China Conversations

Rana Mitter: Pushing the Limit12 min read

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.

My own sense in the mainland is that archives are open within limits, and a lot of primary sources on the war have been published. Other things, such as inside Communist Party histories, are still tough to get hold of, certainly in archival form, even if you’re Chinese, and the published versions often tend to be redacted, or reduced, or not necessarily very forthcoming.

I would say that the political and social history of the Republican period is reasonably accessible. You may find in various locations that you’ll turn up and actually people won’t be able to supply you with what you hope for. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of people exploring particular topics and being given more than they had hoped for. But unfortunately, the negative stories still seem more frequent than the positive ones.

And archivists in China tend operate on a principle of caution, which is: “Let’s try and find some reason why it’s too difficult to get you and give you access to what you want,” rather than: “Our primary purpose is to inform the story and we’ll do all we can to help you do that.” Of course, there’s a big difference between an archive which is largely set up to enable the state to keep tabs on things and people, and an archive that is setup to enable researchers to find out more about what was going on.

Can you talk a bit about which specific archives you’ve found particularly fruitful for the period?

The one that people tend to go back to is the Number Two historical archives in Nanjing. It was actually problematic for a while because it was shut down for a long period of digitization – five or six years – but it now has come back on-stream. I have not yet had a chance to go back since it opened, which is relatively recently, but I’ve been getting positive reports. It’s also worth mentioning Taiwan, which has extremely rich archives for his period. And unlike mainland Chinese archives, many of the materials saved from the Guo Shi Guan, the Academia Historica, are digitized and available online, and therefore you can download a significant amount of material without actually going to Taiwan.

We talked previously about the reasons why the Republican-era stories are perhaps less well known than the Mao era. Are there other areas of the 20th-century story that you think are still under-researched?

Yes, there are quite a lot of areas that are under-researched. I think the reasons for those vary between lack of materials, political difficulties, and a lack of historical interest and focus. So in the first and second category would be detailed accounts of top Communist leaders and their rise to power. It would be great to have really decent first-level access to the writings of Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in their entirety, as opposed to the snippets that are put out in edited sections. And it’s hard to do really comprehensive studies of some of those top leaders without ultimately having access to this sort of material.

There are also areas that are only beginning to emerge that have been almost entirely ignored for a long time. I’d point to the work of environmental historians of China who have been doing really pioneering work in terms of understanding how environmental change has been really important in shaping history – unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a very large agrarian country. And that’s still work in progress, in comparison with the strides that environmental history has made in other, particularly South Asian, countries.

And there are a variety of other overlooked areas: gendered history beyond men and women; different types of identities, which is clearly a very lively area in terms of contemporary social history. That’s partly because it’s been an agrarian country for such a long time, but it’s now become technically at least a more than 50% urbanized one. I think attention to urban history is important, too. There’s lots of great work that is being done, but I would flag up one of my former students, Toby Lincoln, who teaches at Leicester University. He’s published a fantastic book about Wuxi – not a city that gets very much attention in the West – which he used as a case study for showing how close the countryside and city were to each other in China over much the 20th century in a way that is very, very innovative.

All of these are examples of people actually finding a patch of relatively untilled soil to say something new about. That’s one of the reasons to do Chinese history even now, compared to, say, many aspects of 20th-century French or British history. There are still lots of areas that have relatively little historical analysis on them yet, and therefore finding a new topic, relatively speaking, should be easier than it might be if you’re going to be treading more familiar areas.

To talk about your role with the Oxford China Centre, is that part of what it’s trying to do: encourage the pursuit of newer and under-explored areas in Chinese history?

Yes. I should explain that the Oxford University China Centre is Europe’s largest center for the study of China, and there is a very wide range of things we do. It’s everything from colleagues and students who work on ancient Chinese philosophy, to those working on contemporary social science: history is just one part of that mix, although it’s a very important part.

Within that, yes, I would say that we have done a lot to try and stimulate people to look into new areas in history, but in fact, the greatest vehicle in terms of doing that, to my slight surprise but great pleasure, has been one driven by students themselves. About three years ago, with a small amount of seed funding, graduate students here in Oxford set up a seminar called the Oxford International History of East Asia (IHEA), which started with one or two people reading a paper, and has now blossomed into a network; it’s very competitive to get into now, in fact, because they have far more applications than they do slots for people to speak. And so that’s been, I think, a very productive way of emerging young historians actually interacting with each other, rather than simply receiving thoughts from above.

One thing that’s obvious from your work is that you have a good understanding of international, and in particular, Japanese history, which is integral to the Chinese story but is not always known that well by those writing on China.

