One of the first things Xi Jinping did after being named general secretary of China’s ruling Communist Party was tour an exhibition at the National Museum on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square.
It was called “the Road to Rejuvenation.” News photos showed Xi and other top leaders standing reverently before photos and artifacts that traced the long arc of China’s modern history. The symbolism was hard to miss.
In his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson says Xi unveiled the concept of the “China Dream” at the museum on that fall day in 2012. “That goal was closer at hand than at any time in recent history, Xi said, because the nation had learned from its history,” Johnson writes.
In the following years, Xi would put on display a dogged obsession with controlling the historical narrative — shuttering independent journals, muzzling outspoken scholars, jailing critics he accused of “historical nihilism,” and re-drawing the boundaries around school curricula.
Yet through it all, a handful of people chronicling China’s “grassroots history” has been fighting back. Johnson calls it a movement, and his book tells their stories. They are people like the filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, who made a documentary about an all but forgotten forced labor camp in the desert. And the journalist Jiang Xue, who has protected the history of an underground journal from the late 1950s that attempted to record the privations, and desperation, experienced during the famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward.
NPR caught up with Johnson recently. Below are excerpts of the conversation.
Your book is about these creators of “minjian lishi” (民间历史), grassroots history, in China, and you write that it amounts to a movement. I want to dive into that in a little bit. But first of all, maybe you can talk a little bit about the backdrop, about the context in which this is happening.
This is a movement that really I think — this is one of the things I try to push, promote, in this book or try to make clear in this book — that’s been going on since the founding of the People’s Republic of China nearly 75 years ago. And even before that, going back to before the party went into power, people who have been challenging the party’s monopoly on history. But it is continuing today, even in Xi Jinping’s China. And I want to push back on some of the dominant ideas that we sometimes get abroad, that there’s absolutely nothing going on in China except for a dystopian surveillance state. I think that’s definitely part of the story, for sure. And I’ve reported on a lot of human rights problems and challenges in China over the decades — and it is worse now than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. But there are still people who are at it today. There are still people who are keeping alive the idea of a more decent, humane China that confronts its problems of the past and thereby lays the groundwork for a better China of tomorrow. These people have not been crushed.
Describe why you call it a movement.
There’s a way of looking at protests as a three-act play, and we often look at the third act, when people are out on the streets with placards, something like Tiananmen Square in 1989, as being a classic example of that, for example. Or the Falun Gong protests of 1999 and 2000 … when there’s real action and you can see it. But the the foundational work for any successful movement is usually laid in person-to-person contacts in very often more personal ways than we imagine. It’s not social media, right? Social media is completely overrated in terms of getting social movements and change off the ground. You can get a straw fire like that. But … to get people to really commit to something, you have to have the person-to-person relationships, and that’s the sort of thing that I try to describe in China. It’s it’s not, you know, millions and millions of people across the country [recording and consuming grassroots history] but I would say it’s tens and tens of thousands of people who are interested or active in this kind of movement. And it’s much more widespread than it was, say, four or five decades ago.
Why do you think this exists? Can’t the party snuff it out? Why doesn’t that happen?
People want a more just country and they think that in order to do that, you have to, you know, deal with your past and so on and so forth, and you have to challenge the party’s right to rule and so on and so forth. But the mechanics of how it’s really taken off, I think, over the past two decades are basic digital technologies…This is the digital technologies of email, PDFs, of digital cameras, which are make it possible to make a documentary film…You can make a magazine on a PDF. This has really been a game changer.
There are magazines in China, underground history magazines, one in particular that I write about in China in my book, that have been going on for 15 years, since 2008, and they have 340 issues now and they’re still publishing every two weeks. Now, that begs the question, as you say, why doesn’t the government just snuff it out? I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say, well, the government doesn’t think they’re a threat, so they just let it go. But that doesn’t then explain why the government makes such a big deal about history… I think the thing is that they can arrest some of the better known people, but people who are just privately investigating something and circulating it on a slow burn level, that’s harder for the party to get a grip on. Individuals, again, yes, you can follow somebody all the time and harass them and put them under house arrest and cut their their Internet connection. But you can’t really do it to all these people all the time.
