Writing history in China has never been easy; China’s first historian, Sima Qian, was forced to choose between execution and castration and imprisonment. He chose the latter in order to finish his life’s work, Records of the Grand Historian. Now China’s keepers of inconvenient truths are put under immense pressure by Xi Jinping’s war on historical nihilism—viewpoints and memories that run counter to official Party history. Fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle against the state, China’s underground historians often make huge sacrifices to keep alive histories that the Party would like to erase. In the first of a two-part series on history and memory, Louisa and Graeme are joined by Ian Johnson, whose book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future is out today.
Image: Still from 夹边沟 The Ditch (2010), directed by Wang Bing