Archives, Archives, and Old Book Markets in China
By:Jian Ming Chris Chang, PhD in Modern Chinese History, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Issues of access are always a primary concern for researchers of modern Chinese history. Anyone who has visited a Chinese archive knows that even the best-laid plans can abruptly go awry, as a single imperious archivist can be all that stands between a groundbreaking project and a project that doesn’t leave the ground.
With this firmly in mind, I utilized a summer grant from the Sasakawa Young Leadership Fellowship to carry out exploratory research in China. With an eye towards preparing a dissertation prospectus in the coming year, my goal was to gain access to as many Municipal Archives as I could in order to find out if a particular class of documents – so-called ‘letters from the people’ – was available for historical research. I visited archives and libraries in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Chengdu in search of a critical mass of ‘letters from the people’ that might serve as the focus of a dissertation project down the road.
In Beijing, the Beijing Municipal Archives provided everything I needed (air conditioning, copying services, friendly staff) except for the documents I sought. I was much more fortunate in Shanghai, where the relatively-complete collection of files from the city’s civil affairs bureau gave me confidence that the project I have proposed is at least a feasible one from an empirical perspective. Chongqing was a surprisingly open archive with a rich collection of letters, but unfortunately the only sources I found fell far outside of the historical period I am interested in. I likewise sweet-talked my way into seeing the catalog of the archives in Chengdu, but didn’t see a great deal of material that interested me regardless.
I would have left China 1 for 4 had it not been for my incredible luck in tracking down what some researchers have termed, ‘grassroots sources.’ Particularly in Beijing and Chengdu, I visited old book and paper markets in search of government papers that have been discarded, only to reappear amidst Cultural Revolution memorabilia and fake ‘Little-Red Books’ at the stalls of second-hand booksellers. By getting to know a few of the specialty vendors, I was able to purchase a large collection of deaccessioned official documents that matches up well with anything that I found in an government archive. From my past work with official materials, I immediately recognized that some of these ‘grassroots sources’ I discovered were indeed very rare and historically pertinent. Many of these files were kept and sold in their original archival folders, leaving no doubt in my mind as to their provenance. Regardless of how they made it to the old book market (a dissertation project in itself), I was thrilled to have them in my possession. I left a large stack of with friends in Beijing and brought the rest back to New York with me. At the very least, the materials I was able to acquire from the archives and the book markets have provided me with a strong case to go back and get more. I am thankful to the SYLFF for giving me a chance to see what China has to offer.