It’s the same cast of characters who’ve been involved in [that journal, Remembrance] all these years, right? Their survival, that’s interesting to me.
One is, they have been careful to stop their historical explorations around the year 1980. So they’re not talking about Tiananmen Square or COVID or something like that. They’re looking more at the Mao era… They don’t go directly into the current era of Chinese politics, so that protects them to some degree.
The other thing, which is an interesting takeaway that I didn’t realize when I went into this project is the productive interaction between people inside and outside China. You know, it used to be in the past when a dissident went overseas, they were kind of isolated and they often became sort of a sad figure or somebody who was railing against the party or something like that. And they had zero impact back in China. But now there are a lot of people in China who have contacts overseas and back and forth, people traveling back and forth a lot more. So in the case of Remembrance, they have young grad students and young historians, Chinese national historians in the United States and elsewhere who helped them edit it and keep it going.
This is not mass market stuff for the most part, which you point out in the book. So what’s the point? Why does it still matter? I mean, as you ask near the end of the book, is this is the work they’re doing pointless or is it trailblazing?
Right now, one of the main people I write about, she quotes — there’s a famous quote by Hannah Arendt that in dark times, any bit of light blinds us. And we don’t know, is this just a candle flickering in the darkness or is this the blazing sun that will become important? And I think now there’s a little bit of flickering, but what we don’t know is what will happen in the future. I think any social movement starts with small groups of people, small numbers, and it can grow over time. Things that were once considered outlandish or radical are now considered mainstream.
The characters who you talk about in the book all make sacrifices to do what they’re doing so. Why do they do it?
The one thing I wanted to make clear was that … they’re not dissidents in the classic sense of somebody who’s completely dropped out of society and is railing against the government. All the people, pretty much all the people in my book have one foot inside the system. They own an apartment. They have jobs… So what motivates them, I think, is just a belief that many people have, that in order for any society to move forward it has to be able to confront its past. And many of them are also, in a way, very patriotic. I can remember talking to some of the people who write about the Cultural Revolution. They say, you know, we don’t want all the research on the Cultural Revolution to be done at Western universities. It shouldn’t all be done at Harvard or Stanford. It should also be done here in China. And so as Chinese people, we want to be doing this research, too. And even though right now it can’t be widely published inside China, we want people in the future to know that at this time in the 2020s, there were people inside China who were doing this kind of research, who were documenting the people, the eyewitnesses before they died out, making videos, documentary films. Some of it maybe just a message in the bottle to future generations, but they view it as kind of a sacred duty to tell their country’s history the way they see it.
Do you think their actions in some way speak for a larger group, or to a larger group, and have an outsized impact?
It’s hard to know in an authoritarian state, you know what the interest is. But history in China has always been really popular and people are really history obsessed in China. So I think that their work does speak to a broader group of people who are interested, may be in different versions of reality than the reality presented by the Communist Party, its whitewashed history and its justification for ruling the country, which a lot of people can kind of tell, doesn’t really hold up… These people do offer more credible explanations for how things unfolded in the past, and I think that’s why when there are cracks in the system, such as last year, after all the big COVID protests, these people rise up and that’s where they may come up again in the future as well.
You write in near the end of the book, “In essence, the Chinese Communist Party’s enemies are not these individuals, but the lasting values of Chinese civilization, righteousness, loyalty, freedom of thought.” Can you explain that a bit?
If there’s one central idea, it’s the idea of righteousness. And along with that is the idea that truth will prevail as well. And I think that [these grassroots historians] view the suffers of the past, of the Mao era, but even of the current era, as people who deserve justice and that some kind of justice has to happen in order for a moral society to be constructed. This is a really old idea going back to Confucius. So you don’t have to be a believer in any sort of Western ideas to be attracted to this if you’re Chinese. There was one guy I talked to who uncovered this this massacre in southern China in the 1960s. And, you know, he was a very sort of crude and funny, garrulous old guy. And he says, you know, I can kiss [a–] as well as anybody, but there’s one thing I can’t do and that’s turn black into white.
