Chinese Whispers: how China's 'underground historians' battle the state narrative

Nov 14, 2023, 10:00 AM

Controlling history is key to the Chinese Communist Party’s control of the country. Whether it’s playing up the ‘century of humiliation’, or whitewashing past mistakes like the Great Leap Forward or the Tiananmen Protests, the Party expends huge effort and resources on controlling the narrative.

That’s why it’s so important and interesting to look at those Chinese people who are documenting the bits of history that the Party doesn’t want you to know about. They interview survivors from Communist labour camps, or keep their own memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, and try to keep the memory of past horrors alive through film, magazines and paintings.

A new book called Sparks documents their work. Its author is Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and long time China journalist. Ian calls these people the ‘underground historians’. He joins this episode of Chinese Whispers.

Visit to see some of their work documented, in an upcoming website founded by Ian and others.

Produced by Cindy Yu and Patrick Gibbons.