China Conversations

Rana Mitter: Challenge of the Void10 min read

Part one of a conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford China Centre. His most recent book, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-45, was named as a 2013 Book of the Year by the Financial Times and the Economist, and won the 2014 Royal United Services Institute/Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature. In the first half of this two-part interview, Jonathan Chatwin sat down with Mitter in Oxford to discuss his route into Chinese history and the complexities of the Republican era in China.

To start with a fairly generic but important question: how did you become interested in studying China?

There wasn’t one single moment that I can remember. But in a sense, I think my interest was the product of something a bit odd, which was a negative. The negative is that when I was growing up in Britain, in the south of England in the 1980s, there was almost no connection with China anywhere in the British public sphere. Compared to today, when there are thousands of Chinese tourists visiting the UK, they were hardly any Chinese tourists internationally at all, and almost none that were coming to Britain. China was not the world’s second-biggest economy: it was a very long way from that.

So I think in a sense it was the challenge of the void. Nowadays, of course, there’s nothing like a void in China studies, so the motivation of someone like me would be different. But at that time, it was very much an interest in the unknown. Although I will say that a history book was one of the things that did help to push me in the direction of learning more about China; it was the first book of Chinese history I read, and I’ve still got the edition upstairs on the shelf: Jonathan Spence’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which tells of the crisis of the late Qing, and then that trajectory all the way through the May Fourth Movement, the Second World War, the establishment of Mao’s China, and finally, because the book was published in the early 1980s, the very beginning of the reform period.

And you carried on your interest from your undergraduate days and eventually completed a PhD in Chinese history?

Yes, it was again partly the challenge of something that didn’t seem to have been especially well covered: the occupation of Manchuria, the northeastern region of China, in the 1930s, which was very well known as a diplomatic incident, but explored very little as a social history: in other words, in terms of the question of what the experience of occupation would have been like and what people thought about it. And that was what I end up doing a doctoral thesis on, and it became my first book, but it was also the project that started me on a particular fascination with a period that I’m still very interested in, which is the 1930s and 40s.

What is it about that era that interests you particularly?

There are a lot of things: one is that many aspects of the period are still under-studied. At the moment I’m very interested in the post-war period, 1945-1949, which of course we associate with the [Chinese] Civil War. But in fact, a lot of other changes happened during that time, which also deserve examination. So I think the question of the period itself is an interesting one.

But in terms of why it’s interesting, I think centrally for this reason: it’s a period when it’s clear that there are a whole variety of contingencies about the trajectory of Chinese history in the 20th century that we haven’t really always appreciated, because, for very long time, the assumption was that the eventual result of the Communist victory in 1949 was the natural and obvious one. Therefore, a lot of analysis of the past is about why Chinese Communism succeeds, and it has made a lot of assumptions about the rivals and alternatives to Chinese Communism at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is very powerful, but when Chinese Communism in the classical Maoist sense has almost entirely disappeared. So it seemed like a good time to go back to the periods when that ideology first became very powerful, and look at the question and what spectrum of possibilities it sat within.

In understanding the very complex political scene of the 1930s and 40s – in a sense, actually, probably the most complex and fruitful period that Chinese politics has had in the modern era – you get an idea of the range of possibilities that lay within Chinese politics. You can talk then about everything from Chinese liberalism to Chinese fascism. It reminds you of how wide-ranging modern thought in China can be when it’s given some space to do so.

I wonder whether that very complexity is part of the reason that the period is less well-known by the wider, historically-engaged, reading public?

I think it’s fair to say that the period between the fall of the last emperor (1911-1912) and the establishment of Mao’s China in 1949 – broadly speaking, the Republican period of Chinese history – is better known to scholars than it is to a wider general audience for history. But there are certain periods that tend to attract more attention because, as you’re suggesting, the narratives are somewhat easier to understand if you’re coming from outside that particular understanding of Chinese culture. So the Cultural Revolution, a dictatorship that turns in on itself, or even the fall of the last emperor, when a 2000-year-long system seems to collapse very suddenly, leaving the imperial family outside of history – there are clear and compelling narratives there.

