Ian Johnson reports from Beijing and Berlin. His new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, will be published in April. His essay in the January 19, 2017 issue was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. (January 2017)


When the Chinese Were Unspeakable

Tan Hecheng at a tombstone put up by Zhou Qun for her husband and three children, who were among the thousands of people killed during the Cultural Revolution in Dao County, southern China, November 2016; photograph by Sim Chi Yin

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

by Tan Hecheng, translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
In August and September 1967, more than nine thousand people were murdered in and around China’s Dao County. Some were clubbed to death and thrown into limestone pits, others tossed into cellars full of sweet potatoes where they suffocated. But most victims were simply bludgeoned to death with agricultural tools—hoes, carrying poles, and rakes—and then tossed into the waterways that flow into the Xiao River.

China: The Virtues of the Awful Convulsion

Li Fanwu, the governor of China’s Heilongjiang province, being denounced and tortured at a rally in Red Guard Square, Harbin, August 1966. One of his alleged crimes was political ambition, evidence for which was found—according to the photographer Li Zhensheng’s book Red-Color News Soldier (2003)—‘in his hairstyle, which gave him an ill-fated resemblance to Mao and so was said to symbolize his lust for power.’ Two Red Guards chopped and tore out his hair, after which he was made to bow for hours. The banner behind him reads, ‘Bombard the Headquarters! Expose and denounce the provincial Party committee.’

The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

by Guobin Yang

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

by Frank Dikötter
Of all the books on the Cultural Revolution that have appeared during this anniversary year, I was most intrigued by those that told detailed local stories to illustrate the larger history.

‘The Songs of Birds’

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in an undated photograph taken before he was sent to prison for ‘subversion of state power’ after he helped to write Charter 08, a petition that called for ‘freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom’ in China. She remains under house arrest at their apartment in Beijing.

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems

by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, with a foreword by Herta Müller and an introduction by Liao Yiwu

Steel Gate to Freedom: The Life of Liu Xiaobo

by Yu Jie, translated from the Chinese by H.C. Hsu
Day and night, I copy the Diamond Sutra of Prajnaparamita. My writing looks more and more square. It proves that I have not gone entirely insane, but the tree I drew hasn’t grown a leaf. —from “I Copy the Scriptures,” in Empty Chairs …

A Revolutionary Discovery in China

Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts

by Sarah Allan
For over two millennia all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification. Earlier versions and competing ideas were lost—until now.


Xi Jinping: The Illusion of Greatness

A building covered in posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Shanghai, China, March 26, 2016

Xi Jinping came to power offering a similarly broad range of reforms and pledging to “rejuvenate” China. But his measures have been limited to the classic nationalist-authoritarian-traditionalist playbook. After five years of Xi, his main accomplishments seem to have been to consolidate his power while satisfying people’s desire for social change through crackdowns and promoting traditionalism. The problem is that these efforts come at the expense of actual reforms.

The People in Retreat: An Interview with Ai Xiaoming

Ai Xiaoming, 2016

Ai Xiaoming: I believed in the goodness of human nature. I believe this is naïve. Actually, human nature in this totalitarian society has become very vile. This power has changed Chinese people’s psychological makeup. Most people, very many people, are really terrible; they’re afraid of losing things.


A Worldwide Reading for Li Bifeng

The exiled Chinese author Liao Yiwu, the International Literaturfestival Berlin, and a group of prominent international authors are jointly appealing for an international reading in support of the imprisoned Chinese author Li Bifeng.