History as Dissent: On Ian Johnson’s “Sparks” and Tania Branigan’s “Red Memory”

By Craig CalhounJanuary 6, 2024

History as Dissent: On Ian Johnson’s “Sparks” and Tania Branigan’s “Red Memory”

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future by Ian Johnson
Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan

FOR A COUNTRY with strong ideals of order and harmony, China has had more than its share of upheavals. Indeed, those ideals have been shaped by the country’s painful past. China’s strongest philosophical traditions, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, all date from the era of Warring States some 2,500 years ago. All have remained influential through a difficult modernity: confrontation with the West and colonial humiliation, revolution, civil war, and then successive upheavals under communist rule. Through these difficulties, ordinary people suffered but tried to live decent lives. Disorder made this hard. Many found themselves repeatedly forced to compromise in the face of clashing ideals. Some just carried on as best they could, pursuing prosperity and trying to stay safe from politics. Some celebrated national success. Others were more deeply troubled by the loss of personal integrity and social order.

This was consistent with the Confucian emphasis on ethics as the basis for order in personal life, family, and community, and also with Taoist ideals of purity, harmony with nature, and inner cultivation. But it ran into tensions with Legalism, which was especially important as a strategic guide for rulers seeking to gain or hold onto power. This philosophical model emphasized effective, strict government and the organization of policy to meet material desires for prosperity. And today, Legalism from the top down exists in tension with the quests of many ordinary citizens to achieve moral integrity and speak out against wrongs, or at least insist on honesty in memory.

In two compelling books from the last year, each of which has received an unusual amount of positive public attention, experienced journalists Tania Branigan (in Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution) and Ian Johnson (in Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future) draw on specialist works of scholarship, as well as primary source documents and years of experience and interviews conducted in China, to tell the stories of recent truth-tellers who are increasingly isolated as the Party tightens control over public discourse.


Beginning in 1966, a series of interrelated upheavals and purges convulsed China. Eventually named the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, they lasted until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Exciting popular mobilizations were accompanied by brutal public denunciations; a wave of optimistic new art was coupled with nihilistic attacks on traditional Chinese culture. Opportunities for young people to lead were followed by harshly enforced conformity and rustication of urban students to face hardship in the countryside. Throughout, manipulation from the top and factionalism at every level led to personal betrayal, struggle, and sometimes death.

Today, Chinese authorities go to great lengths to limit public discussion of these complex, often traumatic events. An official account sanitizes the period’s messiness. Blame is narrowly assigned, the significance of historical events limited. Only a handful of exemplary stories connect past to present—like an account of Xi Jinping forging a special bond with villagers when he was sent down into the countryside as a youth, and thereby gaining insights into leadership. The clampdown on the public sphere is so complete that most people make no attempt to challenge it and memory fades.

Nevertheless, there is resistance. Scattered individuals and groups try to commemorate events, mourn those who were lost, gather artifacts, and simply share their personal memories. These individuals range from artists to historians, documentarians, would-be museum-keepers, and “ordinary” people who, in retirement, are trying to work out what happened in their youth. Their painful struggles are the focus of Branigan’s Red Memory, published in 2022 in Britain and this past May in the United States. The book recently won the prestigious Cundhill Prize and has been short-listed for several others.

Branigan, the former Beijing bureau chief for The Guardian, writes in an elegiac, humane, and sympathetic tone. She builds her account through close engagement with a handful of informants—interlocutors, friends—and is moved by the personal pathos of each of their lives and their commitments to memory or commemoration. They insist not just on their own personal memories but also on the importance of public recognition of what happened in China. Branigan laments not so much what the Cultural Revolution reveals about Maoist politics, nor how it disrupted Chinese economic and political development, as the injuries it visited on individuals and families. She traces the perpetuation, repetition, and extension of such injuries in today’s repression of memory. She also laments a loss of hopefulness about China—her own, it would seem, as well as that felt by many survivors of the Cultural Revolution.

