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China is finally embracing its World War Two history—historian Rana Mitter explains why

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with University of Oxford historian Rana Mitter. Professor Mitter is a leading historian and commentator on modern China. He’s published dozens of articles and books on the topic including his most recent book, China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism which has received considerable acclaim for its insights into how China’s complex past is now reflected in its modern nationalism. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

The war of resistance

SEAN SPEER: Professor Mitter, thanks for joining us today. It’s an honour to speak to you about your book, China’s Good War, as well as your broader research on modern China. 

RANA MITTER: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a contextual question. Your previous book, Forgotten Ally, documents China’s role in World War II. For those of us who do not know much about the Chinese war effort, can we begin with some basic facts? What is the “war of resistance?” And what was its significance in World War II?

RANA MITTER: Sure. The war of resistance against Japan is the overall term that’s still used in China today for their theatre of the Second World War. I would say that the China theater of World War II in which the war of resistance against Japan took place is probably the most significant, least-known theatre of the Second World War for most Western listeners and readers. Yet it was a huge set of events. 

I am going to try and be as concise as possible by giving you a few key facts that I hope may set it in context. The China theatre was the single longest theatre of war during the Second World War. War broke out between China and Japan in summer 1937, two years before the war in Europe, and lasted, of course, until August 1945, when the war in Asia ended with the atomic bombings of Japan. It involved the deaths of millions of people.

Statistics, even now, are hard to compile completely, but reliable figures would suggest that 10 million or more people died in China, both in military direct combat, but also more than that, through events which are triggered by the war, an example of which would be the massive famine in Henan province that killed 4 million people. So, very substantial deaths. And also 80 to 100 million Chinese became refugees within their own country during that period, and the country’s painfully acquired infrastructure of the 20th century, including railroads, factories, industry, and so forth was all smashed to pieces.

But the last fact which I think is certainly worth remembering is that the Chinese war effort essentially held back more than half a million Japanese troops for the first four and a half years of the war before Pearl Harbor and the arrival of the United States and the British Empire in the Asian war. So, it was of immense significance in terms of the overall global story. And essentially, in terms of combatants, you’re talking about two major groupings: the Nationalist Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek, the then leader of China, and the communists under Mao Zedong, who came together and fought in a very uneasy alliance against the Japanese throughout those eight years, and, as I’ve said, assisted after 1941 Pearl Harbor by America and Britain, coming to a final victory. It was a very hard-fought victory in 1945 before the two Chinese allied sides then turned against each other in a civil war, which followed shortly afterward.

The changing narrative

SEAN SPEER: That’s such a valuable context for your latest book, China’s Good War, which outlines how China’s involvement in World War II has taken on the narrative of the so-called “good war” beginning in the 1990s. What happened that led to the rise of a Chinese nationalism for which the war experience including a shared sense of anti-Japanese struggle found new salience, including, as you observe in the book, a huge commemoration for the first time in 2015?

RANA MITTER: Most countries that were belligerents on either side, and certainly the Allied side in World War Two including Canada, still draw very, very heavily on war memory as a means of creating a sense of national identity. With Canadians, of course, World War I also has tremendous significance—Vimy Ridge being an iconic example of that along with others of course. 

China was involved in the First World War, but to be honest, in a relatively smaller role than in the Second World War. It sent over 100,000 workers to the Western Front in World War I, where its efforts were actually very important for Allied victory, but not well remembered. But World War II, it joined as a full combatant, there’s no doubt about that. And yet, the way in which that war was remembered after 1945, after the defeat of Japan in Asia, was very up and down. 

I think one might say in the now nearly 80 years since that’s happened, to put it most simply, unlike every other major allied belligerent—the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Soviet Union,  whichever ones you want to name—China did not draw immediately and comprehensively on the shared experience of World War II to shape its post-war national identity. And the reason in a sense was simple: the Second World War and the tenuous unity of the two sides, the nationalists and communists, very quickly broke up into a civil war. One side won, Mao and the communists, and they established the  People’s Republic of China.

After that point, it became politically very, very difficult to say anything comprehensively positive about the Nationalist government—which they had defeated, of course, and forced to flee to Taiwan—in terms of their anti-Japanese contribution. That meant that the vast majority of what was said about World War II in Mao’s China was really about the contribution of the Communist Party only. Now that was important. Let’s not underestimate guerrilla warfare in particular, but it wasn’t the only thing that won the war. 

