How nomads produced spaces of resistance in China’s erstwhile Xikang Province

The first publication to come out of this project has landed! My article “Planting and its Discontents: or How Nomads Produced Spaces of Resistance in China’s Erstwhile Xikang Province” appeared in issue 3 of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities. The issue’s special theme is “environmental humanities from below,” and it emerged from an environmental history symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, though several more authors joined the issue after that.

Click here for a pre-print version of the article.

“Planting and its Discontents” makes the argument that nomadism in the Kham region was inherently subversive in the context of China’s fervently agrarian politics during the early twentieth century. But who or what exactly was subverting the state? I make the case that the culprit wasn’t just the “friction of terrain,” to use James C. Scott’s phrase, but nor was it just indigenous Khampa defiance. Instead, ecological characteristics of Khampa nomadic pastoralism gave it the upper hand over agriculture above 3,500 meters where grain was no longer viable, making it difficult for China’s modern bureaucracy to function in those spaces–including the carceral system.

I tried to offer a nuanced understanding of resistance, writing that “my diagnosis of resistance is not so much descriptive of practices within drokpa space as of the effects of those practices on the enterprise of assimilation.” Since the article appeared, I have come across two recent essays on Sino-Tibetan relations by other scholars that I think do especially well at drawing on decades of theory concerning the nature of resistance, from Michel Foucault to Janet Abu-Lughod to James C. Scott. One of these is Emily Yeh’s “Tibetan Range Wars: Spatial Politics and Authority on the Grasslands of Amdo” (2003) and the other is Fernanda Pirie’s “The Limits of the State: Coercion and Consent in Chinese Tibet” (2013). I do think my article has something new to say, but I’m inspired to go deeper in future outings.

The entire issue in which this appears is worth looking at, especially if you’re interested in environmental history–many thanks to the editors, Rod Wilson and Bob Morrissey. There are three articles on Chinese environmental history (mine included), and Andrew Bauer’s incisive article challenging the “_____ in the Anthropocene” fad in the humanities is one that I will definitely be citing in the future. And again, if you don’t have access to the journal, a link to my pre-print copy is above. Enjoy! –MEF

Archiving at Academia Sinica

Last week I did some short-term archival research at Academia Historica in Taipei and found that the procedures for pulling records there were very different from what I was expecting. This week I migrated over to the Institute for Modern History (Jinshisuo) at Academia Sinica, and again found that waiting times for original document requests were a little longer than I expected. Here’s a brief overview of the procedure there that may be of interest to anyone planning a visit in the near future. Impatient readers may want to skip to “Pulling Documents.”

Starting Out. I’m not aware of any English-language user reviews of the Jinshisuo archives, so here’s a brief overview of the experience: When you enter the white building that houses the archives (somewhat hidden behind the Jinshisuo’s main building), you sign in at a counter on the first floor, then take the elevator to the third floor where you should put your belongings in a free locker before entering the reading room. Staff in the reading room will ask you about your research interests and have you fill out a form on which you indicate which collections you’re interested in. You also have to sign in to the reading room (yes, this will be the second time you sign in).

At clearly explained on the Jinshisuo website, their archives are divided into four collections: Diplomatic Archives (Waijiao dang’an), Economic Archives (Jingji dang’an), Personal Papers (minjian ziliao) and Maps. Make sure to indicate all of the collections you think you might possibly use, because, as I found, some of the computer work stations only access particular databases. In my case, I was originally placed at a work station that had access to the Diplomatic Archives but not the Economic Archives, and had to ask to move. When you get to a computer station, you fill out an electronic form that largely replicates the paper form you just filled, and after a few minutes the staff give you login information for the databases. You’ll need three pieces of login info: a “group” name, a username, and a password of your choosing.

Accessing digitized documents is easy, and at present the staff will let you photograph documents on the computer screen (but they don’t seem equipped to print, at least for the economic archives). They did, however, ask that I record which documents I photographed and how many photos I took.