The most important of Branigan’s informants is Yu Xiangzhen, who was a middle-school student when the Cultural Revolution began. Yu was a member of the Red Guard but not a key leader. Her public importance comes from the blogging about the Cultural Revolution that she initiated after retiring from her job in state media. But her importance for Branigan (and her readers) is as the most developed human face of the struggle to remember as both a personal quest and a collective responsibility. “I would love to believe everything has both a positive and negative side,” Yu told Branigan, “but the Cultural Revolution is an exception—it’s all bad.” Yet Yu also insists on another dimension. “For us, the Cultural Revolution was something fun,” she tells Branigan. “We didn’t need to go to school; we could criticize our teachers; we could go to places.”

Branigan’s book is mostly reportage but also meditation. She wants to know what it all means, not just for the political future of China but also for understanding human nature and the place of memory in society. “It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution,” she asserts, but “[u]nfortunately it is also impossible to truly understand the movement.”

Branigan’s discussions of the Cultural Revolution itself are brief, serving mostly as a framework for making sense of the involvement of different individuals and especially their different projects of remembering. These range from an engaging account of a man working as an impersonator of Lin Biao, a once powerful political leader and eventual victim of the Cultural Revolution, to the harrowing testimonies of a now old man who as a boy condemned his mother, helping to cause her death. Branigan portrays them all with sympathy and with real interest in the dynamics and challenges of integrating memory into self-understanding.

Most of those who talk with Branigan are concerned with simply keeping memory alive, but they are also invested in the future: how do we keep something like this from happening again? And yet, they can’t stop trying to figure out the meaning of the past. It’s not clear that they are typical. Many more people may be able to deny memory or at least bracket it off from their daily lives. Some of Branigan’s informants seem to have done this for years, only to find the repression at some point intolerable.

Song Binbin is one of the most famous. As a teenager, she appeared in an iconic image of the Cultural Revolution, placing her Red Guard armband on Mao’s arm during a rally of a million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square in 1966. In 2014, struggling to confront her past, she issued a belated apology for her role—essentially that of an unhelpful bystander—in the Cultural Revolution’s first killing of a teacher.

There was online controversy over Song’s apology. Did she fully accept her responsibility? As with many of the cases Branigan discusses, Song’s is both individual and representative. She was the daughter of a general, soon to be purged under Mao but restored to power under Deng Xiaoping. She attended one of the most elite schools in Beijing. She was part of an elite cadre of early Red Guards with connections that enabled them to escape ever facing trial even for actions that brought death to others. Song had left China, studied, and spent her adult life in the United States, returning only in retirement. Her confession not only came late; it also seemed inadequate to the painful events recalled. Song wouldn’t discuss this with Branigan, but a group of her classmates did, as they tried to accept but also manage memory and the sense of responsibility.

The theme of responsibility runs through the book. Near the beginning, artist Xu Weixin insists: “Of course, I was responsible. It’s only a question of how big or small my responsibility was.” He was responsible because, at eight years old, he pinned a caricature of his teacher to the blackboard as part of a condemnation of her for being the daughter of a landlord, a class enemy. Branigan wisely sees memory woven into culture and life in ways that exceed documentation and confession. When she first met Xu, he had gained fame for a series of giant hyperrealistic portraits that explore the relationship between individuals and big events.


Ian Johnson’s Sparks covers some of the same stories. Johnson is less interested, however, in personal pathos and more in political implications. His focus is not on character studies, though he profiles some individuals well, but on publications, documentary films, and archives. His story is mostly one of bleak repression, but he says that the very existence of these “underground historians” gives him hope. The journal Remembrance, a PDF mailed out biweekly and recirculated after that, is a prime example. Johnson is convinced that the digital format makes for greater reach and durability; in at least a small way, technology is on the side of underground historians. “As of early 2023, Remembrance was 15 years old and had just published its 330th issue,” Johnson writes. It survives partly by avoiding controversial issues like the Tiananmen massacre and by concentrating on historical episodes presented as simply factual, though readers can draw their own telling conclusions.

