Rana Mitter on Misuse of Chinese History

Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford, where he is a professor of the history and politics of modern China.

He is the author of several books, including the award-winning “A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World” (Oxford, 2004). His most recent book “Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II” was named as a 2013 Book of the Year in the Financial Times and the Economist, won the 2014 Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature, and was a finalist for the Bernard Schwartz prize of the Asia Society of New York.

In the UK he is a regular presenter of the arts and ideas program Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3. He comments regularly on contemporary Chinese politics and society in media around the world and has spoken at forums including the World Economic Forum at Davos. His reviews and essays have appeared in newspapers including the Financial Times, International New York Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Caijing, and South China Morning Post. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015.

Claudia Chandra CMC '20 interviewed Rana Mitter on February 20, 2019.

According to Foreign Policy, foreign historians of the Qing dynasty are frequently labelled “historical nihilists” by the Chinese government. Can you explain what this term means and why foreign historians are described this way?

The term historical nihilism has been really heard most frequently in the last few years as the government of Xi Jinping has become much more hardline and determined to really enforce a top-down set of views on correct and incorrect interpretations of history. That term is used usually to describe a variety of historians who are taking viewpoints or putting forward arguments that do not fit with the recognized narrative of Chinese history as approved by the Chinese Communist Party. This can relate to quite a few different issues. One example is the article from Foreign Policy by Professor Pamela Kyle Crossley, who is an expert on the Qing dynasty and the Manchu-Han encounter. Views about the way the Qing dynasty should be interpreted that differ from those of the CCP’s are certainly included in that category. But in the modern era, it could also include people who take a viewpoint on the foundation of the Communist Party itself that is different to that which the party officially permits. To give one example, views about the foundation of the CCP which make Mao Zedong, who eventually became the dominant leader of the party, less prominent and bring to prominence other leaders who later fell from political grace such as Wang Ming also fall into that category. 

Why does the Chinese government refuse to accept the more factual  version of history?

History is political in China. To be fair, history is political everywhere. For example, in the UK, the troubles we are having over Brexit stem in large part because of divergent interpretations of European history and Britain’s sense of how it relates to those. So, it is not just China. But China is much more explicit about wanting to exercise political control over what is thought to be an appropriate historical narrative. And at the heart of that is difficulty with versions of history that don’t fit either a highly patriotic or highly communist-centered view of history.


That is not to say that you can never find alternative versions of history in China. That would not be true. An example of that can be found in work that I have done over the last 20 years or so. I have  tracked the changes in the historical record relating to the World War II period of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kai-shek.  Some 25 or 30 years ago, the Kuomintang’s role in WWII was essentially almost a forbidden subject. But in the 20 years that followed, through the 1980s and into the current century, there has been much more space in China to talk about the positive contribution of the Nationalists as important actors during the war against the Japanese. So, there are some changes in history that you can actually track and see. But overall, there is still a very strong political imperative to make sure that versions of history fit with the narrative the party wants. And that is why alternative or non-authorized versions of history can be problematic. If such narratives put actors other than those from the Communist Party at the center of the rise to modernity of China, then that might provide a whole variety of awkward questions that the government does not really want to answer.  

How does the Chinese Communist Party control China’s historical narrative and how does this serve the party?

You’ll find the historical narrative promoted by the CCP in pretty much every educational sphere in China. High school textbooks, university courses, wherever you choose to go. It is used to put forward a roadmap of China’s modern historical development: the version of history that puts the Chinese Communist Party at the center argues that, essentially, the rise to power of the CCP was inevitable. It was the only correct historical path that China could possibly have followed.

Any historian who actually operates as a historian and not a politician will tell you that almost nothing is inevitable in history. There are a whole variety of different possibilities. The what-ifs of modern Chinese history are very numerous. In the 20th century, what if the Japanese had not invaded China in 1937 and started World War II in Asia? What if the Long March of the 1930s had not succeeded and the CCP had been scattered to the winds by their Nationalist opponents? What if China’s last emperor had not fallen in 1912 and, instead, China had transformed itself into a constitutional monarchy rather than being a republic? These things may have been unlikely, but the idea that there could have been no alternative paths in Chinese history is clearly not right. On the other hand, it is clearly politically useful for those in power to say, “this was the only way.” And that’s why that rise to power of the party becomes so central to the way in which history is embedded into popular consciousness.

