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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Hans van de Ven, Professor of Modern Chinese History

Hans van de Ven is  Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. He will be speaking about a pivotal moment in recent Chinese history: the period during and after the Second World War. China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Birth of the New China 1937-1952 is on 20th October, 11am-noon.


Question: Do schools/universities focus enough on history of the Far East, given global political changes?

Hans van de Ven: No, not at all. It is remarkable how ignorant Britain remains of histories in East and Southeast Asia, despite its deep involvement in them. Just one example is the Opium War, which few students either in secondary school or even in University history programmes learn about. I am involved in an initiative to establish a Chinese Civilisation A-Level to help remedy this. On the other hand, the Mandarin Excellence Programme is proving a real boost. The school which my own children attended, Melbourn Village College, has made Mandarin mandatory for all students. It has proved hugely motivational. Students enjoy learning something so completely fresh and new and it has boosted their academic confidence. The contacts the school has developed with China and the visits it organises to and from schools in China is transforming outlooks. I have no doubt that we need to see a lot more of this.


Q: How did you personally become interested in this area of history?

HVDV: Pure chance. Neither I nor my family had any connection with China. But I decided as a teenager that I wanted to do something that was all-absorbing and different. Other things I could have done were Arabic, English (I grew up in Holland) or Russian. Somehow I concluded that doing Chinese would be more interesting. That's not necessarily true, of course, but I have never wanted to do anything else, no doubt in part because the decision led to opportunities that otherwise would never have come my way, including study at Harvard and then a position at Cambridge.

Q: What were some of the reasons that drove China towards resuming its civil war after 1945?

HVDV: The Civil War was not really put on hold during China's WWII. It began in the late 1920s, continued in the 1930s and during China's fight with Japan. The lack of trust between Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong, the Nationalist and Communist leaders, meant that peace had little chance. Both wanted a decisive victory, in the belief that that would give them the authority to reshape their country, as Mao would indeed do. One of the things I argue in China at War was that China was not just at war with Japan but also with itself, in a way like France during WWII.  The international situation was also important: the US and the USSR played big roles in China. They initially collaborated, but by 1947 were working against each other, creating opportunities which especially the Communists turned to their advantage.


Q: What were the seeds of the civil war in the 1920s?

HVDV: The 1911 Revolution ended 2000 years of dynastic China. The early attempts to agree on a constitution to underpin a liberal republic failed and in fact proved hugely divisive. Military power fragmented, with the result that regional strongmen became the effective rulers of China. It did not help that the indemnities imposed on China during the 1894 - 1895 Sino-Japanese War and then the 1900 Boxer Rebellion bankrupted the central government. China became a client state, beholden to its international creditors, including Japan but also Western powers. The Nationalists and Communists both mobilised Chinese society to end this state of affairs.


Q: What is the official version of this history in China today?

HVDV: WWII was ignored in China until the 1990s. The central national narrative was constructed around the Communist Revolution. But now WWII stands central in China's historical memory as the moment that China rallied together and successfully resisted Japanese fascism. There is a good deal of truth to this and China deserves far greater recognition for the role it played in WWII. Let's not forget that between 1937 and 1941, it fought Japan alone while Britain, the USA, France and the Netherlands did nothing. But China at War challenges this picture not just by pointing out the deep cleavages that existed within China, but also by emphasising the terrible price that China's leaders demanded from China's population, including the application of a scorched earth policy that led to many cities being burned to the ground and large tracts of land being inundated in an attempt to use water to defeat the Japanese. Large scale famine was the result.


Q: How easy is it to research Chinese history given the political situation in China?

HVDV: There is good and bad news. Over the last three decades, a new generation of historians in China has emerged that is hugely knowledgeable and is open-minded. I would never have been able to write China at War without their help. But it is also true that archives are being closed and historians are being silenced.