Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Research in China Lesson #1: Stay Flexible

When I applied for a Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research all the way back in February 2013, my original plan was to spend one-month in Beijing, China, completing exploratory research at the Foreign Ministry Archive (外交部档案馆). Since its opening in the mid-2000s, the Foreign Ministry Archive has stood out in China as one of the most open and accessible archives in the country. By making available considerable portions of China's diplomatic record from 1949 through 1965, the Foreign Ministry Archive contributed to the rich revival of the study of Chinese foreign policy during the Cold War. Especially attractive about the Foreign Ministry Archive was its track record of providing equal access to both Chinese citizens as well as foreign nationals, truly a rare arrangement in the world of mainland Chinese archives. For these reasons, I was excited about the opportunity to spend such a length a time in Beijing and was confident that I would make progress toward developing my dissertation topic on the international history of Xinjiang Province since 1949.

However, just as soon as I learned in March 2013 that I would receive funding from the Sigur Center for this research trip, rumblings began  to emerge from colleagues in Beijing that all was not well at the Foreign Ministry Archive. Many reports, though full of rumors and speculation, suggested that the Foreign Ministry Archive had closed because a controversial document had been leaked into the wrong hands. As the calendar inched closer to my departure date, I kept prodding my friends for updates, though none contained any good news. In May I heard I was "out of luck," and just last week I was told the "archival situation is dismal." This is the hard truth about research in China: we are presented with periods of dramatic opening and then periods of startling retrenchment. Where the cycle falls when we land in China is out of our control.

With my entire research agenda and travel plans in jeopardy, however, I preemptively decided to change tact. Though I still plan to visit Beijing for one-week and will inspect the Foreign Ministry Archive first hand (once and for all separating rumor from fact), I am now spending the lion's share of my time in Shanghai. Here I hope to access the lucrative Shanghai Municipal Archives (上海市档案馆). This is still fertile ground to explore Chinese-language materials on Xinjiang’s history and to explore the connections between Xinjiang and greater China, though not necessarily the connections I initially envisaged back in February: now I will inspect the available documents on Shanghai's economic and personnel assistance lent to Xinjiang in the 1960s following the Sino-Soviet Split

Success at the Shanghai Municipal Archives is by no means certain, but I do believe there is a real opportunity here. According to the Shanghai Municipal Archives' online catalogue, there are more than one-thousand documents about Xinjiang which have been declassified. This is an astounding amount of material and more than I could hope to ever process in one-month. Moreover, municipal (as well as provincial) archives in China do not necessarily adhere to the same restrictions as the Foreign Ministry Archive. For example, while the Foreign Ministry Archive has never released any document dated beyond 1965, the Shanghai Archives have materials from the 1970s and even the 1980s. The wider date range at the Shanghai Municipal Archive could be useful in fleshing out a fuller picture of Xinjiang's history since 1949 and help me to develop additional dissertation chapter ideas.

The challenge I face, however, is that the Shanghai Municipal Archives does not necessarily have to grant me--a foreign national--access to its holdings. Local archives can open their doors to me or close them at will; it was only the Foreign Ministry Archive which did not discriminate between Chinese citizens and foreign passport holders. I have in my hands a letter of introduction from the Sigur Center as well as an additional letter from a local Chinese research institution (or, more appropriately,a work unit 单位), so hopefully I will be able to gain access and have a productive research trip after all.

The lesson from all of this is to stay flexible while researching in China. The situation in China is always changing, and past success (or failure) is by no means a barometer for future research trips. Though I initially built this research trip around the Foreign Ministry Archives, I am taking the setbacks I have encountered in stride and am doing my best to respond to them. Now I just need a bit of good luck.

With more to follow!

Charles Kraus, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

Sigur Center 2013 Research Fellow
Shanghai, China

No comments:

Post a Comment