Pulling Documents. Pulling original docs was a little more complicated and time-consuming. In fact, you should probably allow at least one full week to complete the process-so, if you start on a Monday, you can probably wrap up by Saturday. There are three major steps. First you request your docs, then you receive them and have a chance to photograph them if you wish, and finally you receive a CD or DVD containing your images. Here’s my experience:

I arrived at the Jinshisuo archives on a Monday with a list of requests in hand, since I’d browsed the index before coming. Most of the files I wanted were in the economic archives and almost none were digitized, so I submitted a request through their electronic interface. That’s when the staff told me that it would take up to three days to review my request after which I would probably receive the files I wanted. They’d let me know by email when they were ready.

I made sure to politely tell the staff that I was flying out early the next week, and they said they would take that into account. Indeed, by Tuesday I got an email saying that my documents were approved and available for reading.

When I got to the archives on Tuesday, the staff had my files ready. They invited me to photograph them with a camera provided by the archives–in fact, you must use their camera, and using your own isn’t allowed. As with photographing digitized files, they asked that I record which files I photographed and how many photos I took. They also ask that you write the index number of any given file on a small slip of paper and include it in each image you take of that file. On Tuesday I got through about half of my 17 files and I finished photographing on Wednesday.

At that point I returned the camera to the staff and filled out a form requesting either a CD or DVD containing my images. You pay for the media you choose, but it won’t exactly break the bank–the archives charge NT5 for a CD or NT10 for a DVD (that’s for the entire disc, and not per image!). Then they asked that I again wait for an email indicating that my disc was ready, which could take up to three days.

My disc was ready by Thursday afternoon, and all of my images were there, unaltered in any way. In all it took me four days to get through the 17 files that I wanted, from request to CD pickup, but this required three separate visits to the building (altogether about 8 hours of travel time in my case!).

Service at the Jinshisuo Archives was impeccable, the reading room was perfectly comfortable, and this was overall probably the best archives experience I’ve had yet. A special thanks the the staff member who, noticing that I didn’t have an umbrella on an unusually rainy February afternoon, walked me to the bus station with her umbrella after closing time.

dscn0417

Archiving at Academia Historica

I had a minor adventure this week when I attempted to do some archival research at Academia Historica (国史馆) in Taiwan. Since Nele Friederike Glang wrote his guide to Academia Historica , things have changed a little. I’m writing this largely as a supplement to his excellent guide; researchers visiting Academia Historica for the first time should probably read that first. Impatient readers may want to skip to “Tips for Future Research Visits” at the bottom.

My experience. I came to Academia Historica in pursuit of a very particular set of documents–ledgers of grain stipends for criminal prisoners (qiu liang 囚粮) in the Xikang Province prison system during the 1940s. My request for similar documents had already been denied in mainland China, and I thought it might be easier to get ahold of politically sensitive files like these in Taiwan.

I arrived on a Wednesday at the Ximen office of Academia Historica, where signed in and looked up the files I wanted in the online index. They weren’t digitized yet, so I had to “apply” to view them by clicking a button. That’s when the staff on duty told me that I would need to sign up for an account and then wait 15-30 days before my documents would be available. My heart sank: I only had about two weeks in Taiwan on this self-funded trip from the PRC; after that I was flying back to the US and had no plans to return to Asia before defending my dissertation. I related this dilemma to the attendant, and she was very sympathetic, but suggested that I either return to Taiwan later or put in a request to have the documents copied and mailed to the United States. The latter option sounded tempting until I looked into it–the expense would be considerable, and I would need to find a friend to make the payment in cash once the copies were ready.

In fact, the online interface seems to have no option for requesting to view original documents directly; instead users request either photocopies or digital scans, which are then presumably provided at the Ximen branch. It was difficult to even find mention of the Xindian branch, where archive originals are stored. When I asked the attendant whether I might have better luck by going straight to Xindian, she didn’t think I would.

On Thursday I came back to the Ximen office and a different staff member was on duty. I showed her my document requests and asked if there was any possibility of seeing them before I left Taiwan. She asked when exactly I was leaving, then made a call. She hung up and gave me the news: the archivists would not be copying my files; instead I could head to Xindian on Friday and handle them myself (!). I checked my account shortly afterwards, and four of my files were marked “fully available” (全部提供) while three more were marked “currently unavailable” (暫緩提供).

On Friday I made the trek out to the Xindian branch, signed in and was presented with my four available files within minutes. “Take pictures!” implored the attendant. Indeed, I’d brought my camera and was able to quickly photograph every page in high resolution, though it felt a little sinful after a year working in archives where photography was strictly prohibited.

