China Conversations

Wu Wenguang: Capturing China on Film

A documentary filmmaker speaks with Jonathan Chatwin

Wu Wenguang is an independent filmmaker, known internationally as one of the founders of the Chinese documentary movement. Born in Yunnan in 1956, his breakthrough film was Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, which offered an intimate portrait of a group of struggling artists in late 1980s Beijing. His other films include 1966: My Time in the Red Guards (1993) and Jiang Hu: On the Road (1999). In 2010, Wu founded the Memory Project to encourage the preservation of personal stories of China’s history; since then, hundreds of film makers have returned to their towns and villages as part of the project to interview elders who lived through the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and other traumatic events from the country’s recent past. 

When did you decide that you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?

I actually hadn’t made a decision to be a documentary filmmaker before I made my first film. In truth, I had no idea about documentary film at the end of 1980s. In China at that time, nobody really talked about or watched documentaries. 

China Conversations

Julia Lovell: Translating China’s Past

Jonathan Chatwin talks to the award-winning historian and translator


Julia Lovell is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, The Great Wall, and The Opium War. She is also a translator of Chinese fiction; her translations include The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun and Serve the People by Yan Lianke. She writes about China for several newspapers, including The Guardian, Financial Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Writer Jonathan Chatwin talked to her about her route into studying China, the relationship between translation and writing history, and how she approached the researching of the global stories in her new book Maoism.

What first drew you towards studying Chinese at university? Had you had exposure to Chinese language and culture before then?

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, I made the decision to switch from History to Chinese Studies in 1995. Chinese was still very unknown to me at that point, and I had had zero exposure to Chinese language and culture before I made the decision. 

China Conversations

Rana Mitter: Pushing the Limit

Part two 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 books include Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-45, A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World and Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. In part of two of this interview, Jonathan Chatwin asked him about his research methods and his current work on the post-World War II period. Read part one here.

How challenging is it to get archival access in China now, and has that changed in the Xi Jinping era?

For studying the Republican period, I would say that broadly it is more challenging than it was 20 years ago. It is probably less challenging than it is for say, doing a history of the Mao period, which is one of the most sensitive areas.

China Conversations

Rana Mitter: Challenge of the Void

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. 

China Conversations

Stephen Platt on Becoming a Historian of China

In conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Stephen R. Platt is an American historian and writer. He is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and holds a PhD in Chinese history from Yale University. He is the author of three books of Chinese history: Provincial Patriots centred on the Hunanese, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom on the Taiping rebellion, and Imperial Twilight about the Opium Wars. Jonathan Chatwin talked to him about his path into Chinese history, his tips for researchers, and the challenges involved in bringing the past to life.

Can you tell us about how you became interested in Chinese history?

It was something of an accident, actually. When I graduated from college I got a fellowship to teach English for two years in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. It wasn’t something I had planned in advance – I had never studied Chinese before, or taken any classes on the country’s history, but it seemed like an adventure. It was a powerful experience. I got hooked and decided to keep studying the language after I came home. In graduate school I migrated from English (which had been my undergrad major) to East Asian Studies, and then finally to Chinese History. This is probably the last thing my younger self could have imagined I would be doing at this age. As I see it, much of my work has touched on themes of travel and culture shock that date back to that post-college experience of finding a place for myself as an American in China.