I think in many cases what you’ve identified can also be true for Europeanists too. There was a time when it would be mainstream for historians of Europe to read English, French and German. How many people actually do all of those now? I don’t entirely know, but it’s partly to do with the limits of time and resources for those studying the fields, and the attendant demands to finish things quickly, as opposed to doing them with the thoroughness that they deserve.

One of the things that’s been a pressure on universities is being able to tick boxes in terms of the number of doctorates that the sector puts out as a whole, and that is something that obviously can mitigate against being able to take the necessary time and depth [on a subject].

I suppose one of the challenges is that with the scale of Chinese history, and the necessary language acquisition, it is a lifetime pursuit, isn’t it? If you want to become fluent in the language that’s going to take you a long time. And then you add in Japanese and Korean…

Yes, of course, many academic pursuits are clearly going to be a lifetime pursuit, in terms of growing and enriching what you do, and many historians do spend many decades developing their craft in certain ways. I think that there is a danger sometimes of assuming that unless you spend literally decades and decades to do this, you can say nothing worthwhile. The fact is that we’re aware that the skills are immensely important, but they’re there for a purpose.

Do you think that there’s a danger of falling into a trap of thinking of China as somehow exceptional in its complexity in scope, and that therefore we have to be particularly careful when approaching it?

It’s like many societies that people study – it’s unique in some ways and very comparable in others. The idea that China is not comparable to anywhere else I think is clearly not valid. If you think about one of the books over the last 20 years or so that’s made the most impact not just in the China field, but also outside, it’s probably Kenneth Pomeranz’s famous work The Great Divergence, which explicitly looked at the question of why the Industrial Revolution emerged in England rather than China, when their economic situations were very similar at a certain period in the early modern era. It has been a controversial thesis, but also a very valuable and stimulating one, underpinned by huge amounts of research and data on his part and the part of those who have engaged with it – but it was also very good sign that you can make and ask and get answers to perfectly sensible comparative questions in which China is treated as something that can be compared with other societies, without having to make a special case for it.

You’ve recently published articles on China’s post-war period. Is that research going to become a book?

Yes, I very much hope that it will; in fact, I’ve just had some very positive news, in that I’ve been awarded a Leverhulme Trust fellowship, which will enable me to get extra time to research and write a book on the subject. What I want to do is to take what I call the Chinese post-war, the decade or so from 1945-55, and look at it from a variety of angles. One is obviously the question of the Civil War, but I also want to look at the wider context of how the post-war Chinese state emerged from the ashes of World War II. One of the reasons that we would do well to understand it more fully is that it is now the subject of great interest in China itself. Many, many historians, but also think tanks and policy people, are going back to things that happened in those immediate post-war years – the Tokyo war crimes trial for example, or China’s being given a seat at the UN – and asking what they mean for the long trajectory of China’s role in the world. Understanding that modern history of China’s engagement with the wider world, and the changes in its global status, is more important than it has been for a long time.

And do you know when that book might be emerging?

I am hoping – I should probably be a bit circumspect on this – but I hope to have a manuscript finished in the early part of the next decade, which is not that far along. It’ll depend on how much time I can carve out to get the sources read and the book written. The thing about books is that you want to have them out there, because then they can be part of the debates and discussions – so I’m going to hope you it’s not delayed too long.

For a project like that, which is enormously complex, how do you physically corral your research? Do you keep physical notes, or is it all electronic these days?

It depends a bit, and I don’t keep everything the same way. But I would say, along with probably many contemporary historians, that digital cameras have been wonderful. When you are at archives which will allow you to use them – and many in China will not – then you can just capture an awful lot more at greater speed. And then you can do the detailed reading when you download and look at the images later, rather than having to decide on the worth of everything at the time that you’re looking at it.

I’m still a great fan of actually taking things down by hand or typing them out when it’s possible to do that. But in a sense, I think the answer to your question is first and foremost dictated by the policies of a particular archive. Chinese archives will generally tend to be much more restrictive – they will quite often say what you can copy by hand is what you can take away.

We’re very grateful for places such as the National Archive here in the UK, which allow much more liberal gathering of materials. The sad truth is that for most academics the period during which they have the longest time to simply go and read archiva; material is when they are PhD students, or perhaps mid-career when they are given a fellowship – but to have that level of time in a normal academic career is actually a rarity, and so taking full advantage of it when you can do is very important. ∎

Further reading:
Klaus Muehlhahn, Making China Modern (HUP, 2019) – an up to date account of the sweep of modern China, including excellent material on the Republic.
Henrietta Harrison, The Making of the Republican Citizen (OUP, 2000) – a classic account of how individuals came to think of themselves as Republicans.
Hans van de Ven, China at War (HUP, 2018) – magisterial account of how war shaped Republican China and the early PRC.
Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Penguin, 1981) – still one of the most inspiring accounts of the Chinese 20th century.
Header: Rana Mitter/supChina.