What happened? In recent years (until 2016), researchers have been able to request documents at the Xindian branch of Academia Historica and view them on the same day, but this changed in the middle of 2016. When I raised this issue on an online forum, one researcher with recent experience noted that the institution enacted a new system for reviewing document requests around summer 2016, in order to adhere to the Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法), a law that was drafted in 2010. Indeed, when applying to view non-public documents, the online system tells users to ensure that their use of the documents does not violate the privacy or rights of any individuals (第三人).

Researchers who have recently requested documents at Academia Historica have commented that names and personal information were redacted (in copies) and that a large percentage of their requests was denied. I noticed that none of the documents I received included much personal information (such as names of prisoners). I can only speculate over why three of my document requests were denied, but I suspect they may have contained personal information about prisoners or others.

Though my experience was kind of harrowing, everyone at Academia Historica was incredibly friendly and helpful. They understood that the rule changes were confusing and made things more difficult for visiting researchers like me, and were very patient in explaining how things worked.

Tips for Future Research Visits: I was lucky, but researchers visiting Academia Historica should not assume that they will be able to access requested documents within less than 30 days of placing a request. I asked staff members what they recommended that foreign researchers do if they only have a matter of days in Taiwan. Here’s what they recommended:

1) Sign up for an account online now. This is a two-step process (you fill out a form and then email your passport scan), and can itself take several days for approval. But once you have a password, you’re set for the future. Start here: http://ahdas.drnh.gov.tw/index.php?act=Landing/account.

2) Put in your document viewing requests as early as possible, and at least a month before arrival. Apparently, there is no danger of making a request too early. When you apply to view a document, archivists look through the document themselves and determine whether or not there is any compromising information in the document (ostensibly they are mainly concerned with protecting the privacy of individual citizens). Once a document is approved for you, it is approved indefinitely. They are not reserving the document for you, so you are not causing inconvenience by requesting it early.

3) It is apparently also possible to arrange for copies to be mailed to you overseas without visiting the archives yourself, or to assign a local “agent” to come and photograph documents for you. I do not have any personal experience with this.

If you do find yourself in Taiwan with less time than the waiting period allows, politely explain this to the staff. They may be willing to consider expediting the process; in fact, I noticed that the date of my departure from Taiwan was written at the bottom of my request when they printed it out. However, understand that having your request expedited is not guaranteed, and also that some (potentially all) of your document requests may be denied depending on the contents.

Why care about farming?

You probably don’t care much about agriculture. I didn’t until recently. In America, less than 2% of the population are farmers, and it isn’t unusual if you don’t know a single farmer. In  China that proportion is significantly higher, but the disconnect between farmers and lifelong urbanites is growing: a recent PSA on food wastage asks, “who knew that every grain of rice is a strain [for the farmer]?”

lala jie xinku

One of the major goals of my current research project, “The Rooted State,” is to make agriculture interesting to people who don’t care much about farming by showing how integral it was to achieving modernity. This project, which is currently a PhD dissertation, focuses on the efforts of the Chinese state to modernize the Kham region at the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau in the mid-20th century. I find that story fascinating because it was fraught with problems, and many of them involved agriculture: it’s impossible to grow food crops throughout much of Kham because of its severe topography and climate.

As I write this, I’m finishing my time in Chengdu as a Fulbright Fellow, and concomitantly, the main research phase of my dissertation. This blog will follow my progress on this project, sometimes also reflecting on past experiences or commenting on developments in the wider word that are relevant to the project. I hope to chronicle “The Rooted State” all the way from research to writing and perhaps eventual publication as a book!

Click here to view the blog from the top!

My TEDx Talk: How Cultural Knowledge Changes Culture

I was invited to give a talk at a TEDx event in Chengdu in April 2016. The name of the event was “Window,” and the title of my talk was “Window or Mirror? How Cultural Knowledge Changes Culture.” For a while I’ve been pondering a future research project on how changes to the the concept of “culture” have historically changed Chinese and global cultures–a sort of recursive phenomenon. This short talk was my first public foray into that topic.

The event organizers are still putting together a final edit of the talks with Chinese subtitles, but until then, here’s my copy:

PhD Candidate, Modern Chinese History