Update 7/10: Archival Trip to Beijing


Things happened, but I am back from Beijing.

The entrance into the China First Historical Archive in Beijing requires an application on arrival, which I did expect but was overly optimistic about. Unlike a visa on arrival, the application does not guarantee the permission of entry. Though seeing a reference letter from a Chinese professor (who does not supervise the project but is willing to validate my identity and research project, and wish to be anonymous), the archive’s receptionist immediately denied my entrance on the first day I arrived in Beijing. While presuming I might be admitted the day after submitting my application, I was notified on the next day that the review of application could take a week at most. When I waited for the application result, I have visited the Chinese National Library and National Museum and attended few historical seminars hosted by the Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I received the entry permit from the archive’s administration on the fifth day in Beijing. The whole administrative impediment, except the requirement of a reference letter from a Chinese scholar, was not mentioned by the archive staff, who answered my phone call and inquiries before I set off.

The archive’s management continued to disrupt the research plan with their “regulations”, which, as I wonder, whether initially existed to bother non-native researchers or were temporarily made up. The archive never prohibited me from accessing the document I am interested of, since I can access all materials listed in the catalog (I don’t know if there are documents the archive wish not to display to the public, but I will not make any assumption). The staff member who transfers papers from the archive to the reading room, however, seemed always pissed as I asked for 10 to 15 documents per visit. To reconcile the tension with the person I relied on most in the archive, I brought the staff some fruits, common presents/gratitude in the Chinese culture, a few times and the working environment became comparatively harmonious afterwards. The archive claimed unable to offer photocopies of the documents for technical and financial reasons. I, therefore, had to spend much more time transcribing documents into my laptop, which, frankly speaking, is an enjoyable assignment as I practiced and improved my traditional Chinese. I am not allowed to take pictures the whole time in the archive, not only of the documents but also of the building and the staff, so there has been no photograph to commemorate the weeks in Beijing, such a pity (I did take pictures of the street views and the facade of the archive, and some foodie photos).

Though having no images to remind me this tiresome trip in Beijing in the future, I gained some personal tips for archival trips, not necessarily in Beijing but institutions in other countries as well. First, budget the time schedule generously. I absolutely do not encourage procrastination, and the historical society honor efficiency without saying. But unfortunately, unforeseeable events and incidents might emerge during the trip. I set off to Beijing on June 17th, and the original date of return was the 23rd. But I was not home until July 8th, meaning two extra weeks were spent. The application procedure delayed the schedule for almost a week, and the rule, which the staff claimed to forbid photocopying the documents, doubled the workload. Contacting the archive before the arrival helps understand the institution’s basic guidance and special regulations, even though it did not work in my trip. I cannot take pictures of materials I picked, but I would like to recommend transcribing documents after identifying useful ones in the archive. Transcribing documents, or even translating some of the original texts, on site helps further analyzing the significance of the documents. This process can indicate other materials that might facilitate the interpretation. Lastly, I would like to talk about the archive’s staff. Though I have complained about some of the staff in Beijing for the obstacles they created or refused to remove, I think it is better to be optimistic and try to reconcile the tension. I am a Chinese researching about the Chinese history, but I am not confined to the regulation of any Chinese university while conducting archival research in China. The staff, from my point of view, have considered me more suspicious, or even more intellectually dangerous, than foreign researchers. Fortunately, the staff at the archive never called the Chinese national security agency for an investigation; otherwise, the issue could be more problematic.

The archival trip to Beijing is successful, to the extent that I have located and transcribed all necessary primary sources for the research project. The whole experience, nevertheless, was not effortless at all, since I have encountered some staff and archival regulations that are hard to work with. Though the process of reviewing and collecting documents had been difficult, I am glad that I can set off on writing this paper’s body paragraphs. I wish to address my gratefulness to the Charles Center, as their funding sponsored my trip to Beijing and covered my boarding and dining while staying for extra time in Beijing. Thanks to the Chinese scholar, whom I only had conversation twice over the telephone call but voluntarily validated my project to the archive and insisted to remain anonymous when I wrote my reports and the research paper.

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