninth-century poem about a fisherman alone in a boat on a snowy river. The image is one of the most indelible in Chinese poetry, implying a person holding out against the odds, in a solitary pursuit that many might not understand.

She began her career at China Business News in 1998, during a magical period for media in China. Newspapers at the time were encouraged to make money and appeal to readers. Censorship still existed but was relatively lax.

In 2003, Chinese journalism seemed poised on the brink of transformation. The beating death of a migrant from another province in police custody in Guangzhou that year galvanized public intellectuals, who successfully called for the prosecution of a dozen civil servants and a rethinking of how migrants were viewed. Suddenly, it seemed that the media and civil society could effect change, even in a partially closed system like China’s. Journalists like Jiang Xue took on increasingly ambitious projects: forced evictions, corruption and environmental problems.

But slowly — maybe inevitably — the party began to push back. It regained control over newsrooms, installing more acquiescent editors. By the early 2010s, it narrowed the range of topics that could be investigated. Jiang Xue stayed at her paperuntil 2014, when her editors issued an order: Publish only articles that spoke positively of the government. Feeling that she was being set up to be fired, Jiang Xue quit. Thus began her work as a freelance writer.

Jiang Xue was already known as a leading voice in China’s journalism community. But now she was free from official constraints, allowing her to write articles that made her known in China and abroad as one of the country’s leading independent journalists.

One article that cemented her reputation was a 2015 piece called “A Year as a Wife,” which profiled Meng Qun, the spouse of a prominent human rights lawyer. It was a rarity, moving the focus away from the often macho world of dissent in China to the many courageous women — like herself — fighting for change.

That article, however, also firmly put her on the radar of China’s fearsome security apparatus. She detailed her challenges in a 2017 article, “Shut Up. You Look Like an Enemy of the State.” It analyzed the increasing use of digital technology to keep track of people like herself and also how ordinary people were being kept ignorant of their own history.

“If there is an intangible cage over this land, with us inside it, can it be that it is impervious to the influence of intelligence?” she wrote. “How long can the common people be kept from the common knowledge they ought to have about the world?”

The year before, she had begun to grow interested in the story of Spark. One day, a professor visiting from another city asked her if she had heard of the publication. She hadn’t and was surprised to hear that it had originated in her hometown, Tianshui. That evening, the professor did something that would have been impossible for previous generations of public intellectuals: He emailed her a 500-page P.D.F. of documents about the case, including a book of memoirs published in Hong Kong and the police confessions extracted from the students. Later, she even found love letters between two of the publication’s main writers. She was surprised that no one had written about it in depth for a general audience.

Intrigued, she called up her father. Had he heard about it as a boy? He had not, but he knew people who could help. A few days later, Jiang Xue was on a train back home to find out more. That began years of research into the magazine. She started in her hometown but the project took her across China, traveling at her own expense to track down the now-elderly students who had founded Spark, to see if their stories held any lessons for today’s China.

She was aided by other underground historians, who gave her advice and encouragement. She talked to one of China’s greatest underground documentary filmmakers, Hu Jie, who has made two films that deal with Spark. A Xi’an-based counterhistorian, Zhang Shihe, helped her edit a short film about one of her interviews. And she had long talks with Ai Xiaoming, a feminist scholar and prolific documentary filmmaker who made a six-hour film about a notorious labor camp near Jiang Xue’s hometown.

Hu Jie at his home and studio in Nanjing, amid his paintings. He has made two documentary films about Spark.Credit…Sim Chi Yin
A sketch from one of Hu Jie’s notebooks.Credit…Sim Chi Yin

In 2019, Jiang Xue’s piece on Spark appeared in the Hong Kong magazine Today. It is by far the longest and most involved article she has written, totaling over 40,000 Chinese characters, or about 28,000 words, and stands as the definitive written account of Spark and the system it challenged.

Written in the first person, the article is only partly about the past. At its heart, it is Jiang Xue’s own discovery of a forgotten chapter of her hometown’s history. In a series of vignettes, she takes us on visits with the survivors whose efforts produced Spark. In their own words, they take us back to the era of the Great Famine, and describe their efforts today to fight against official disremembering. Talking to one of the students, now in his 80s, Jiang Xue asks how often he thinks of his classmates.

“Very often.”

“You think of their voice and their smile,” she says.

“Yes.”

“The way they were when they were young.”