What does this movement say about China? In writing this book, what did you learn about the telling of history in China today?
One of the things I want to acknowledge with this book was to challenge the idea that there is no free thought in China, that the Communist Party is one that Xi Jinping controls absolutely everything. I wanted to show that there are still people in China who do have visions of another kind of China. There is another China out there. And that when we look at China from abroad, we sometimes have this idea that it’s completely hopeless and that there’s nothing worth knowing or experiencing there. And I think this is one of the reasons, for example, for the incredible drop off in the number of young people today studying Chinese going to China.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR’s international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Gary Oldman had ‘free rein’ in spy thriller ‘Slow Horses’ — now back for Season 3
The hapless spies and their boorish leader are back.
The third season of the Apple TV+ drama Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron’s Slough House novels, debuts Nov. 29.
Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the comically unpleasant leader of a gang of dejected British spies. He smokes and drinks on the job, needs a shower, eats junk and has flatulence issues which he seems to use strategically.
Lamb’s band of spooks became Slow Horses, as they’re called, after messing up their careers in a variety of mishaps, including botching a surveillance operation and leaving a top secret file on a train. They’ve messed up good and Lamb never lets them forget it.
“Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career,” he tells them in a supposed pep talk.
“Despicable characters are more interesting to write about than kind, humane characters,” says Herron.
Lamb “has a lot of unpleasant habits, very poor personal hygiene and a tendency to be as rude as he possibly can to his subordinates,” Herron explains, “What we don’t know is how much of this he actually means.”
Oldman is a ‘constant wonder’
Herron says Gary Oldman called him before they started shooting the first season which debuted in the spring of 2022.
“He wanted to talk about what I could tell him about Lamb that wasn’t in the books,” Herron recalls. “And the fact is … anything that’s not in the books hasn’t happened as far as I’m concerned. So Gary in many ways had free rein to add his own bits of history to the character.
“He likes to know what a character has in his fridge. He likes to know where characters went to school and what sort of childhood they had. And I’ve never written about any of that sort of thing. But Gary thinks about it when he’s delivering his performance, and it’s all part of the perfectly rounded spectacle that he brings to the screen.”
“He’s a constant wonder to me,” says Slow Horses writer and executive producer Will Smith of Gary Oldman.
Smith says Herron’s take on the spy genre is refreshing — and a natural for TV — because his characters are so believable.
“People struggling with kind of relatable issues everyone goes through: divorce, grief, feeling they’re not in the right place in their careers. They hate their boss,” says Smith.
Critics have raved about Slow Horses. The first two seasons were so successful, Apple TV+ ordered two more.
‘Surrounded by losers, misfits and boozers’
Another high-profile fan of the books is Mick Jagger who co-wrote the theme song. “I really enjoyed creating the theme track for Slow Horses with Daniel Pemberton,” Jagger writes on Instagram. “I’ve read a lot of the books and was familiar with some of the more dark and unsavoury characters and knew the direction I wanted to take it…hope you enjoy it!”
Season 3 is based on Real Tigers, Herron’s third novel in the Slough House series. The villains are different but Lamb and his spies are still very much the underdogs.
“Fiction is full of heroes,” says Herron. “I’m not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I’m more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues.”
Lamb isn’t all bluster. Herron adds that he might not have “a heart of gold” but he “does have a moral code.”
This story was edited for audio and digital by Rose Friedman.
Maturity is reflected in how you dress — and stylist Tess Herbert never under-dresses
For stylist Tess Herbert, the ideal backdrop to her personal style is Palace Costume — a vintage rental store nestled on Melrose Ave. where she spends most of her time when she’s in L.A. “It’s a magical labyrinth and it’s so weird and old school L.A.,” she says. “That’s my happy place — in the moth balls.”