Johnson spent decades in China writing on history, language, and the renewal of religion. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his Wall Street Journal coverage of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. And Sparks has been published with substantial publicity. It has been excerpted recently in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and reviewed favorably in those venues, as well as in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and more. Its publication coincides with heightened tension in US-China relations.

Importantly, Johnson reaches beyond Beijing and China’s largest central and southern cities. Repressive order reached the rest of the country more slowly and unevenly, allowing him more glimpses of what has been repressed. Moreover, the underground historians “share a mystical idea about the power of place.” Paying attention to specific places is not just a mnemonic aid; it is implicit resistance to overcentralization, rooting contrary perspectives in the landscape itself.

Johnson emphasizes China’s west. Because China’s peripheries offer shelter from centralized control, the Communist Party’s center of gravity was initially in the west. More generally, China is a much less monolithic state than the Communist Party proclaims or tries to produce. He notes that Republican and Communist efforts to turn China into a nation-state came at the moment of maximal expansion of the Qing Empire, creating challenges of integration that the Party has long papered over by claiming essential and inviolable borders. This bears on both Xinjiang and Tibet in the west, and also on Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Underground history is embedded in the story of the Communist Party, and also benefits from the relative shelter of the western periphery. For example, Xi’an was a center of early imperial integration—hence its famous terra-cotta soldiers—but also of a market economy and vital ethnic pluralism. The west of Central China was crucial to revolutionary history with the famous Long March and was central to early Maoist campaigns and repression. In the Hexi Corridor on the edge of the Badain Jaran Desert in Gansu province, the Party built the Jiabiangou Labor Camp, infamous for the sufferings inflicted during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. Publication of dissent extended to Hong Kong and, with the current repression, increasingly has moved abroad. Given how much Johnson stresses the ties of memory to specific places, we may want to ask more than he does about the implications of this mediated disconnection from place.

Johnson does ask, at least implicitly, whether focusing on the Cultural Revolution may reflect a larger failure of memory. Does it obscure earlier waves of comparably calamitous mobilization and repression? Does it distort analysis of contemporary China and prospects for the future? For Johnson, the Cultural Revolution was not so much an aberration as the continuation of a pattern. Misguided and manipulated mass movements were the norm of the Maoist era, each bringing large-scale human disaster.

Mao repeatedly sought to move China forward by “great leaps.” Every campaign was not just for a better future but also to secure power against real or imagined rivals. This logic required enemies, and these were found or manufactured; progress came through struggle. But despite the brief 1956–57 invitation to “[l]et a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend,” Maoism did not allow for independent intellectuals or intellectual traditions. The result was not merely failure to correct bad centralized decisions but a more general loss of perspective as well. Neither history nor philosophy nor a sense of personal integrity was permitted to offer an alternative point of view.

After Mao’s death, it became possible to explore other perspectives. Openness to new economic projects brought wealth, a passion for consumerism, engagement with technology, and projects for leadership in science. Experimentation in art and the celebration of traditional culture flourished together. There was a new individualism at the same time as an idealization of family and clan. There was fascination with Western thought, including versions of liberalism; there was also a new leftism. There were various new engagements with religion (a theme of Johnson’s previous work). The openness felt good and afforded a sense of new possibilities, which made closure under Xi Jinping more frustrating—it also reveals that, while Party power is continuous, its exercise is not constant and different directions are possible.

The Communist Party itself explored neo-Confucian ideals, even as it pursued wealth and a “peaceful rise” among nations. Though it tolerated some critical thinking, it never abandoned practical concerns about power. Mao’s successors wanted to claim the party and state he had built. The Party decided on a historical verdict that acknowledged Mao’s error in initiating the Cultural Revolution but insisted on overall ideological and political continuity and the continued importance of “Mao Zedong Thought.”

“The party never made amends for the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Famine, or the events at Jiabiangou,” Johnson writes. That contrasted with the Cultural Revolution, which was discussed and for which the party made some amends—perhaps because Deng and his family suffered under it, or simply because the scale was even larger, making it harder to cover up. Mostly, it was easier for the Party to admit that Mao had made one serious error, the Cultural Revolution, than a series of disastrous policies throughout his rule. Deng said Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.”