I personally think there are lots of gripping narratives within the Republican period of history; but the fact is that even the Chinese themselves, let alone those in the West, don’t know quite what to make of it.

If you go to China today and talk to people who have an interest in history, or if you look on the Chinese internet, you’ll find there are plenty of historical discussion groups out there. There’s a lot of debate going on about what exactly the Republican period means: was it a period, as the old Communist Party under Mao would have said, of feudal darkness that was finally removed by the victory of the Communist Party? Today, even the Communist Party doesn’t really say that anymore, because they realize there are aspects of what happened then – industrialization, internationalization, the recovery of certain rights from the Empire, and so forth – that actually the Party will give a certain amount of credit to. And that means that it’s hard to get a clear moral lesson from it. It’s hard to take a thread through it that says: This is the meaning of this period.

It’s one of the reasons why in recent years one of the other periods that I’ve done a lot of research and writing about – the Second World War – has become so potent in the eyes of official China, because whatever else you can say about that period for all the Allied Powers – of which China obviously was one – it provides a moral narrative that can be useful to today’s politicians in a way that lots of the other parts of the Republican period really can’t.

I wonder whether the fact that you don’t have a clear good guy/bad guy dynamic in the story of that period makes it less appealing for the general reader, or perhaps for publishers commissioning works of general history?

I think that’s true. If one thinks about the 1920s, which is a fascinating but very, very complex period: is it going to be really possible to get a general audience gripped by the accounts of the warlord battles? The 1930 Central Plains War was actually a historically very important event in modern history, but are these really characters that are going to appeal to significant numbers of people who didn’t know that much about Chinese history from that time? Probably not.

The one narrative that is from that period that is still quite potent is the famous Long March, which is of course actually a failure of a sort: a retreat from a base area to try and regroup that was later on, like Dunkirk for the British, rewritten as a great victory.

I was involved recently, along with my colleagues Julia Lovell and Sun Shuyun, in recording a radio show for BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. In a sense it’s interesting that all of the modern Chinese stories that they wanted to put on that program, which covers a huge range of things, it was the Long March that was chosen as something that people could clearly get a grip on, understand and deal with.

What you won’t get, at least not in that form, is the story of another long march, or at least a long retreat, which was the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of refugees from western China down the Yangtze to the wartime capital of Chongqing during World War Two; an equally heroic move, and in a sense very consequential in terms of China’s modern history. But of course, it was undertaken by the Nationalist government, not by the Communists, and therefore that narrative does not fit into the overall story of how modern China came to be. Thus, you’re unlikely to find huge numbers of books commemorating or dealing with the topic in the West, though there have been a small spate of them in recent years in China, largely from people who were worried that their own histories will be forgotten because they have ended up on what might have seemed to be the wrong side of history.

And is that one of the challenges that you’re dealing with in writing about the pre-Communist era: that the CCP has been able to shape that history, because they won and therefore get to define the parameters of that story?

I think what you said is broadly right, but there are some signs that maybe things have been changing both in the West and China. For instance, I’ve been associated with the Imperial War Museum, which is one of the UK’s most important public education institutions on conflict. And I will say that there have been moves from it being British-focused, which it certainly was even up to 20 or so years ago, towards it providing a much more global narrative in which China is a more notable part. So in one major British institution, there are signs of that changing.

On the Chinese side, I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese Communist Party has had, and continues to keep, a very strong grip in terms of how it wants history to be written, and it’s notable that Xi Jinping has talked more than once within the last couple of years about opposing “historical nihilism,” which is a term that seems to mean that China, Chinese historians, or people reading or writing about Chinese history should not be dealing with the awkward and difficult parts of history that put the CCP in a bad light. And yet it is evident that there are some areas of modern Chinese history in the last 25-30 years, particularly at times of relative openness, when more difficult things have been published. So when relations with Taiwan were a little warmer around ten years ago or so, there was a lot more attention given to the Chiang Kai-shek government: not just to the wartime period, but to his biography as a leader, and a grudging, but still partly positive, reassessment of his legacy as well. But it’s very much done with the historical authorities and the censorship authorities holding the whip hand in terms of what they’ll permit and what they won’t: it’s not a free-for-all. ∎

Header: Rana Mitter/supChina.

Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).