“Yes, I will never forget them, until the day that I disappear from this earth I won’t forget them. Because these people, they were all extremely kindhearted. They were sublime. So we should remember them. I wish that this country could draw on its historical tragedies and not repeat them. We should draw on these lessons. I hope that young people can develop a sense of justice and carry forward the virtue of having a sense of justice. People should dare to act, but not make unnecessary sacrifices.”

“It’s a pity isn’t it?” Jiang Xue asks.

“People should cherish their lives but be brave when they need to.”

Jiang Xue says that piece is the most meaningful she has done, especially because it was about her own town’s history. Her family’s Chinese New Year ritual made her understand that her grandfather had died of starvation. But it was only after she researched Spark that she realized the entire context of the famine — and most important, how some people had fought back.

The outpouring of support after publication also moved her. The article was widely circulated on the mainland in P.D.F. form. A reader in Tianshui who ran a printing business volunteered to professionally print and bind dozens of copies of the magazine so that older people could read it. Another reader in Tianshui wrote to Jiang Xue, telling her that she vividly remembered the mass rally there to condemn the students and how one of them, Tan Chanxue, had stood strong and tall during the hours of humiliation and threats. “Now I know she was a real hero!” the woman wrote.

“Spark is history,” Jiang Xue told me. “But it’s an unfinished history. The same problems the older generation faced, especially the lack of freedom of expression, is the same issue I face today. You look at Covid and all the unnecessary suffering and death, and it’s all because of a lack of freedom of expression.”

But the toll of challenging the Chinese Communist Party on its most sensitive ground — history — has been high. For years, she had to rely on her savings to get by. Her work clashed with her husband’s desire for a successful career as a researcher on religion in a government think tank. When “thought police” visited his institute and issued a warning, he asked her to stop her work. She refused and in 2021 the couple divorced.

What sustains Jiang Xue and many other underground historians is the sense of community that their movement provides. Some of her interviewees have become close friends, such as Tan Chanxue, whom she regularly visited until she died in 2018. This past June, while she was traveling in North America, she phoned Xiang Chengjian, who helped print the magazine in 1960. She calls him on every major holiday just to say hello and touch base for half an hour or so. This time it was around the Dragon Boat Festival, a particularly apt holiday because it is rooted in the story of a famous poet from antiquity who committed suicide to protest government misrule.

“Uncle Xiang,” she said over the video call, “people still care about Spark. No one has forgotten it.”

At the start of one of her articles, Jiang Xue quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt on the relevance of the people she profiles — and her own life:

“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 time span that was given them on earth — this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun.”

I was struck by how the lines applied to anyone working for change in China today: Is their work pointless, or trailblazing? The light of a candle, or a blazing sun?

Arendt’s quote is especially apt because it is open-ended. It doesn’t imply that people working for change in dark times are bound to win because good always trumps evil, or some other cliché. But the implication is clear: In dark times, light is precious; it always matters.

For people who see China as hopelessly authoritarian — and this is by far the dominant view in many countries today — they will note the troubles faced by people like Jiang Xue or others involved in the counterhistory movement. Tan Hecheng, a writer from Hunan, for example, has spent decades chronicling government-ordered extrajudicial killings in one Chinese county, documenting the murders that took place at its lakes, rivers and bridges. The price, however, includes being marginalized and the constant threat of retribution. Ai Xiaoming, the filmmaker, has made numerous documentaries but is barred from leaving China. And the underground publication Remembrance has published more than 340 issues over the past 15 years, but its editors face regular harassment and police surveillance.

The underground historian Tan Hecheng stands by a tombstone for a woman killed in Dao County in August 1967 during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Tan has documented the deaths.Credit…Sim Chi Yin
Widow’s Bridge, in Dao County, where many were beaten and tossed into the river in August 1967. Credit…Sim Chi Yin

And yet this would be a selective reading of these people’s lives and the history of this 75-year movement. Like other underground historians, Jiang Xue still writes, and her articles are still widely read in China. Others repeatedly find opportunities to make movies, edit magazines and write historical novels that challenge the state’s campaigns of disremembering. They are persecuted. Their journals or film festivals are shut down. But they return, again and again, just as they and their forebears have for 75 years.

