The students spent eight nights secretly carving essays onto plates by hand. They ran thirty copies of their eight-page journal using a mimeograph machine hidden in a sulfuric acid plant. They named the magazine Spark (星火), based on the Chinese proverb “a single spark can start a prairie fire” (星火 燎原). The students mailed Spark to high-level officials in major cities where they had contacts. After the publication of the second issue of Spark, forty-three students were rounded up and imprisoned. Three were executed. 

The authors of Spark had been exiled to the countryside during the Great Leap Forward (1957–59), Mao Zedong’s reckless attempt to quickly overtake the United States in grain and steel production. The students saw that the policy of forced collectivization and industrialization was having catastrophic consequences, leading to mass starvation. They wrote articles about the dire situation that was unfolding in the countryside, hoping that their journal would instruct Communist Party members to abolish their misguided experiment. 

Very few people read Spark, but in his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson tells the story of the magazine’s surprising afterlife. Spark was shut down in 1960, but in the 2000s, Hu Jie, an army veteran and filmmaker, quit his job to make documentary films about the magazine and its writers. Hu has interviewed most of the magazine’s surviving writers and produced films to preserve the history of the publication. Hu told Johnson that these young people died for us; the least we can do for them is remember their sacrifices.

A poet named Lin Zhao, who contributed to Spark, was the subject of Hu’s 2004 film Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. When Lin wasn’t handcuffed to chairs and beaten by guards, she wrote poems and essays on scraps of paper by piercing her finger with a hairpin and using her blood as ink. When she ran out of paper, she wrote on her clothing. 

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With her blood, Lin drew images on prison walls of an incense burner and flowers. From 9:30 to noon each Sunday, she held what she called grand church worship, singing hymns and saying prayers that she learned in her Methodist girls’ school. The prison guards put a tight-fitting hood on Lin that made it difficult for her to breathe and impossible for her to speak. 

Lin was executed on April 29, 1968. On May 1, a Communist Party official visited Lin’s mother to demand that she pay a fee for the bullet used to kill her daughter.

Prison guards meticulously saved Lin’s writings to document her counter-revolutionary spirit. After Mao’s death, Lin’s files were declassified and sent to her family.

In Sparks, Ian Johnson tells the stories of people such as Lin Zhao and Hu Jie—Chinese journalists and filmmakers who explore the darkest episodes of Chinese communism, often at great risk to themselves. In Sparks, we meet Ai Xiaoming, who interviewed dozens of survivors of the Jiabiangou forced labor camp and their families to make her seven-hour documentary film, Jiabiangou Elegy (夹边沟祭事). We also meet Journalist Tan Hecheng, who uncovered the story of a 1967 Communist Party–led massacre of nine thousand innocent men, women, and children in Hunan Province. Tan devoted forty years of his life to researching the story of the systematic murders, finally publishing the book The Killing Wind in 2010. “Documenting this wasn’t quixotic,” Johnson writes. “It was a hard-nosed calculation that it would pay off—not for Tan personally but for his country.”

Solitary struggle, holding out, alone on a boat, facing immense trials: this characterizes the life of an independent writer in China today.


The dissidents in Sparks work on their own time, at night, after years in prison, sometimes holed up in an apartment under 24-hour surveillance. Yet they have created works of depth and ambition equal to the great writers of the Cold War era—people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, or Irina Ratushinskaya. These Russian dissidents had little influence in their own country at the time they wrote, but their visions have proved to be more durable than the visions of their Soviet persecutors. The current president of China, Xi Jinping, sees underground historians as a mortal threat to the People’s Republic of China. Xi calls alternatives to the state-sponsored narrative of Communist rule “historical nihilism.” Xi, like Mao Zedong before him, sees Khruschev’s rejection of Stalin as the beginning of the rot that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In China, Xi insists, this Soviet mistake will not be repeated. Xi has called Chinese Communism “the conclusion of history.” This means that the Chinese Communist Party must guard against “evils” such as revisionist histories, constitutionalism, civil society, a free press, and universal values. Xi accuses foreigners who provoke questions about the Communist Party’s history, of “removing the spinal cord” of the Chinese race. “For Chinese people, history is our religion,” wrote Chinese dissident Hu Ping.

“If communist heroes were not so heroic, if Mao wasn’t a gifted poet and thinker, if the Red Army hadn’t really defeated the Japanese invaders, if the party’s founding act of land reform had been a cruel mistake—then by what right does the Party rule?” Johnson asks. Dissident lives challenge the conventional wisdom of how we in the West are to view China. China has been written off as a string of “dystopian horrors,” including 24-hour surveillance, cultural genocide, organ harvesting, and aggressive nationalism. But Johnson shows us a different China. He considers today’s dissidents to be part of the Chinese tradition of jiang hu (rivers and lakes; 江湖). Jiang hu is a wild region beyond the reach of the government where righteousness () holds sway. Most of the artists Johnson interviews know that their works will never be shown in today’s China. All of them know they are risking their lives and their freedom to bear witness to the truth. They persist because they want to create a record for future generations, an “ark that will survive the current flood.”

Independent journalist Jiang Xue wrote a 40,000-character essay on Spark for the Hong Kong Magazine Today.  She finds solace for her lonely calling in verses composed by the eighth-century poet Liu Zongyuan:

An old man in his raincoat

In a solitary boat

Fishes alone in the freezing

River snow

Solitary struggle, holding out, alone on a boat, facing immense trials:  this, for Jiang Xue, characterizes the life of an independent writer in China today.

“Even in the darkest of times,” historian Hannah Arendt wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination.” We have become accustomed to the darkness of today’s China. But Johnson shows us flickering sparks of light, hidden on hard drives and thumbnails, that tomorrow may become blazing fires.  

Image by Jag_cz and licensed via Adobe Stock