Herbert’s chosen outfits embody the chic, draped silhouette she developed while living in London. “The [brands] I gravitated towards depended on whether their clothes made me feel confident or sexy or cool,” she explains. Adorning herself in her close friends’ brands, Nadine Moss and Selasi, along with vintage Japanese designers Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garçons, Herbert exhibits a subtle luxury.
From assisting for Vogue to working with Victor Barragán to designing clothes for indie short films, Herbert’s repertoire expands across artistic and editorial spaces — worlds which she has effortlessly straddled.
Herbert, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, studied textile history at New York University and worked at the Museum of the City of New York, where she worked under renowned costume curator Phyllis Magnuson researching and ensuring donated items were sufficiently steeped in NYC history. Herbert’s fashion history degree and self-described obsession with Renaissance history leaks through in our conversation of her love for numerology, tarot cards and human design — revealing her appreciation for archetypes and how they help her understand herself. In fact, if she’d had it her way, her dissertation would have covered clothing representations on tarot cards.
“Everyone’s expressing who they are through their dress, even if they’re not conscious of it,” Herbert says. “It’s a culmination of who you are as a human.”
Sophia Haydon-Khan: How would you describe your personal style?
Tess Herbert: Right now I’m in my chic era. I’ve grown up a bit. I mainly wear vintage designers from the ‘90s or early millennium — that’s my favorite time in fashion. I never wear dresses; I just wear tops and bottoms or skirts and tops. I like to be comfortable and contemporary and go from day to night. I’m probably a little more on the dressed-up end of things. I’ll never under-dress.
SHK: How would you describe the day to night shift? What does that mean to you?
TH: I often wear an outfit that is probably too dressed up for the day and good for the night so I can transition. You can also really change an outfit with a bag and a shoe — put a casual shoe on and it’s a casual outfit, or you can dress it up with a shoe and a tiny fab bag. It’s a totally different look. When I was living in New York, I used to have to go from day to night every day, so I just got used to dressing like that. But if no one sees me, I’m in Brandy Melville. My L.A. life is very Brandy Melville.
SHK: You said that you used to have more playful looks and you’ve moved into something more chic. Has that mirrored anything that has evolved in your own life?
TH: I moved to London last year and I’ve mainly been there since then. I think, wherever you go, your style changes and I got into some London vibe that made me want to seem more put together and more interested in shapes. I used to have a New York sensibility where I’d have an element of irony to my outfit, which I don’t really have anymore. Now I’m in my 30s and out of my 20s and experiencing a shift that comes with maturity that is reflected in how you dress.
SHK: Tell me about your styling for celebrity artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Olivia Rodrigo and Teyana Taylor. I noticed you tend to lean away from their typical styling and put them in looks they haven’t been styled in — is that intentional?
TH: I try to push as much as I can with artists. I have a vision for all my artists based on their music, their attitude and the aesthetic they’ve already presented to the world. With Phoebe I said, ‘she should be all in black, Junya Watanabe, let’s do her f—ed up, using Japanese designers that make it almost cutesy but evil. With Olivia, when I would style her, it made me think of what I wanted to wear at 13. I would put her in the stuff I was wearing back then and imagine myself as a teen.
SHK: Does that push and dissonance elicit something new from these celebrities?
TH: I think it puts them in that power. People can teach you the way that you want to dress — especially with Phoebe, I exposed her to more high fashion, believing she could still be herself and pull off these ultra glamorous or ultra fashionable looks. I think it really empowered her and gave something more to her editorials and to her press. But I think with celebrities it is hard because you’re never going to fully be able to express yourself as a stylist because they have their own idea. It’s hard to find the best situation where you’re working with artists that speak the exact same language.
SHK: I’m interested in the short film, “Salacia,” by artist and activist Tourmaline, that you designed costumes for and that ended up in MoMA’s collection. Could you tell me a little bit about the design that went into those costumes?
TH: It was a play on 17th-century attire so I was able to be creative with that. The film had so many lives of its own — MoMA acquired it, the Tate acquired it, it was in the Venice Biennale, it blew up. There were a few years where I was doing a lot of art projects with artists who were my friends. That was fun for me to live out my costume design fantasies because I’m really interested in historical dress. I nerded out on references and used all these elements that I didn’t have the opportunity to [use] before. But art styling is such a small field, so it was a time and a place where I was really immersed in that.
