Monday, July 29, 2013

Research in China Lesson #3: Rely on Your Network

In China, you often hear about “guanxi,” or one’s personal relationships. Guanxi is the grease that keeps society’s wheels turning in China; for a foreign researcher such as myself, guanxi is absolutely essential for a successful trip.

But why is guanxi so important for research?

In a previous post on Asia on E Street, I had mentioned that I needed something called a “letter of introduction” in order to gain entry into Shanghai's archives. This is a letter that the Director of the Sigur Center, Edward McCord, wrote on my behalf and which verifies that I am student at GWU. The letter, written on official GWU letterhead, also requests that I be allowed to conduct research.

Having this type of letter from one's home institution is typically a requirement for getting into Chinese archives, but often it alone is not enough. Archives also want to see a similar letter from a Chinese institution or university (what is called a “guonei danwei,” or domestic work unit). As I wrote about before, for example, the Zhabei District Archives would not grant me any access without a letter from a Chinese institution, while the Shanghai Municipal Archives only granted me one-week of conditional access pending delivery of this letter.

Because I am not formally affiliated with any Chinese university or research institute during this short trip, I have had to rely on my network of personal relationships in China to obtain this type of letter. I asked a friend from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, who I met more than four years ago, if his danwei could prepare a letter of introduction on my behalf, and he wholeheartedly agreed to do so. 

When I returned to Zhabei District Archives with this letter in hand, the archivists immediately opened up their doors; at the Shanghai Municipal Archives, my conditional access was lifted and I now am able to complete research there indefinitely.

Beyond the practical value of personal relationships in China, having a network here is also important for other reasons. In between days spent in the archives, I have made a point to connect with and meet Chinese scholars who are pursuing similar research as I am. In Shanghai, I met with faculty from East China Normal University, and in Beijing, I met professors from Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Through these meetings I have learned about new sources (or better yet, many scholars often freely share PDFs of documents they’ve obtained from archives in China and elsewhere), have been encouraged to pursue certain tracks of research or research questions, and have had my opinions on Chinese history both validated and challenged. These meetings have also been extremely helpful for planning future research trips to China. My contact at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is encouraging me to come to his institute as a Visiting Scholar during my next research stint in the PRC. These meetings are also an opportunity for a bit of fun--one Peking University professor treated me to dinner, beers, and a musical performance at one of Beijing's North Korean restaurants.

With a network of contacts, colleagues, friends, and mentors in China, I have discovered that a day not spent in the archives is not necessarily a day wasted. Chinese scholars can be remarkably helpful and friendly, even to complete strangers. Networks in China are not just helpful then; they are absolutely essential.

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

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