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

Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong’s Quiet Return

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Lift up your head Calm your eyes Look far away, as far as you can Look beyond the walls What do you see?The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered...

China Gets Religion!

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the...

Do China’s Village Protests Help the Regime?

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public...

Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
With worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest, China’s leaders have a lot on their plates these days. And yet when the Communist Party met at its annual plenum earlier this week, the issue given...

My First Trip

09.10.11

Deng's Heyday

Ian Johnson
When I began thinking about writing this piece, my first trip to China in 1984 had seemed like a disappointment. Unlike today, this was the China of Great Events: the launch of bold reforms and an era of intellectual ferment unlike any since. Before...

‘I’m Not Interested in Them; I Wish They Weren’t Interested in Me’

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with...

The High Price of the New Beijing

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye...

China’s Glorious New Past

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
I first went to Datong in 1984 and was immediately taken by this gritty city in China’s northern Shanxi Province. Along with half a dozen classmates from Peking University, I traveled eight hours on an overnight train, arriving in a place that felt...

China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into...

Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the seventy-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the government-run Xinhua news...

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of...