Archival Research in China: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

China Library

Aspiring China hands find themselves in the middle of a contradiction nowadays. On the one hand, the People’s Republic of China is increasingly important in the global system and, as such, as an object of study, necessitating cutting-edge academic research on the state. On the other hand, access to materials is getting more and more restricted there. So, what do you find in China if you go there for research purposes? Based on my fieldwork last year, I have a few answers, but the bottom line is this: Getting data out of China is difficult, but not impossible.

In an effort to contribute to the existing knowledge on Cold War-era Sino-Indian relations as a part of my doctoral research, I seek to collect data that has not been used by others. Therefore, my trip to China mainly focused on gathering archival documentation. It was difficult to get an idea about the availability of such sources beforehand. Journalists, researchers, professors, and fellow students all had different and sometimes contradictory advice on this issue. Some said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive was closed, others claimed that “researchers are not welcome” there, and many argued that it is not worth going to the place because the available materials represent no academic value. There was even less information about the accessibility of provincial or city-level archives. Amid this confusion, I followed one researcher’s advice to involve as many archives as possible, hoping that at least some of them would have something to offer.



The quest took me to seven archives — central, provincial, and municipal. My visits to two provincial archives were the shortest, as they provided no access to any post-1949 documentation. I was offered an official justification: These materials are undergoing digitisation, a process that started years ago and will likely take years to finish. This might be a general rule applicable to all provincial archives, but I don’t know because I only went to two.

Trips to four municipal archives were more fruitful. In one of them, I was not allowed to use the catalogue. I had to tell my keywords to the archivist who made the searches on my behalf. I ended up requesting to see 16 documents, but my application was rejected. Three other municipal archives allowed me to conduct research without a problem. Registration only required my passport and an introduction letter from a Chinese institution. In remote cities in the west of China, archivists were surprised to see me and the initial situation was a little awkward, but persistence paved the way to access. In big city archives like Beijing and Shanghai, the staff seemed comfortable with hosting foreign researchers. The three municipal archives in which I was allowed to do research directly had digital catalogues and most of the documents could be seen by clicking on them. In some cases, the documents were in microfilm format and visitors had to file a request to the archivist to see them. As expected, most of the documents pertain to meetings of local cadres and their reflections on central policies. Nevertheless, if you search for long enough, you can also salvage central documentation.

Finding useful documents is one thing, but getting copies you can keep is another. Local documents can be photocopied for free within certain boundaries. The limit varies archive by archive. Most had a daily limit of 50 pages. One of the archives I visited had a one-off limit of 30 pages after which no more photocopies were issued. Central documents, on the other hand, cannot be photocopied. The only way of acquiring them is to copy them by hand with your own laptop or pen and paper. This is a slow process but I found it useful because it made me focus on the most important documents instead of photocopying hundreds of pages that I would end up not using.

Finally, the only central archive I visited was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive in Beijing. The registration process is easy as long as you have an introduction letter from a Chinese research unit. This was the only place where I felt that having two copies of the letter was important because one had to be submitted to the archivist and another one had to be shown every time I wanted to enter the premises. The archives were completely digitized with a catalogue on the computer, but every document I wanted to see had to be approved by the archivist. The approval process was simple and happened through the computer. None of my requests were rejected there. Since 2013, most of the available materials are from the Protocol Department, meaning plenty of documentation on how to treat foreign delegations and the Chinese diplomatic missions’ work on organizing celebrations. Therefore, it might take a lot of digging to find relevant documents for your research, but trust me, they are there. Taking photos is forbidden and no photocopies are issued. If a document is of interest, you have to copy it by hand, just as in the municipal archives. The time pressure here is formidable: The archive is only open for five hours each day from Monday to Thursday and for two and a half hours on Friday mornings. It is closed on weekends and national holidays.

I wrapped up my fieldwork with three takeaways. First, archival research in China is not as bad as it is often depicted by outsiders. To be sure, historians who want to describe Cold War-era events in excruciating details relying on massive archival documentation are gearing up for a tough fight that is nearly impossible to win. Political scientists who do structured, focused comparisons of case studies might have better chances of success. Second, Chinese archives are strict but fair: The same rules apply to Chinese citizens as to foreigners. Third, Chinese archivists are generally helpful if you play within the rules. If you have bad luck and they do not let you see the documents you want, do not throw a tantrum. Move on to the next one, that might work out. Finally, something I found odd was that not all of these institutions are used to hosting researchers for an extended period of time. At one municipal archive, staff wondered what was taking me so long — I had been there for two hours. In the beginning of the third week of my research at another archive, the personnel greeted me with the question: “Aren’t you done yet?”

When all is said and done, aspiring and acting China hands should not be discouraged by worsening trends and gloomy soothsaying. The data is out there if you look hard enough. You are not done yet.



Daniel Balazs is a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research focuses on Sino-Indian relations and Chinese foreign policy.

Image: Wikicommons (Photo by Iamchenzetian)


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