China’s Good War

Jonathan Chatwin reviews China’s Good War by Rana Mitter

By the time Britain’s full Covid lockdown began on March 23 2020, the country’s right-wing press had already spent a week suggesting that this contemporary moment would require the same mythical tenacity that had seen the country through the Second World War. On the 16 March, in a reference doubtless pleasing to a Prime Minister who has written a book on Churchill, a headline in the Daily Mail asked ‘Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz?’. Two days later, a comment piece in The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid known for its populist nationalism, instructed the nation: ‘We’re fighting World War V so summon that Blitz spirit and take care of the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.’ (V stood for Virus, rather than the Roman numeral for five, the article helpfully explained.)

This contemporary invocation of a war that ended 75 years ago demonstrates something pertinent to Rana Mitter’s new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. Namely: the powerful, and often politically useful, ways in which stories of war – WWII in particular – can be invoked in the present to provide foundational narratives for nations, political parties and social groups.


China Conversations

Guo Yuhua: China’s Suffering Class

An anthropologist of China’s underclasses talks to Jonathan Chatwin

Guo Yuhua is Professor of Anthropology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She has spent the majority of her career researching and writing about the lives of rural Chinese people. Her work The Narration of the Peasant: How Can ‘Suffering’ Become History? is based on oral histories collected during her research in Ji village in northern Shaanxi province. She has written: “one of the ways to defeat the hegemony of official texts and official discourse is to write the history of ordinary people, the history of the ‘sufferers’.”

Professor Guo is currently undertaking research on food safety and peasant workers suffering from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease which affects workers in coal mines, quarries and foundries. Guo’s books are banned in China. As part of the China Conversations series, Guo Yuhua spoke from Beijing with writer Jonathan Chatwin.


Beijing’s Last Steel Factory

Jonathan Chatwin visits the abandoned Shougang steelworks


On a sultry August morning, a taxi brought me through Beijing’s western suburbs to the literal end of the road. At a makeshift barrier, a young police officer waved us to a standstill. “You can’t go any further,” he told the taxi driver, glancing pointedly at the foreigner in the back- seat, “It’s a building site beyond here: residents only.” Behind him and the barrier he tended, an almost empty stretch of gloss-black tarmac ran west.

I told the driver I would get out. “Here?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in the rear-view mirror. Here was the very western limit of Beijing, where the frayed edge of the city rubbed against the rough dun stone of the Western Hills. Besides the checkpoint, there was nothing here but a few brick buildings, the forbidden road ahead and the construction site which bordered it, fenced off with blue corrugated iron panels. “Here,” I repeated, proffering my money.

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.