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Doing Research at the Sichuan Provincial Archives: a new unofficial guide

四川省档案馆, 花牌坊街191号  http://www.scsdaj.gov.cn

[Note: I have edited this post since its initial publication for greater accuracy, particularly regarding Qing-era records. Thanks to Gilbert Chen for his input!]

I spent the bulk of my last research stint in China–just over eleven months–visiting the Sichuan Provincial Archives (四川省档案馆) in Chengdu for my research on the history of Xikang Province. The ChuanDang 川档, as the name is locally abbreviated, are an amazing and under-utilized resource (I was sometimes the only user present), but they’re also quirky and can be confusing. A lot has changed since Maura Dykstra wrote her guide to the Sichuan Archives. A source of much confusion is the archives’ melange of originals, microfilm and digital documents, compounded by the hybridity of its digital and non-digital interfaces. After an intro to the basics of archiving at the ChuanDang, I’ll offer tips and strategies for navigating some of the more complex aspects of these archives today. Most of my experience is with Republican-era documents, and I’m not able to comment extensively on working with Qing microfilms.

Highlights: The ChuanDang mainly feature archives for Sichuan provincial bureaus from the Qing through PRC eras, but there are a couple of collections worth highlighting: First, many international scholars come to consult the Ba County archive, which is one of the very few extant county-level archives from the Qing Dynasty; this collection has now been digitized and is keyword-searchable. Secondly, the ChuanDang hold virtually all of the accessible Xikang Province archives, most of which was subsumed by Sichuan in the early 1950s, much of which has yet to be digitized. Finally, there are some catalogs corresponding to central government organs that were temporarily based in Chengdu; for example, I accessed records of the Central Meteorological Bureau (中央气象局) from the 1940s.

Transportation: The location of the archives in northwest Chengdu isn’t very central and there is no subway stop nearby (Line 2 is about a 30-minute walk away). Bus routes 4, 37, 62 and 109 have stops near the archives. On any of these routes, get off at the stop named 四川省档案局. I recommend routing your trip on Baidu maps (click here).

Hours: The reading room is open from 8:30am to 11:30am and 12:30pm to 5:30pm on Monday through Friday, plus 8:30am to 11:30am on Saturdays. However, from 12:30 to 2pm the service desk is usually staffed by an attendant who does little more than supervise the reading room; to request documents you will likely need to wait for the main staff to return around 2.

In my experience you can request digital documents any time that the main staff is available (roughly 8:30-11:30 and 2-5:15), but you should request any originals before 3pm. Staff will often do a very loud last call (perhaps not unlike your local bar) around 3. Technically the deadline for print requests is 4:30, but staff implored me to aim for 4pm or earlier when requesting copies of originals, which can be very time-consuming for them.

On Day 1: If you don’t have a Chinese ID you’ll need to have your passport and your introduction letter from a Chinese institution ready. Sign in at the guard post by the front gate on HuaPaiFang Street (you’ll need to show your passport the first time) and proceed to the reading room through the automatic sliding-glass doors immediately ahead. You’ll have to walk through a metal scanner, and then you’re in the beautifully-lit atrium that is the Sichuan Archives Reading Room. Put any large bags in one of the automated lockers to the left of the metal scanner before you start working.

The first time you visit, you’ll need to show your introduction letter to the staff behind the service desk, which is in the middle of the room. They give you a paper form to fill out with your name, danwei, phone number and–importantly–a short description of what kinds of records you’re looking for. Be prepared to write 2-3 sentences in Chinese characters on the topic(s) and period(s) you’re interested in. Think broad–if your description is too narrow, there is a chance that at some point you may be denied access to records that don’t seem to match your topic or time period.

If all goes well, staff will write down a username and serial number for you on a slip of paper, and this will be your login information for the archives’ in-house digital interface. The username should be your Chinese name, and in my experience, the serial number is the date on which you arrived followed by your number in the sequence of new users for that day. Eh, it’s not as complicated as it sounds–you’ll figure it out.

The index: When I first visited in 2011, there was only a barely-legible hand-written index in what seemed like a million binders in glass bookcases along a wall. That’s still there, but most researchers now use the brilliant new text-searchable digital index, which is available on any of the computer workstations in the reading room. Open the IE browser and the login page will appear; then make sure to select the option for entering a serial number (编号). PRC citizens use their shenfenzheng number to enter the system, but you will need that number they wrote down on a little slip of paper (see above).

Typical among PRC archives, catalogs are chronologically sorted into the Qing, Republican (1912-1949) and PRC (1949-present) eras. However, there are a lot of choices within those master categories, and you might want to look at the complete list here. Note that the ChuanDang actually contain records for two provinces: Sichuan and Xikang, since the latter was mostly absorbed into Sichuan after 1955.

