15 minutes of fame | Rana Mitter chooses Tsiang Tingfu
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Rob Attar interviews Rana Mitter about the life of Tsiang Tingfu
Who was Tsiang Tingfu?
Tsiang Tingfu was a distinguished scholar, diplomat, and government official in early to mid-20th-century China. Despite growing up relatively poor, he managed to obtain a scholarship which allowed him to study at Columbia University in the United States. He completed a PhD, explains Mitter, and then went on to teach at some of China’s best universities, including Nankai in Tianjin, and Tsinghua in Beijing. Though he was a prominent historian, Tsiang Tingfu also played an important role as a political figure in China at this time.
Tsiang Tingfu’s life
Tsiang Tingfu embraced a liberal outlook for the time, Mitter explains, wanting China to be democratised, and his critical essays caught the attentions of Chiang Kai Shek’s government, which was in charge from 1928.
As was the case with many potentially troublesome intellectuals, Tsiang Tingfu was recruited by the nationalist government, also known as the Guomindang. Through this recruitment, Tsiang held a number of high-status positions, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union. He later became the Chinese administrator to the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (CNRRA), and later accompanying Chiang Kai Shek to Taiwan when the nationalists had to flee from the Communists in 1949. Across just a few decades, says Mitter, Tsiang Tingfu developed his career path in several directions, holding various positions that were significant to China.
Tsiang Tingfu’s career was arguably very untypical, explains Mitter, as reaching the kinds of positions he did would be difficult for anyone. But Tsiang was one of a group of intellectuals that had a Western education and became central to public life in China. However, this group was not large, explains Mitter, meaning that Tsiang Tingfu and his colleagues were the last generation to be able to work between academic scholarship, government service, and non-Communist political thought, making his position unique in the larger history of China.
While serving under the Chiang Kai Shek government, Tsiang Tingfu remained critical of its human rights abuses and dictatorial tendencies, but also continued to be realistic about the minimal chance of liberalism post-war China, explains Mitter. As part of his post-war work, Tsiang Tingfu had the difficult task of coordinating the CNRRA, working with the newly founded United Nations organisation UNRRA, which led to tensions between Americans and the Chinese. Though Tsiang Tingfu ended up resigning his post, with someone else finishing the programme of rehabilitation and reconstruction, Mitter believes that Tsiang Tingfu must be credited for the success he had up until that point, feeding, rehabilitating, and rebuilding China in a short time, with funds that were insufficient.
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Why does Tsiang Tingfu deserve his fifteen minutes of fame?
“Despite being well-regarded in the West and China during his lifetime,” says Mitter, “he has been largely forgotten.” His ideologies often did not fit with Mao’s China, but in today’s China, explains Mitter, Tsiang’s ideas hold a lot of significance. His analyses of China’s mid-20th-century crisis have stood the test of time, and Tsiang Tingfu was central to the idea that liberal and democratic thought could exist in China, while still maintaining Chinese culture.
His work is still used in China today, despite the fact he was an official of the anti-communist government, showing his ongoing importance to Chinese political thought. Overall, says Mitter, he is a key figure for answering the question: ‘what does modernity mean in China?’
Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern china at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is China’s Good War: How WW2 is shaping a new nationalism (Belknap Press, 2020.
Article compiled by Isabel King