SHK: As a speculative piece, what creative liberties did you take with the subject matter and with the costumes?
TH: I took a lot of liberties because I was told by Tourmaline to do whatever I wanted and that it didn’t have to be historically accurate. Because there was an element of ancestral magic in the film and for the main character, I tied other fairytale costume concepts within her 17th century linen and lace look. There were elements that were fantastical and based on the Renaissance period. I tried to give her costume those elements, whether it be magic, like a pouch on her waist.
SHK: Among the clients you style a lot of them are artists and writers. Do you view styling as an artistic or intellectual pursuit?
TH: Artistic and intellectual. Everyone’s expressing who they are through their dress, even if they’re not conscious of it. It’s a culmination of who you are as a human. Even if you’re not into fashion, it still is. Because it’s such a prominent thing on us. It takes up so much space, we’re constantly confronted with it from everyone.
SHK: Tell me about your work with Barragán. What drew you to their avant-garde style?
TH: I think it was during his first collection or his second collection that I approached him and said, ‘I really want to shoot your collection as a campaign.’ It was about underwater creatures, and it was so beautiful — nothing like I’d ever seen. From that point onwards, I started working with the brand and styling the collections for many years. With my fashion background and [Barragán’s] architecture background, we collaborated really nicely.
We did lots of guerilla shooting. It was such a big ‘f— you’ — it’s so gorgeous and beautifully done but there was this anti-establishment energy. Rebelling against white supremacy and how unfair the fashion industry can be and how it doesn’t always value people who are the most talented.
SHK: What makes you most inspired to create?
TH: I still have a deep desire to know as much as I can about fashion. Everything that’s going on with it right now and everything that’s gone on with it in the past. My first thought is always to observe how people are dressed around me and what access to clothes different cities have. It’s a desire that does not burn out.
Sophia Haydon-Khan was a 2023 intern with Image magazine at the Los Angeles Times. She studies government at Smith College, where she writes for Smith’s student newspaper, the Sophian, and serves as arts and culture co-editor. She has also written for Northeastern University’s the Huntington News and Tastemakers Magazine.
A judge awards Aretha Franklin’s properties to her sons, citing a handwritten will
DETROIT — A judge overseeing the estate of Aretha Franklin awarded real estate to the late star’s sons, citing a handwritten will from 2014 that was found between couch cushions.
The decision Monday came four months after a Detroit-area jury said the document was a valid will under Michigan law, despite scribbles and many hard-to-read passages. Franklin had signed it and put a smiley face in the letter “A.”
The papers will override a handwritten will from 2010 that was found at Franklin’s suburban Detroit home around the same time in 2019, the judge said.
One of her sons, Kecalf Franklin, will get that property, which was valued at $1.1 million in 2018, but is now worth more. A lawyer described it as the “crown jewel” before trial last July.
Another son, Ted White II, who had favored the 2010 will, was given a house in Detroit, though it was sold by the estate for $300,000 before the dueling wills had emerged.
“Teddy is requesting the sale proceeds,” Charles McKelvie, an attorney for Kecalf Franklin, said Tuesday.
Judge Jennifer Callaghan awarded a third son, Edward Franklin, another property under the 2014 will.
Aretha Franklin had four homes when she died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. The discovery of the two handwritten wills months after her death led to a dispute between the sons over what their mother wanted to do with her real estate and other assets.
One of the properties, worth more than $1 million, will likely be sold and the proceeds shared by four sons. The judge said the 2014 will didn’t clearly state who should get it.
“This was a significant step forward. We’ve narrowed the remaining issues,” McKelvie said of the estate saga.
There’s still a dispute over how to handle Aretha Franklin’s music assets, though the will appears to indicate that the sons would share any income. A status conference with the judge is set for January.
Franklin was a global star for decades, known especially for hits in the late 1960s like “Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Respect.”
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