Essentially that situation only changed within the mainland of China after the 1980s. Why would that be? After all the Communist Party was still very much in charge and remains so to this day. It had to do with a couple of factors related to domestic and geopolitical change. First, geopolitically, and this will sound very familiar today, there was a desire to unify the mainland with the island of Taiwan, the only part of that civil war that the Chinese Communists consider unfinished business. And in the 1980s, now remember, it’s a different time: China was a liberalizing communist state coming out of the Cultural Revolution and Taiwan was also still an authoritarian state and not yet a democracy. Therefore, there was some thought on both sides, but certainly on the communist side, that perhaps trying to share some of their histories, particularly of the World War II period, rather than find reasons to be opposed to each other, might be helpful. 

Beyond that, though, there was a wider sense domestically that the Cultural Revolution had shattered China; the belief in ideology and class struggle had become very, very weak if it existed at all. And finding a new narrative, a patriotic narrative, that would bring people together from all of their political directions was important to do.

And so, the Second World War, as with so many other allied nations, was brought out almost from the ideological cupboard to be used as a means of telling that patriotic story. And ever since then, it’s been going on. You can see it in museums: the major Museum of the War in Beijing, does, of course, talk about the communist contribution, but talks about the nationalists as well. When Xi Jinping held a parade in Tiananmen Square, six years ago in 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, 90-plus-year-old veterans including former nationalist soldiers as well as communists were presented to Xi Jinping; the ultimate attribution to the old opponents in a communist society.

And just last year in 2020, during the pandemic, the biggest box office movie in the world was a Chinese movie called The Eight Hundred. It’s available through Western outlets too, if anyone wants to see it. The movie is a heroic celebration of a small group of soldiers who fought against the Japanese in 1937. They were Chinese soldiers, but they’re not Chinese communist soldiers. They’re Chinese Nationalist soldiers. Bringing back the old civil war enemy into a unified story of World War II was politically impossible for most of the Mao period. Now, it’s part of the mainstream, even though perhaps partly because the Taiwan issue is so difficult to deal with even now.

SEAN SPEER: Rana, you talk about how this rehabilitation of the nationalists, in particular, and the emergence of a good war narrative more generally, has taken on these political and popular culture manifestations. Do you have any sense of how it’s being covered and disseminated in the Chinese education system?

RANA MITTER: A new understanding of World War II in China is being spread through a variety of media platforms and institutions. There are many, many messages, but at least two that we’re thinking about. One is about the use of the war to tell a story that the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing wants to tell, and that’s very much about the leadership of the communists during the wartime period, and how China’s weakness including being attacked and occupied during World War II was never to be allowed a repeat performance, and that’s why China has to be strong today. So, that’s the Beijing story. 

But the second story is one that actually exists much more at the grassroots. And it’s not necessarily in opposition to that first story, because China has become a pretty nationalistic place in many ways, but it also allows space for things that aren’t in Beijing’s story, which are family histories, complexities about families where some were supportive of the old nationalists and some supported the communists. There are also stories for instance of women and children, who also had to suffer in wartime conditions. Stories often tend to be very masculine in the way that they’re told at the top-down level. At the grassroots, there’s room for wider stories. 

A new understanding of World War II in China is being spread.

So, you can see different aspects of those in various parts of the Chinese system. But education is one area. So, if you read school textbooks, you would certainly find a quite top-down, stylized version, which is very much about Communist guerrillas fighting bravely, almost all of them, not all of them, but most of them men. But if you went to university, you find a more nuanced and complex story, because there you have people who are working with primary sources. They’re working with different viewpoints, they’re debating them, and students and professors take a more complex view of issues such as how much foreign assistance from the Americans helped China win the war, which is talked about generally much less than in the textbooks.

One element to add, as with everything else in China, and indeed the world, is that social media has really changed this story. So, you find lots of social media sites where you often have people kind of refighting, at least re-arguing the battles of World War II on the Chinese terrain online with each other. One has to imagine this is as basically a way of trying to find a way out of perhaps a slightly humdrum, middle-class urban existence where people have enough to eat and are living in peace that don’t perhaps have the kind of challenges that people had in the wartime period. And so, it’s a way of sort of playing with the war as a place to reimagine people’s sense of identity, of purpose, of mission. But that’s not being driven by the state. It’s not Beijing telling you to do that. It’s more the atmosphere created by this new language, a narrative of the war, that’s making ordinary people use their social media environment to actually talk about things that are important to them and using the war as a lens or focus to do that.

