Rana Mitter
Rana Mitter

China's Second World War: the forgotten story

Stuart Gillespie

Parliamentarians have been given a fascinating insight into one of the Second World War's forgotten stories by an eminent Oxford academic.

Professor Rana Mitter, Director of the University of Oxford China Centre and a Fellow of St Cross College, addressed the All Party Parliamentary Universities Group on China's role in World War II, and how the eight years its people spent resisting the Japanese helped shape the country's future.

Professor Mitter's lecture was one of just four chosen to be delivered from 185 submissions as part of the Frontiers of Knowledge series. It was also the only humanities talk chosen.

The lecture was held, by kind permission of the Lord Speaker, in the River Room in the House of Lords, and was introduced by Lord Norton of Louth.

Professor Mitter's research drew on material from Chinese archives that remained sealed until five or 10 years ago.

The lecture was based on his recent book, China's War with Japan, 1937–45: The Struggle for Survival, which was chosen as a 2013 Book of the Year by the Economist, Financial Times, New Statesman, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Telegraph, and Observer.

Professor Mitter told parliamentarians: 'The story of China in World War II is one of the last great unknown stories of one of the most famous world conflicts.

'It's really very strange that we haven't known in the West what happened to China in World War II for so many decades, because the effect on China was devastating.

'Fourteen million or more Chinese were killed, 80 to 100 million became refugees, and the tentative modernisation that was happening in China before the war was smashed into pieces.

'All of this came together to shape the China that we know today – the rising superpower – and yet the experience of the Chinese people resisting Japan and coming through those eight years of war is simply very little known.'

Professor Mitter went on to outline why a war that devastated China has been largely forgotten, and why World War II was so important in China's global rise.

The lecture illuminated the roles of towering political figures such as Mao Zedong and China's nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and explained the ways in which their legacy is shaping the fraught relations between China and Japan today.