Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, researcher, and Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the founder of the China Unofficial Archives, a new website that collects hundreds of samizdat journals, books, and underground documentary films. His new book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, was released in September.

He is currently writing a book about how history is used to legitimize and challenge Communist Party rule in China, and closely follows China’s efforts to bolster its soft power around the globe.

Johnson first went to China as a student in Beijing from 1984 to 1985, and then studied in Taipei from 1986 to 1988. He later worked as a newspaper correspondent in China, from 1994 to 1996 with The Baltimore Sun, and from 1997 to 2001 with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered macroeconomics, China’s WTO accession, and social issues.

In 2009, Johnson returned to China, living there until 2020. He wrote regularly for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. He taught undergraduates at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, and served as an advisor to The Journal of Asian Studies. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Leipzig on Chinese religious associations.

Johnson won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China, two awards from the Overseas Press Club, an award from Society of Professional Journalists, and Stanford University’s Shorenstein Journalism Award for his body of work covering Asia. In 2019, he won the American Academy of Religion’s “best in-depth newswriting” award.

In 2006-2007, he spent a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and later received research and writing grants from Open Society Foundations, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and The Alicia Patterson Foundation. In 2020, he was an inaugural grantee of the Robert B. Silvers Foundation for work in progress. He was also awarded a 2020-2021 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars fellowship for a new book he is writing on China’s unofficial history.

Johnson has published three books and contributed chapters to four others. His newest book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, describes China’s religious revival and its implications for politics and society. His other books are on civil society and grassroots protest in China (Wild Grass, 2004) and Islamism and the Cold War in Europe (A Mosque in Munich, 2010).

He has also contributed chapters to: My First Trip to China(2011), Chinese Characters (2012), The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (2016), and The Forbidden City: The Palace at the Heart of Chinese Culture (2021).

Last Updated: September 27, 2023

After-Shocks of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
The province of Sichuan is a microcosm of China. Its east is flat, prosperous, and densely settled by ethnic Chinese. Its mountainous west is populated by poorer minorities, but possesses resources that help make the east rich.In Sichuan, the...

Chairman Xi, Chinese Idol

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
For nearly sixty years since it opened in 1959, the Great Hall of the People has been the public focus of Chinese politics, a monumental granite block that extends 1,200 feet along the west side of Tiananmen Square. It is where the country’s leaders...

Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
In these pages nearly seven years ago, Timothy Snyder asked the provocative question: Who killed more, Hitler or Stalin? As useful as that exercise in moral rigor was, some think the question itself might have been slightly off. Instead, it should...

‘The Biggest Taboo’

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
One of China’s most influential artists is forty-eight-year-old Qiu Zhijie. A native of southern China’s Fujian province, Qiu studied art in the eastern city of Hangzhou before moving to Beijing in 1994 to pursue a career as a contemporary artist...

Sexual Life in Modern China

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chinese writers grappled with the traumas of the Mao period, seeking to make sense of their suffering. As in the imperial era, most had been servants of the state, loyalists who might criticize but never seek to...

Features

09.08.17

A Drag Queen for the Dearly Departed

Ian Johnson & Tomoko Kikuchi
In the good old days, about three thousand years ago, people really knew how to mourn the dead. That was back in the Zhou dynasty, when there was no laughing in the dead person’s house, no sighing while eating, and no singing while walking down a...

When the Law Meets the Party

Ian Johnson
Like an army defeated but undestroyed, China’s decades-long human rights movement keeps reassembling its lines after each disastrous loss, miraculously fielding new forces in the battle against an illiberal state. Each time, foot soldiers and...

Liu Xiaobo: The Man Who Stayed

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents...

Novels from China’s Moral Abyss

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Modern China was built on the nearly thirty ruthless years of Mao’s rule. The country’s elite—the “literati” of educated small landowners who held the empire together at the local level—was brutally eliminated. Almost everyone’s personal life was...

Recreating China’s Imagined Empire

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
China’s influence in the world has become a persistent theme of these early days of the Donald Trump era. During his campaign, Trump portrayed China (not entirely incorrectly) as the leading malefactor in the politics of international trade—holding...

Media

04.19.17

ChinaFile Presents: Ian Johnson on ‘The Souls of China’

Ian Johnson & Ian Buruma
On April 13, ChinaFile and The New York Review of Books co-hosted the launch of author Ian Johnson’s new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao at the Asia Society’s New York headquarters. Johnson discussed the book with Ian...

Liberating China’s Past

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
With the closing of this month’s National People’s Congress, China’s political season is upon us. It will culminate in the autumn with Xi Jinping’s almost certain reappointment to another five-year term. With Xi rapidly becoming the most important...

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