Sunday, July 21, 2013

Research in China Lesson #2: Expect the Unexpected

I have been in Shanghai for one-week now on a research grant from the Sigur Center, and in this time I have visited four local archives in the city. My experiences at all four archives have been totally different, and none have met any of my expectations. These varying experiences have led to me to lesson number two about doing research in Shanghai: expect the unexpected. In the videos below I recap what happened at each archive and my progress on my research project so far:

On my first day I visited the Huangpu District Archive, which is located about 15 minutes walking from my hotel (it is blisteringly hot here, so certainly not a pleasant walk!). The staff was initially a bit confused about what to do with a foreigner, so they called in the boss (their “lingdao”). When I explained my research topic to the boss (I tried to make my topic as uncontroversial as possible…Chinese economic development), he was reluctant to let me access anything. He was friendly but insisted I visit the local Foreign Affairs Office and obtain approval to conduct research. When I asked where the office was located, he retreated back into his office and came back ten minutes later. Suddenly he said I could look at whatever files I wanted. I gave him a list of archival numbers and he printed some of the documents off (everything is digitized). He flipped through the pages very quickly to approve them, and then handed them over. A few of the other documents were larger so he asked that I come back in a couple of days to pick them up. I have no idea what changed when he went into his office, but I didn’t complain…

After that I went to the Jing’an District Archives, a short cab-ride away. Surprisingly, the staff, all very young and some English-speaking, had no reservations about having me do research whatsoever. They didn’t even photocopy my letter of introduction from GWU or even my passport. I gave them the archive numbers I wanted to access and a few minutes later the files had been loaded onto a computer. When I asked about printing the documents, the staff said there was no need to print because I could just download the PDFs onto my personal flash drive.

On my third day in Shanghai I went to the Zhabei District Archives. Here I was, for the most part, completely stonewalled. The Zhabei Archives is located in the same building as the District Government, and the entrance was riddled with police (there was at least one woman protesting something). The guards almost didn’t let me into the building but finally relented and escorted me to the archive. Again the staff was completely confused about what to do with a foreigner, and they were highly suspicious about what I was researching (they asked if I was conducting a “social investigation,” or basically looking into some contemporary social problem). I told them I study Chinese economic development and they eased up a bit. I showed them the archive numbers I wanted to review, and they agreed to let me have them contingent on my obtaining approval from the district foreign affairs office. They showed me the formal law governing access to Shanghai's archives by foreigners, and sure enough there is a provision that states foreigners must obtain a letter of approval from the foreign affairs office. They sent me to the foreign affairs office (thankfully just a few floors up), but the staff there was completely confused as well. After a lot of back and forth and several phone calls, the foreign affairs office decided they could not give approval but the main branch of the Shanghai Municipal Archives could…

So I took a long cab ride to the administrative headquarters of the Shanghai Municipal Archives, only to find out that the foreign affairs office had directed me to the wrong branch of the Municipal Archives. So I doubled back and went to the location on the Bund. The staff was friendly but said they never issued any such letters to the district archives. Then I asked if I could just complete research here, and they gave me a one-week access card. I will be able to get longer-term access as soon as I have a letter of introduction from a local research institution (in the works via my friend at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies), and my understanding is that this same letter will help me to get into the Zhabei District Archives as well as other archives.

The Shanghai Municipal Archives is very nice—most everything has been digitized, everything else is on microfilm. Researchers are given a computer and can access all of the digitized files via search. But printing is difficult and expensive, especially for foreigners. So research here requires time and language skills.

More to follow!

Charles Kraus, Ph.D. Student, Department of History
Sigur Center 2013 Research Fellow
Shanghai, China


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