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The Books Briefing: History Scares Authoritarians

The Books Briefing: History Scares Authoritarians

A new book looks at the “underground historians” of China who are resurfacing moments from the past that authorities would prefer be forgotten.

A family photograph with one person's face crossed out
Artur Abramiv / Getty

This is an edition of the revamped Books Briefing, our editors’ weekly guide to the best in books. Sign up for it here.

For many who were purged during Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union, one erasure followed another. After being sent to the Gulag (if they weren’t shot in the basement of the Lubyanka building), the ousted person would suffer the further indignity of having their face crosshatched with frantic pen marks to make them disappear from family albums. They couldn’t exist in history anymore. Stalin’s greatest rivals were erased on a wide scale too: Leon Trotsky’s image, for example, was airbrushed out of official photos. Control over the historical record has always been crucial for authoritarian regimes. In Russia, this is true all over again, and textbooks are rewriting the history of the war in Ukraine in real time. In China, particularly under the rule of Xi Jinping, the flattening and polishing of the past now has the help of digital firewalls. Preserving a history that the authorities want forgotten is a quixotic task. But a few brave filmmakers, artists, and writers are nevertheless trying.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:

In Sparks, a new book by the longtime China expert Ian Johnson, readers learn about “underground historians”—his term for a group excavating the most difficult and violent episodes in their country’s history. An essay this week by Han Zhang takes a look at Johnson’s book and highlights what has long been clear to anyone who studies authoritarianism: The insistence on setting a narrative for the past is not trivial; it’s an existential project for any regime trying to hold on to ultimate power. In China, this has meant paving over the many purges and bloody campaigns of Mao Zedong in the first half of Communist China’s existence. “To reject the legacy of the Great Helmsman,” as Zhang lays it out, “would undermine the Communist Party’s own legitimacy.” Everything that has led up to Xi’s current leadership needs to be seen as just and justified; otherwise the entire edifice could collapse.

Xi himself has taken the history of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale about what can happen if even a little bit of honesty about the past is allowed. After Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union underwent a period of light liberalization, inaugurated with a 1956 speech by Nikita Khrushchev that took the first tentative jabs at Stalin’s legacy. In the 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened the doors to revisiting past atrocities. Xi has called all of this “historical nihilism” and insisted that it struck fatal self-inflicted blows against Soviet power. Talking about Mao on the 120th anniversary of his birth, in 2013, Xi swept away any concerns about his rule with one dismissive statement: “We can’t use today’s circumstances to measure our predecessors.”

Xi is right to worry about the way a reckoning with the past can lead to unrest and demands for change. This did indeed contribute to the end of the Soviet Union. Knowing that makes it all the more interesting to read about the projects of these underground historians, such as the documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, who created a film about a notorious but largely forgotten labor camp, Jiabiangou, in which Mao imprisoned and killed supposed enemies in his Anti-Rightist Campaign. This work is threatening because it presents a more truthful account of what Communist rule was built on. These archivists, at great risk to themselves, are being guided by a demand for justice and a desire to commemorate. The past itself is not their only concern. As Johnson puts it, history is also “a battleground for the present.”

Saluting in front of Mao
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum

Chinese Leaders Are Scared of Their Country’s History

What to Read

The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, by Franny Choi

In a poem in her third collection, Choi imagines a note “from a future great-great-granddaughter.” The letter writer’s world sounds dystopian—but then, so does our current one. She wants to know what it was like to exist in the 21st century, rotten as it was with corruption, violence, and algorithm-driven mindlessness. “Did you pray / ever? Hope, any?” she writes. “You were alive then. What did you do?” Choi captures the absurdity of carrying on while everything is falling apart and the impossibility of choosing anything else. But she also suggests that just envisioning a different world is something, even if it’s not everything. “What you gave me isn’t wisdom, and I have no wisdom in return,” the great-great-granddaughter writes. Still: “We’re making. Something of it. Something / of all those questions you left.”  — Faith Hill

From our list: 10 poetry collections to read again and again

Out Next Week

???? The MANIAC, by Benjamín Labatut

Your Weekend Read

Multiple faces gazing outward
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Source: Getty

The 24-Year-Old Who Outsold Oprah This Week

This past Sunday, Keila Shaheen woke up to find that, once again, she was the best-selling author across all of Amazon. To get there, she’d outsold every other book on the platform—including Walter Isaacson’s buzzy biography of Elon Musk and the Fox News host Mark Levin’s screed The Democrat Party Hates America. She’d even beat out Oprah. At just 24, she is a bona fide publishing juggernaut. And yet few outside TikTok have even bothered to notice. That’s probably in part because her best-selling book isn’t actually a book at all in the traditional sense. It’s a self-published mental-health guide called The Shadow Work Journal, and its success has been fueled by a steady drumbeat of videos posted on TikTok.

Join Ayad Akhtar and Imani Perry in conversation with Adrienne LaFrance to discuss the dangers of book banning and limits on freedom of expression on Thursday, October 5 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The event will be livestreamed. Register here.

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