Deng was the most famous of many leaders purged during the Cultural Revolution who later returned to power. Xi’s father was another. This older generation of rehabilitated leaders advocated for orderly economic growth and cautious cultural openness. It supported attempts to repair individual lives and restore collective opportunities. In 1977, the national examination for university admission was offered for the first time since 1965. This provided an opportunity to many who had been shaped by the Cultural Revolution, but it did not erase their experience as Red Guards, their memories of a sense of political purpose and a commitment to ideals, their experience of intense internecine conflict, and their eventual discovery that they had been misled and manipulated. They became entrepreneurs, poets, filmmakers, intellectuals, and activists. New journals, bookstores, electronic media, and expanding universities supported a flourishing intellectual discussion of Chinese history and the country’s contemporary direction. (Memoirs by members of the Red Guard generation constitute their own notable genre; for a good discussion of these, see sociologist Guobin Yang’s The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China, a 2016 publication from Columbia University Press.)

The post-Mao transition was inextricably bound up with recovery from the Cultural Revolution. Alongside economic transformation and a general “opening up,” there was, for 30 years, active public exploration of the movement’s tragedies and its implications. Initial recriminations culminated in the trial of Mao’s former wife Jiang Qing and the rest of the Gang of Four. A massive production of “scar literature” or “literature of the wounded” recounted the pain and damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution, complementing more analytic explorations. There was also a strong visual record to examine, partly because cameras were more widespread, partly because popular art was encouraged, and partly, as Johnson notes, because these activities took place largely in cities and involved educated people. There was even a wave of nostalgia and then critical responses to that. Music and art were revisited. Memoirs, histories, biographies, novels, and films continued to appear.

As leaders tried to steer change and manage openness, anything that looked too much like the Cultural Revolution was suspect. Repression recurred, most dramatically in response to the 1989 student movement that occupied Tiananmen Square (which it is still forbidden to commemorate or even mention in any but the most managed way). Members of the Red Guard generation did connect to younger student leaders. It is telling that most of the underground historians and activists to whom Branigan and Johnson speak say that the 1989 protests made them nervous, and they stayed away.

In the wake of the “6/4 incident” at Tiananmen, Party leaders doubled down on economic growth and opportunity. Public discussions were limited, and those who crossed implicit lines were prosecuted. But there was nonetheless active public discussion, including publication of books on the Cultural Revolution and the continuing significance of the Red Guard generation. There were debates between “neoliberals” and a “New Left” calling for egalitarian state intervention to temper China’s increasing capitalist inequality. Xi Zhongxun, iconic revolutionary leader and father of Xi Jinping, personally backed some efforts to bring an honest assessment of Party history. Universities renewed the serious study of both history and philosophy, though neither Johnson nor Branigan consider this as context for the “underground historians” and the popular struggles over memory that they chronicle. Their focus is on partisans of honest memory who have risked making their work more public even while openness to debate receded over the last 15 years.

Despite ups and downs, public engagement was resilient until the early 2010s. Efforts to close it down gathered force even before Xi rose to the top of the Party in 2012–13 and the renewal of ideological discipline accompanied his widely popular campaigns against corruption. Where Mao was enamored of disrupting the established order to bring about change, Xi has instead pursued maximum order. But Xi is no more interested than Mao was in honest history, open memory, or independent perspectives among China’s citizens. As Xi kept consolidating power, the space for honest history shrank along with public debate. Censorship was intensified. Pressure was applied to publishers and editors. “Control has never been this tight for so long since at least the 1970s,” Johnson writes. “These are dark times.”