How does the Chinese government justify its mission to effectively re-write the history to its public?  

The Chinese Communist Party essentially justifies everything it does in terms of performance legitimacy. To understand the history, you have to look back from the present. Today, I have spoken to many Chinese officials and pretty much all of them would give a similar version of this story. They would say “look at China today in the year 2019. It is the second biggest economy in the world and global superpower in the making.” None of that was true 30 years ago. And how did that happen? Because, they would say, “we followed the correct set of paths and adapted socialism using the doctrines of the CCP, which have developed all the way from the early 20th century through to the early 21st.” In other words, the argument would be for a strong path of historical development that essentially leads from point A, back in the 1920s with a small group of scattered and illegally-gathered students talking about communism, to point B, the superpower of today. Of course, many aspects of that story have to be skipped over. One example being the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The Cultural Revolution is not denied wholesale, and in fact, it has been officially condemned by the party itself in a 1981 resolution on its own history. But it has done this in a very swift and not very detailed way. It is almost like a road bump you have to get past to get today’s development. So, essentially economic development and superpower status, that is what the party would tell you is the justification.

Historians around the world have reached a consensus on the narrative of the Qing dynasty as “a conquest empire of global prominence… but also with the usual dynamics of violence, hierarchy, and marginalized cultural identities.” Instead of accepting this story, President Xi insists on picking and choosing facts from both Nationalist and Communist historiographies to change the official historical narrative. He chooses to portray Qing as “a cultural and economic behemoth that awed and charmed the populations of Mongolia, Tibet, Central Asia, and Taiwan into happy submission. How does changing the story of the Qing empire change the way China views itself today?

 The legacy of the Qing empire is one of the things that, actually, all modern Chinese regimes and not just the CCP, have found difficult to absorb. This is because it tells two different stories at the same time. The first story is a story about ethnic difference. The fact that China is a multicultural society, which indeed it is. There is also a story about China being a unified and unitary state, which has essentially one set of shared viewpoints. And the problem is that these things are not very easy to maintain at the same time. That’s one of the reasons why, for instance, in the early 20th century, there were significant numbers of experiments (now usually forgotten) with federalism as a way of operating the Chinese state. A lot of countries have such a system: Germany, Canada, the United States. Communist China has never really had a model that allows for genuine variation of tactics of governance from province to province. Sometimes you have economic experiments that vary between places. For example, Guangdong is a place  known for its economic experiments in the reform era.   But when it comes to ethnic difference, the state proposes the idea that China has huge amounts of ethnic difference, but it is all contained in a purely harmonious way. To use a phrase that former President Hu Jintao used a lot, it’s a “harmonious society.” That’s where the story of the Qing comes in. Essentially as you’ve said, the Qing was an empire like the Russian, Mongol, and British Empires. So, when we look at a land-based empire like Russia, which became the Soviet Union and even today, in post-Soviet days, contains a variety of different ethnic groupings, that is also very similar to China, which of course, borders it. And you can find examples of increasing the size of the empire through diplomacy and peaceful means but also through war and conquest. That just makes China, in a sense, no different from any other empire. There is nothing distinctive about China’s imperial history when it’s compared to Russia or the United States; it has elements of cooperation and elements of violent conflict and coercion.

How should historians outside of China act in the face of the CCP’S Party History Research Office – its “historical design shop” that is striving to change the past for the benefit of the present?

I know a lot of academics in China push back against this quite extensively because, of course, most academics are in a position to read quite widely. They observe what non-Chinese are saying about Chinese history and also history that is being written about other countries – U.S., France, whatever it might be. I think that means the difference between the way in which a Chinese professional historian might look at questions of history and an American might do, are not as different as they would have been during the days of Chairman Mao when there was little exposure to the outside world. There would still be ideological and also historiographical differences. I would say that the field of cultural history in China is probably still not as widely-practiced as it might be in the West. Whereas what you might call “hardcore political history” dominates a lot of what goes on. But that has more to do with the approach than necessarily the interpretation. I would say professional historians in China read a lot, know a lot, and are pretty well-informed in most cases about the shape of scholarship that exists outside China’s borders. Even though they are often held back by the fact that China’s Internet is quite heavily restricted and therefore one of the major means of getting that information is often censored more than it should be. 

Claudia Chandra CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *