Date: 9 March 2018
Hans van de Ven, professor of Modern Chinese History at the Faculty of Asian and Middle East Studies in Cambridge, delivered a talk elaborating on his new book China at War and vision for the next project on “wartime everydayness.” Following a sincere effort to incorporate the “China theatre” in the general account of WWII historiography, Prof. van de Ven first reviewed various issues in his monograph: contact between Chinese and Japanese military officials over the course of Japan’s surrender in 1945, Chinese Nationalist-Communist negotiations for peaceful post-war settlement following the dissolution of the Japanese Empire, Chiang Kai-shek’s “benevolent” policies towards post-war Japan as a “virtuous” leader, the applicability of “Clausewitzian victory” in China’s war, and the meaning of the Japanese downfall to the areas outside the China theatre. Prof. van de Ven acutely pointed out that “Japanese defeat” was only one of the issues in postwar Asia. He argued that Japanese imperialism in East and Southeast Asia during WWII and the immediate post-war era projected a new “opportunity” for former colonies under both Japan and European empires to reconceive their own state formation, and thus swiftly unleashed the decolonization process.
Prof. van de Ven then progressed to the second half of the lecture concerning his next project on “wartime everydayness,” which will be an ambitious plan to examine both living environments and the national consciousness in wartime societies across East and Southeast Asia. At the macro-level, Prof. van de Ven broadly compared Japanese de-imperialization to European counterparts in Asia, building on previous scholarship by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper. At the micro-level, he referenced memoirs and literary works written by Chinese Nationalist elites at war, such as Chi Pang-yuan (齊邦媛), Chen Yinke (陳寅恪), and Chen Kewen (陳克文), to name just a few. He suggested that WWII in China (and other East Asian regions) did not just create turbulence and impose violence. The war also precipitated geopolitical diversity in East as well as Southeast Asia, and fermented cultural vibrancy (widely defined) created by diasporic Chinese intellectual elites. The talk and ensuing discussion concluded that there is an increasing demand for research on “wartime everydayness” that will spur future scholars to examine the nuanced social complexity of WWII and postwar East Asia that might overcome the constraints imposed by conventional narratives that focus on confrontation and calamity.