Xi has achieved a centralization of power comparable to Mao’s. But despite efforts to create a new cult of personality, he does not seem to have stirred the passions and emotional attachments that connected such a wide range of people to Mao. Official adulation is not matched by public affection. Perhaps for this reason, Xi presides over a “forever crackdown” that Johnson likens to fascism but also takes as a sign of fragility, a reflection of underlying anxiety. Johnson asserts that “a growing number of Chinese see the Party’s monopoly of the past as the root of their country’s current authoritarian malaise.” This may be true, but it isn’t clear that their discontent will reverse the trend.


Johnson’s optimism, such as it is, is based less on hope that today’s underground historians may shape policy in their lifetimes than that they will leave durable records that can be the sparks of change in the future. Hence the title of his book: historical records will be the sparks for future action. Johnson writes: “The Chinese Communist Party is still vigorous and the economy strong enough that the state can still shout down China’s underground historians.” So, why do they persist? They want, says Johnson, to send a “message to future generations: that not everyone in China gave in.” Furthermore, “[t]hey want future Chinese to know that in the 2020s, when things had never been darker, Chinese people inside China did not yield to comfort or fear.”

A similar “message in a bottle” logic informs many of Branigan’s accounts of those willing to suffer for memory. Branigan does not see her informants as calculating instrumental effects so much as struggling to make their lives as whole as they can right now. Her informants insist on foregrounding the Cultural Revolution, whether in art, memoirs, or histories, because they think they must, either out of a sense of responsibility or just because it is who they are. But, with some of her informants, Branigan herself asks whether it is possible to make a good future without meaningful and honest memory.

Johnson is more pointedly political. He focuses on a stream of disasters flowing one into the other through the entire period of Communist Party rule. He quotes Huang Zerong: “[A]ll the crimes of the Communist Party come from Mao Zedong, including those committed by Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Also Deng Xiaoping. This is how China’s disasters came about.” Huang argues that “[a]s long as Mao Zedong’s portrait is hanging on Tiananmen, China will never have freedom or democracy.”

Johnson shares this sharp criticism of Mao and the Communist Party. He is harsh with Western observers who he thinks have romanticized or whitewashed troubling episodes in Communist Chinese history (notably William Hinton, whose 1966 book Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village is a widely read first-person account of the early revolution at village scale). He evinces faith in the capacity of Chinese civilization to outlast and overcome the communist episode, arguing that “the Chinese Communist Party’s enemies are not these individuals but the lasting values of Chinese civilization: righteousness, loyalty, freedom of thought.” This is a bit at odds with his own important argument about the multiple traditions in Chinese thought contending with each other. Across traditions, order and harmony have been valued alongside the ideals he lists. Legalism has mattered alongside Confucianism and Taoism—and has witnessed an important if sometimes disguised resurgence under Xi. (This resurgence is explored well by Zha Jianying in “China’s Heart of Darkness,” a July 2020 series of essays in China Heritage, an online publication created and curated by Geremie Barmé that is also an important place of publication for dissenting views of Chinese history and contemporary affairs.)

Those who believe they are making history are commonly antagonistic to projects of memory not harnessed to their cause. “Historical nihilism” is the phrase by which Xi and other Chinese leaders condemn refusals to accept that the Chinese Communist Party has both charted the correct future and determined the story of the past that is necessary for that future. As Branigan sums up the official view, “[t]he aim of summarizing the past is to lead people to unite and look ahead.” Both academic and underground historians have other aims. These include simply leaving behind an honest record, contributing to a deeper understanding, perhaps helping to avoid the repetition of past mistakes, and offering veiled critiques. As I write in October 2023, China’s authorities have just moved to censor and recall the scholarly book Chóngzhēn: Qínzhèng de Wángguó Jūn (“Chongzhen: The Diligent Emperor of a Failed Dynasty”), reprinted with approval only last month. The book tells the story of an emperor whose well-intended mistakes brought about the downfall of the Ming dynasty in 1644.

LARB Contributor

Craig Calhoun is university professor of social sciences at Arizona State University, former director and president of the London School of Economics, and author of Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China (University of California, 1994). His newest book, co-authored with Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor, is Degenerations of Democracy (Harvard, 2022). 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!