Rana Mitter, a major historian of early 20th-century China, is currently in Belfast delivering a series of lectures (which I am attending and commenting on) on the history of Chongqing during the “War of Resistance” (1937-1945). Mitter is the author, most recently, of a major study of the second world war in China; he has a wonderful history of production of monographs and has also edited a special issue of the European Journal of East Asian Studies. His work has focused on primarily the Republican period, but he strides confidently over and through various periodization and conceptual divides in contemporary Chinese history, and he is also an able comparativist. One is thus averse to defining him arbitrarily: He looks now at big questions, questions of Chinese modernity, questions of Chinese nationalism, questions of China’s role within the great global crucible of World War II, but he does so with a deft touch to the individual narratives. He is certainly interested in Chiang Kai-shek, and has done a lot of great deal of reading into that man’s unique diary (Psalm 9 was a favorite) in the Hoover Institution Archives. But the people, and the institutions, which gathered around Chiang are in some ways of more interest to the lecture. In the past, Mitter has looked at Chinese journalists like Du Zhongyuan whose wide scope (even when that scope is highly nationalistic) indicates some room for various possible versions of China that might have emerged after 1945 had circumstances been somewhat different. Disposing of a massive counterfactual with a quick aside, Mitter said “I’m sure Chiang Kai-shek, were he alive today, would look at Shanghai and say ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant,’ whereas Mao would just put his head in his hands.” The wit and wisdom of Rana Mitter will continue to illuminate the lecture halls and passageways of Queen’s University, Belfast, for another two days, at which time, like a storm, or a wartime capital freed from old burdens and yet festooned with expectations, many of those gathered here shall move over land and water, navigating through formations which may be novel, but have never been wholly new.
Image credit: Photo by Adam Cathcart, Chengdu, 2010.