SEAN SPEER: As an outside observer, there seems to be some tension in Chinese historical mythology between a narrative of grievance on one hand, and this emerging narrative of a triumphant combatant on the other hand. Both narratives could ostensibly fuel a sense of modern nationalism. How should we think about the coexistence of these two narratives?

RANA MITTER: I think that it is true that much of the nationalist language that China uses now and has been using for years, if not decades, combines two elements that in some senses seem to be opposed to each other, but are actually as part of the same process. One is a sense of anger and grievance about the fact that China as a country, from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century, was essentially subjected to repeated attacks from outside invasions and unequal treatment in international law, including being forced to set tariffs from the outside. So, these are quite specific, but actually have to do with a wider sense of being pushed around by the outside world. And this links to a very strong sense that a modern China has to create a new sort of state identity that doesn’t concede to demands that are made by foreigners. But I want to add a distinction here, because what we’re talking about there is the anti-foreign element of nationalism, which is an important part. It’s the part that foreigners tend to see. But I personally don’t think it’s the most important part, and I refer back to this discussion we’re having about World War II. 

Many people who know a bit about the subject for very good reasons would say, “Oh, well, obviously World War II is important to Chinese today, because they’re still angry at the Japanese,” and in many cases, that’s true. They feel that Japan committed war crimes in China, which haven’t yet been fully discussed by the world. Japanese, of course, would, in some cases, disagree with that. But that’s an argument between those two sides. I think, though, that discussion about war crimes distract attention from something that I think is much, much bigger that’s been going for a long time, which is using World War II as an opportunity for the Chinese to have conversations with each other about what they think about their present-day identities. 

So, to give you one example of what I mean by that: Chongqing in the southwest is a huge, great industrial city and one of the powerhouses of China. It was the temporary wartime capital of China under the nationalists, the Guomindang. But it was also, for that reason, a place that didn’t have any very extensive communist presence before 1949. And in some ways, Chongqing has always felt angry and resentful, obviously against the Japanese for bombing it on many occasions they did, but even more so, to other cities in China for not acknowledging the huge sacrifices they made as a capital city that was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese but never surrendered because they resisted under the nationalists and not under the communists. 

That only reversed in the 1980s and 1990s, when Chongqing was given space, implicit, but quite broad, to celebrate its own nationalist past under the rubric of World War II. And a good example of that will be things like the rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek’s old villa where we now even see a fibreglass statue of him and his old automobile and various other accoutrements. I think it would  be hard to imagine a respectful tribute to Chiang Kai-shek’s war effort being open during the Mao’s years; it simply would not have happened. Whereas in later eras, the fact that the war provides us a wider frame of interpretation enables a feeling that’s very nationalistic but not tied only to the communist story. It’s very much about China being a proud upstanding nation that fights back against outsiders, which doesn’t just depend on the communist narrative, becoming much more part of the mainstream. And that’s a more inward-looking story that outsiders don’t always tend to see. It’s not less important than the story about resentment against Japan, but it’s a different part of that story.

Diaspora communities

SEAN SPEER: Let me just ask one final question before we wrap up. For countries like Canada, which have large Chinese diaspora communities, are there any implications for us due to the growing salience of the good war narrative?

RANA MITTER: There is a growing sense, I think, amongst overseas Chinese diaspora communities worldwide that actually sharing in more of this historical experience is something that they can use to build ideas of community history. And one of the things I know as a historian is that the overseas Chinese communities were fantastically important in both funding and providing moral support to the Chinese war effort during that period. More for the Guomindang, actually, but to some extent for the CCP as well, during those years, because, of course, the nationalists were the government of China at that time. I think that in some ways, both Canada and China, which both played a very important part in that wartime experience, are countries whose stories have been slightly put to the side of the global narrative while the Soviet Union, British Empire, and the United States tend to sit at the centre of the Allied story. So, there may yet be some commonality perhaps between Canadian and Chinese historians of this period, in terms of, of those who live in the diaspora, to see whether there was kind of commonalities of interest. China and Canada were, of course, allies in the wartime effort between only 1941 and 1945. It’s just that’s not a memory that’s much revived in the present day; it deserves to be so.

SEAN SPEER: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. The book, of course, is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism. It’s already received awards and various forms of critical acclaim, and we are grateful Rana to have you join us today to share some of the book’s fascinating insights. Thank you so much.

RANA MITTER: Thanks very much indeed, Sean. A pleasure to talk to you.