Rana Mitter describes himself as just a guy who writes books about the 1940s. This is clearly British reserve. After all, the 52-year-old has been teaching about the history of modern China at Oxford University’s St. Cross College for more than twenty years now – even though Mitter received his doctorate from Cambridge University. He has since written several books and keeps coming back to the 1940s and China’s role after World War II. “The late 1940s is one of the least studied periods in Chinese history,” Mitter says.
1949 was the year in which the Communists finally took the helm in China. But Mitter is convinced that the foundation for China’s claim to great power had already been laid earlier: “Just like almost the entire rest of the Western world, which sees 1945 as its turning point, 1945 is also the moment for China when it begins to see itself as a model for other countries leaving colonialism behind.” To understand this shift in China’s self-perception, Mitter combs through the diaries of important Chinese leaders of that period for his new book. Mitter aims to create a holistic picture of how that revolutionary moment came to be in the first place.
Mitter’s first visit to China, however, came at a very different time. He encountered the country when China’s attempts at reform and opening up came to a sudden and temporary end with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Mitter followed the developments on the Mainland from democratic Taiwan and Hong Kong, which was still under British rule at the time.
The fact that he developed an interest in the country at all was by no means a given. Mitter grew up in Brighton in southern England, at a time when China was far from British focus. Connections to other Asian countries, such as India, were much closer due to colonial history. Mitter’s family also has roots in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is the unknown of China that fascinates Mitter. “I thought the prospect of an interesting and challenging language might open up new experiences,” Mitter explains.
Mitter has long been honored with various awards for his research. He has been awarded a Fellowship of the British Academy, and in the summer of 2019, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
But even after almost 30 years, Mitter is not growing tired of China. “I think the modern history of China is one of the most interesting historical stories in the world,” he says. Especially because so much has happened there in such a short time. And also because there have been so many strong characters who have shaped the country over the past 100 years. “For us historians, it is important to point out precisely the unpleasant moments that don’t necessarily fit the narrative of the Communist Party.”
But Western politicians would also benefit from a better understanding of Chinese history, Mitter believes: “It would be a good idea for Western politicians to learn more about Chinese history as a whole, because it’s not unusual for Chinese to bring up a whole range of historical events.” After all, both the good moments – such as the Chinese alliance with the US and the British in World War II – and the bad moments, such as the Opium Wars – have not been forgotten by the Chinese either. The West would do well to show more interest in this part of its history, Mitter says. David Renke