At age 43, Rana Mitter is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading scholars on modern China, having authored several critically acclaimed books on the country’s history, culture and society. In fact, his book A Bitter Revolution: China’s struggle with the modern world won a number of awards and was named a “must-read” on China by the Foreign Affairs journal. A professor at only age 38, he teaches history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. Last year, he was nominated as the director of the institution’s prestigious China Centre—an assignment that he takes up in August.
Son of academic parents from Calcutta, both of whom left the city for further studies and subsequent careers at Oxford, Rana’s fascination for China began at an early age. As a young boy, Chinese to him seemed to be the “most unusual language” he could imagine. It was that curiosity which led him to study the language at university. “When I started studying Chinese more than 20 years back, it was Japan and not China that was rising,” says Rana.
As a young boy, Chinese seemed to Rana the most unusual language he could imagine. That started an eternal romance.
One of the earliest books he read on Chinese history was Jonathan Spence’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace—the story of a generation of Chinese intellectuals making their way through China’s violent 20th century. That was perhaps part of the reason why he revisited the most traumatic of moments for China—its epic and destructive war of resistance against Japan—in his new book, China’s War with Japan from 1937 to 1945: the Struggle for Survival.
Rana is also a well-known broadcaster and regular presenter of Night Waves, BBC Radio 3’s art and ideas magazine. “My parents were also always great lovers of classical music as were my grandparents in Calcutta from their earliest days,” says Rana. “When I was young, the sound of Mahler was often ringing through the house—and my tastes have remained modernist—Shostakovich, Janacek, Britten etc.”
His main focus now is to turn the China Centre, which will be home to all of Oxford’s Chinese expertise and will be located in a $34.2 million new building, part-funded by a Hong Kong businessman, into an institution of reckoning. “Oxford has the largest single grouping of people working on China anywhere in Europe and one of three or four anywhere in the Western world,” says Rana. Unfortunately, it is still not perceived in the same top league as Harvard or Berkeley. “We are hoping that the new building will crystallise that fact.”