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.

China Conversations

John Minford and the Dao De Jing

A sinologist and translator reveals his secrets to Jonathan Chatwin

John Minford is a Sinologist and literary translator, known particularly for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone, Strange Tales and The Art of War. John's recent work includes a translation of the famous Chinese divination text, the Yi Jing, and a new version of the Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Daoism, published in late 2018. Writer Jonathan Chatwin sat down with him to discuss his path into Chinese translation, the ineffability of the Tao, and the challenges of translating classical Chinese into modern English.

You studied Chinese at Oxford in the 1960s. How unusual a choice was undergraduate Chinese at that time, and what drew you to the subject?

When I began studying Chinese, in the summer of 1966, China was launching itself into the Cultural Revolution and was very isolated. There were few students doing Chinese at Oxford – I think there were about five who enrolled in my year. By then I had already been a student at Oxford for two years – I entered Balliol College from Winchester on a Brackenbury Scholarship in Classics in the autumn of 1964. What I really wanted to do all along was study the piano, and I had been offered a place at the Royal College of Music. But neither my parents nor my college approved of the idea. So I was obliged to continue studying something or other at Oxford, and somewhat reluctantly drifted into the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program.

China Conversations

Connecting Across Time and Culture

Historical mystery writer Elsa Hart in conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Where did your interest in China – and the particular period of imperial Chinese history you deal with in your novels – come from?

My interest in 18th-century China developed during days spent on the scree slopes and alpine meadows of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province. I traveled to Kunming and Lijiang for the first time in 2010 when my husband, a biologist who studies mountain plants, was doing fieldwork for his dissertation. We returned to the area in 2011 and spent most of the following three years there. It was in Lijiang that I learned about the network of old trade routes between China and Tibet known as the Tea Horse Road. And a visit to the ancient observatory in Beijing inspired me to read about the Jesuits who oversaw the construction of its instruments in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

China Conversations

Delving into Shanghai’s Demimonde

Paul French talks nonfiction noir with  Jonathan Chatwin

Where did the research for City of Devils start?

My first port of call is newspapers, specifically the old China coast newspapers, which are mainly – though not exclusively – in English: the North China Daily News; the China Press; the Shanghai Mercury; the Peking Gazette. Some of it is online, but not much has been scanned, so you have to go to the British Library newspaper archive, Hong Kong University library or the Zikawei library in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai, and use originals or microfilms. In going through those, you find stories which give you threads to pull at. And the stories are important in context of the Sinology. City of Devils, for instance, takes its lead from Frederic Wakeman’s Sinological work. He wrote two books, on policing Shanghai in the 1930s and on Shanghai’s Badlands. But both are focused on the Chinese experience, whereas I write about the foreigners.