Measuring their impact is difficult in a state like China. But anecdotally, I’ve seen their works posted and reposted again and again, especially over the past couple of years. Social media can be an echo chamber, of course, but when I lived in China during the first months of the pandemic, these counternarratives suddenly seemed to be everywhere, as Chinese people searched for different ways of understanding how authoritarianism, once again, had led to a serious challenge for the country.

I do not mean to offer false optimism but the realism of someone who has spent more than 20 years inside China since the mid-1980s, including all of the 2010s, when Xi took power and carried out his vision of a strong state. Control hasn’t been this tight since the 1970s. These are dark times. It is also true that “the internet” as people imagined it in the 1990s is easily controlled by authoritarian states, making social media more a tool of control than of freedom.

But the fact that people still resist and do so in a more coordinated form than at any time in the history of the People’s Republic seems more significant than the banal point that an authoritarian regime is authoritarian. The fact is that independent thought lives in China. It has not been crushed. China’s underground historians may be working under the shadow of a leviathan, but they’re also part of our intellectual world and part of a larger global conversation over how we approach our past and create our future.

The people doing this work are worth knowing for their own sake. They are making works of scope and ambition equal to the great writers or filmmakers of the Cold War — people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera and Milos Forman. It is worth remembering that many of these giants of Eastern Bloc intellectual life had a limited impact for many decades. It was only when these countries began sliding into economic stagnation that ordinary people began to seek alternative ways of understanding the past as a way to assess the future.

The underground journal Remembrance has published more than 340 issues over the past 15 years.Credit…Ka-Man Tse for The New York Times

Some of China’s counterhistorians simply treat their work as time capsules. They know their work will probably not be freely available in China in the near future, but like generations of Chinese historians they believe that in the end justice prevails — that one day their work will matter. They want future Chinese people to know that in the 2020s, when the party seemed to have successfully turned back the clock, Chinese people inside China did not succumb to comfort or fear. They kept writing and filming. Not everyone gave in.

But many others have a shorter time horizon. They believe that for all of its power, the Chinese Communist Party is vulnerable today.

As China transitions from decades of ever-increasing prosperity to an era of slow growth and demographic challenges, many Chinese people appear eager for new ways of understanding their country. The government’s handling of the Covid pandemic — harsh lockdowns that resulted in deaths and misery, followed by a sudden easing of restrictions that left as many as a million dead in just a couple of months — punctured the party’s image of ruthless competency. VPN technology has long allowed people to bypass China’s firewall, but relatively few bothered; now many use VPNs to seek out banned sites.

For Jiang Xue, who often posts on websites blocked in China, this means new readers who are drawn to her work. She sees her articles often converted to image files, which can more easily be posted on Chinese social media because the state’s software has a harder time reading the files and picking out sensitive words and phrases.

Just after New Year’s Day 2023, a few weeks after a wave of protests across China helped force the government to drop its draconian policy of pandemic lockdowns, Jiang Xue published one of her most popular articles. She addressed the hundreds of young people who had led the protests late last year. “Because of you, the suffering that the people have endured over the past three years of the pandemic dictatorship has taken on some meaning,” she wrote. “It is by speaking out loud and clear what is in your hearts that you have won a little dignity for the beaten-down and enslaved masses.” The article was posted on a blocked site but was quickly posted and reposted on Telegram, WeChat and other platforms. She received dozens of emails and messages from people in China thanking her for her work.

Young people hold up pieces of paper to protest against censorship and China’s strict ‘zero Covid’ measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing.Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As Jiang Xue pursues her calling, she is often asked if her work has any real meaning. Once while we were traveling in the mountains south of Xi’an, she told me a story about a meeting she had a few years ago in New York City. She had met a prominent journalist who left his profession, fled to the United States and was running a restaurant. He told her that her work had a moral value but practically was irrelevant. What good could she really achieve by writing about Chinese history?

As she told me the story, her eyes were downcast, and she shook her head slowly, as if defeated. But then she stopped, gathered herself and spoke with surprising finality.

“But I disagree,” she said. “It matters if you try. I want to be a normal person in an abnormal society.”

The success of people like Jiang Xue is not preordained. They will grow old, die, possibly be arrested or fade away. But if the history of this movement has taught us anything, it is that it has grown with time, despite setbacks. We can look at individual battles and see defeat. But we can also see an endless cycle of creation, of new sparks that leap off the flint of history every time it is struck.

Ian Johnson is the author of the forthcoming book “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future,” from which this essay was adapted.

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