The archives’ website appears to feature an online search function for the index, but judging from my attempts at using it, this online index only works a small subset of the archives, and seemingly only Qing records.

Pulling records: Requesting documents through the digital index is easy, but be careful: not only are you allowed to request only 20 items per day, but you’re allowed to make only one request per day. Fortunately, it’s a multi-step process that allows you to add items to your list before officially submitting it. When you’re ready to make your request for the day, check the check-boxes next to each item you want to request and hit the button at the top that says “Submit a List” (提交一个清单). Then, make sure to verbally tell someone at the main desk that you have put in a request (“我提交了一个清单”). Staff may well not put your request through until you make a verbal request, precisely because you are only allowed one such request per day and they don’t want you to squander it.

The digital index is fairly intuitive, but what happens after you put in a request is more confusing. If some files you requested are digital, staff will tell you right away which ones you can access, and they’ll make those files available to your account. You can then return to your work station, hit refresh on the browser, and you should now see links to view these files. Files that don’t provide a link haven’t been digitized, or aren’t available to you.

If some files you requested have not been digitized, staff may simply tell you that they haven’t been digitized. They may or may not ask if you want to see the originals. If you do want to see them, be proactive in requesting the originals (“我能不能看原件?”). However, if some of the files you requested are digital and some are not, staff will likely ask you to view the digital files first and may not comply with your request to pull originals until you say you have done so. Originals can’t be pulled between 11:30 and 2pm. Expect to wait up to an hour or longer for your originals to arrive, and don’t be shocked if some of the files don’t arrive, even if staff initially seemed to indicate that they were available. In fact, about half of my requests for originals that staff initially approved did not arrive in the end, often with no clear reason given except that they were unviewable.

Unviewable records: It’s likely that staff will at some point tell you that you “can’t view” (看不了) one or more files. There are many possible reasons for this–for example, the file may be undergoing digitization, it may be too politically sensitive. The ChuanDang are in the throes of digitization, so the volume of files currently undergoing digitization is fairly large. Generally, entire catalogs (全宗) are taken out of circulation at once for digitization, so it might be good to ask in advance which catalogs are unavailable, or better yet–write down a list of collections you’re interested in and ask about their availability before putting in a request. Staff at the main desk will probably have to make a phone call to archivists to find out.

Most importantly, be patient and anticipate that you may not be able to view a lot of the records you want. I was dismayed to learn that collections I considered to be crucial to my dissertation were indefinitely unavailable, but this ultimately prompted me to be more creative with my approach and make slight alterations to my research questions or seek the answers in alternative sources.

Viewing records and taking notes: Records come in one of three formats: digital, microfilm (mainly Qing records), and originals. ROC and early PRC records are in the process of digitzation, and you are generally allowed to view originals only if the record you want is in a catalog (全宗) that has not yet been digitized and isn’t currently undergoing digitization. In my understanding, visitors can no longer view the originals of Qing records, and these are available either as digital files or on microfilm. According to a colleague who recently worked with Qing records, the Ba County archives as well as Qing records from before the Guangxu reign have been digitized, while Guangxu- and Xuantong-era records are available only on microfilm.

Digital files will open as PDFs in a web browser, so your experience will be much like viewing online PDFs on any PC. Microfilm viewing also seems pretty standard. Originals are handed over to you at the main desk when they arrive, after you sign in with your name and passport number. There is plenty of desk space for viewing originals and great natural lighting. As of early 2017, staff did not require gloves for viewing originals, nor did they provide them (but please wash your hands first!). You are free to take notes on your own paper with a pen or pencil, or to bring in your laptop and type as you read. Photographing records, however, is strictly prohibited (and the rule is enforced).

Staff prefer that you return any originals you view on the same day, but of course, this is not always feasible. Staff generally will store records for you upon request as long as you are coming in again within 24 hours, and they seem willing to do this for up to (about) three days in a row. Incidentally, I noticed that the typical Chinese visitor would request records, look at them for a couple of hours, make copies and then return their records.

Requesting prints or photocopies: While you’re not allowed to photograph documents, one of the most amazing things about the Sichuan Archives is that everyone is allowed up to 20 free pages of copies per day, which is a fairly high daily limit (eg. the Chongqing Municipal Archives allow only 10). Prints/copies can be made from all three formats, including microfilm. On the flip side, you don’t have the option of paying for more copies; 20 is simply the limit. When viewing digitized files, this means 20 PDF pages; when viewing originals, this means twenty individual page faces (not folios), even though they will likely copy facing pages onto a single sheet of paper.

