Chinese leaders once tried to suppress memories of their nation’s brutal experience during World War II. Now they celebrate the “victory”—a key foundation of China’s rising nationalism. For most of its history, the People’s Republic of China limited public discussion of the war against Japan. It was an experience of victimization—and one that saw Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek fighting for the same goals. But now, as China grows more powerful, the meaning of the war is changing. Rana Mitter argues that China’s reassessment of the World War II years is central to its newfound confidence abroad and to mounting nationalism at home.
China’s Good War begins with the academics who shepherded the once-taboo subject into wider discourse. Encouraged by reforms under Deng Xiaoping, they researched the Guomindang war effort, collaboration with the Japanese, and China’s role in forming the post-1945 global order. But interest in the war would not stay confined to scholarly journals. Today public sites of memory—including museums, movies and television shows, street art, popular writing, and social media—define the war as a founding myth for an ascendant China. Wartime China emerges as victor rather than victim.
Rana Mitter OBE FBA is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, and a Fellow of St Cross College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of several books, including China’s War with Japan: The Struggle for Survival, 1937-1945 (Penguin, 2013), which won the 2014 RUSI/Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature, and was named a Book of the Year in the Financial Times and Economist. His latest book is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (Harvard, 2020). He has commented regularly on China in media and forums around the world, including at the World Economic Forum at Davos. His recent documentary on contemporary Chinese politics "Meanwhile in Beijing" is available on BBC Sounds. He is co-author, with Sophia Gaston, of the report “Conceptualizing a UK-China Engagement Strategy” (British Foreign Policy Group, 2020). He won the 2020 Medlicott Medal for Service to History, awarded by the Historical Association.