Oxford aims for China excellence

Updated: 2012-11-02 07:50

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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Oxford aims for China excellence 

Academic and broadcaster Rana Mitter says his decision to study Chinese at Cambridge was a "stroke of luck". Nick J. B. Moore / For China Daily

Incoming director of center says there is exponential growth in body of knowledge about the country

Rana Mitter wants to make Oxford one of the major centers of learning about China in the world.

The 43-year-old academic and broadcaster was recently confirmed as director of the University of Oxford China Centre and will take up the post next year.

The center, which will be home to all the university's China expertise, is to be located in a 21.3 million pounds ($34.2 million; 26.4 million euros) new building, part funded by Hong Kong entrepreneur Dickson Poon that is set to open in the summer of 2014.

"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," he says.

"We would like to think of ourselves at the very top along with Harvard (University) and (University of California at) Berkeley but until now that hasn't been perceived. We are hoping the new building will crystalize that fact."

Mitter, regarded as one of the foremost new generation of Sinologists in the West, was speaking in his current narrow office with high walls lined with books at Walton Street in Oxford with the rain pouring down onto the skylight window.

The night before he had been wearing his other hat as one of the UK's leading radio arts broadcasters, presenting BBC Radio 3's Night Waves program, which he has done for the past five years.

"It has given me the chance to stay broad, as it were, not just focused on one academic subject but looking at a variety of things, everything from new exhibitions at museums to perhaps ideas in science which I wouldn't necessarily come across."

Oxford aims for China excellence

He has also recently presented a documentary on BBC Radio 4 called China's New Iron Ricebowl that looked at the Chinese government's efforts in housing, education and pensions policies.

"In the documentary, I tried to deal with some of the pressing problems facing China such as pensions, particularly the demographic problem that as a result of the family planning policy will mean 25 percent of the population will be over 65 by the middle of the century - and also the troubles with healthcare which is currently not well distributed in China."

At Oxford, where there are now 700 Chinese students, one of his aims will be to secure more funding for the new building, for which a further 6.8 million pounds is needed.

Chinese billionaires with money to spare could have the library named after them and for smaller sums perhaps lecture theaters and seminar rooms.

"We want the building to play a part in establishing further our own links with China and also be a hub for trying to educate the UK wider public about China. This is separate from our own central task of developing our own scholarship about China whether it be ancient bamboo documents or the most up-to-date social science," he says.

Mitter is the son of academic parents originally from West Bengal who came to the UK in the early 1960s. His father taught art history at Sussex University and his mother economics at Brighton University. Both are now retired.

He says his decision to study Chinese at Cambridge was a "random" decision and a "stroke of luck".

"I can't claim any blinding moment of realization. When I began to think about studying Chinese in the late 1980s, it was Japan that was rising and not China.

"I wish I could say I did it with a particular vision and decided to get in early but that wasn't the case."

He went on to a PhD at Cambridge with a year also as a Kennedy scholar at Harvard. He made his first visit to China in the late 1980s and now goes around twice a year.

"One of the great joys of being an academic actively engaged in the China field is that it is becoming commonplace and even mandatory to interact with Chinese colleagues so when I have invitations to go I take them up."

Mitter is about to publish another next year - China's War With Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival - building on the specific interest of his PhD which will deal with China's role in World War II largely glossed over in the West. "What I wanted to do is to tell the last great unknown story of World War II, at least unknown from the Western point of view and for a long time not that well known in China too."

Mitter admits China is often seen as a piggy in the middle with Japan wanting to pass through it to Burma and ultimately British India and it is often forgotten 15 million Chinese were killed and up to 100 million were made refugees.

"I take issue with the sense China was important only because it was on the way to somewhere else. The Japanese were desperate to colonize and take over China because they had reached an ideological point where they believed they were the new Asian power and that in their own minds they were going to liberate the rest of Asia."

Mitter also looks at whether Japan could be seen as uniquely evil because of its atrocities, including the 1937 Nanking Massacre. "There is no doubt the Japanese army committed a huge number of horrific war crimes. It was very clear at least in the initial phase the occupation by Japan was very brutal."

"Countries do terrible things in war time. If you want to see real evil, look at the Russo-German war that was probably one of the most savage fronts of World War II. Whatever one says about the Japanese empire it wasn't genocidal like the Nazis. It wasn't seeking to exterminate a large group of people."

Mitter says China is no longer an obscure subject area and there is a growing awareness in the West about the world's second-largest economy.

"The consciousness about China has only in recent years started to become high. Not all this attention is saying that everything in the garden is rosy and that is something that is important for China to come to terms with. As it becomes more global its friends are not always those who say sweet nothings to it."

Mitter says one of the things that has changed since he began studying Chinese more than 20 years ago is the exponential growth in the body of knowledge about China. It is something he wants to build upon at Oxford when he takes up his new role. "The amount of scholarship and literature out there on China used to be quite limited. It is now on a different order of magnitude," he says. "There are also few places that can rival the number of China scholars we have in one place as here."


(China Daily 11/02/2012 page24)