Entering a request for copies can be confusing. To request copies of microfilm or digital files, you need to write down the index number(s) and pages requested on a form that you can pick up at the main desk. But when requesting copies of originals, don’t fill out a form; instead, you should insert a slip of paper (these can be found in baskets throughout the reading room) at each photocopy start point within the document, with the number of pages you want copied written on it; then hand it to a staff member and indicate that you would like copies. Since some files are paginated and some are not, I recommend always writing the number of pages to copy instead of the page range. Expect to wait about 20-40 minutes for your copies to arrive. If the person on copy duty hasn’t come in, you may not be able to request copies (I discovered that this includes many Saturdays), so check early.

Tips and Strategies

Here are some strategies I developed for working at the ChuanDang over the course of my year there. As far as I know, everything below is perfectly within the rules, and most of these are probably mutually beneficial for you and the staff.

  • Digital before originals. If you’re consulting a large number of documents in different collections, there’s a good chance that some have been digitized and others haven’t. In my experience, the staff clearly prefer that you view the digitzed docs first and then, when you have exhausted those, and on a different day, move on to requesting originals of records that haven’t been digitized. But there’s a benefit to starting digital for you as well: once approved, the digital records in your account are viewable as long as the account is active, which means you can build up a library of dozens of records over time. You can request digital files, move on quickly to originals, and then return to the digitals whenever you feel like it.
  • Avoid letting your account expire. Your serial number can expire with as little as a week of inactivity, along with your collection of saved digital records. If plan to keep working but need to be away for over a week, you should talk to staff about your timeline and ask if they can keep your account open. If your account does expire, getting a new one is as simple as taking in your passport and asking for it (but your digital records and record history are gone forever).
  • You can download digitals to the computer station. Digitized records are delivered to users in PDF format through a browser window, so it’s possible to download them to the work station’s hard drive (but DO NOT try to transfer them to your own device!). I had been doing this tentatively for my first couple of months, unsure whether or not it was acceptable, but I found out one day when the intranet was down. Other users couldn’t view their digital records, but since mine were on the hard drive, I could. In fact, a junior staff member asked me to wait while she checked with her supervisor to make sure that this was okay. She came back nodding and said, “how did you know you could download them? You’re very clever!” Of course, this practice could be banned at any time, and be prepared to stop if staff ask you to.
  • Call ahead about availability. When I expressed frustration about records being off-access for digitzation, staff consistently recommended that I call ahead to find out which collections were off-access at any given time. The number is 028-87660582.
  • Really, don’t photograph records. I’ve seen multiple people get yelled at for photographing records (digitals and originals), even though signs forbidding this are posted throughout the reading room. Not only does this put a strain on your relationship with the staff, but they will likely want to watch you delete your photos before they let you go. It’s not worth it.
  • Print and sprint. When working with originals or microfilm, staff seem to encourage visitors to photocopy what they need and then return materials as quickly as possible.* They don’t mind you requesting the maximum number of copies (20) every day; in fact, they seem to encourage it. This isn’t the greenest strategy, but you may want to consider taking advantage of the relatively generous copying policy to cut down on time spent with originals or microfilm.
  • Check the non-digital index. Some source types, such as photographs and ziliao (资料), have not been fully entered into the digital index. You may want to browse the hand-written index along the wall for these. If you find items that aren’t in the digital index, you’ll need to request them in writing; talk to a staff member about that.
  • Develop a good working relationship with the staff. Like many archives in the PRC, staff may seem less welcoming towards users (and not just foreigners) than what we’re used to in our home country. Some of the best advice anyone gave me about archiving in China is that it’s a relationship between the researcher and the staff, and that the most productive experience comes from mutual understanding, which takes time. If time allows, start slowly and learn the ropes. Staff will take you more seriously when they’ve seen you coming in and following the rules week after week, and they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help you–but don’t demand that on day one.

Eating and Caffeinating near the Archives

The ChuanDang are on Huapaifang Street (花牌坊街), a road named after a site where memorials once commemorated chastity martyrs. The surrounding neighborhood isn’t terribly exciting, but there are a few places to eat or get coffee. My favorite by far is the Parasol Cafe, an eccentric coffee shop whose owner rides a Harley and keeps llamas in a stable nearby.** Parasol serves seriously decent coffee and cake, and you can order food from the restaurant next door (I recommend choosing from their jiachangcai menu for budget options). To get to the Parasol Cafe, look for Xilin Alley (西林巷) just to the left of the archives (if you’re facing them from Huapaifang Street) and follow it all the way to the end, where you’ll find a row of restaurants prominently situated in front of a hotel; Parasol will be on the left-hand side.

Acknowledgments: My year at the Sichuan Provincial Archives was made possible by an IIE Fulbright research grant.

*After reading this guide, a colleague of mine commented that he had a different experience with printing: “My personal experience is that the archival staff would lose patience if you continuously ask them to print documents for you,” he writes. As with other areas of archival research, I suppose the ideal is reaching a balance that is acceptable to you and the staff.
**The cafe owner does not keep “lamas” in a stable, as a typo (since fixed) seemed to indicate.

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.

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: