When Archives Become “the Field” – Field Research in Tianjin and Qingdao, People’s Republic of China

News from Jul 10, 2015

As a historical project examining adaptation and legitimation as explanatory factors of effective governance in the first eight years of the People’s Republic of China (1949–1957), our research is based primarily on documents. Unlike political and social scientists who can gather information directly through interviews, we can only access knowledge through the written word. Traces left by experts at these institutions of the past become our fields of research; field studies thus entail extensive trips to the archives.

The project’s research associates Vanessa Bozzay and Suy Lan Hopmann, as well as our research assistants Yuzhu Zhang and Vivien Chen, embarked on archival research trips in August 2014. Our destinations were the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Qingdao, the former a port city 150 km southwest of Beijing, the latter a former German colony on the coast of northern China. The main purpose of the trip was to assess the situation in the archives and evaluate the accessibility of relevant documents. We are specifically interested in the institutional development of local administrative structures, as well as in the measures that initiated and accompanied this process on a cognitive, emotional, and technical level. As indicators, we look at institutions of the propaganda and educational apparatuses, as well as political campaigns that played a major role as a political instrument especially under party chairman Mao Zedong.

The situation on the ground turned out to be more difficult than expected. Although Chinese archives have generally opened up in recent years, allowing historians new access to and perspectives on contemporary Chinese history since 1949, the last year has brought a trend in the opposite direction. The city archives of Tianjin and Qingdao, our bases of research in the last project phase, provided significantly less material compared to 2013, and we were no longer allowed to copy reports and documents that we found. Moreover, we discovered a classification of the material that regulated access differently for personnel, Chinese citizens, and foreign citizens. Our impression is that the Chinese archives will continue to tighten access in the coming years—an impression that has been supported by blog posts and conference papers from scholars working on Chinese history, as well as by personal conversations on the ground.

With the help of our Chinese assistants and through personal contacts, we ended up collecting a decent amount of material, which we are currently sifting through and evaluating. The results will form the basis of a further archival trip in July and August of this year.

About the author:

Suy Lan Hopmann is a research associate with Research Project B13. There she investigates how the Communist Party of China (CPC) consolidated their rule in conditions of limited statehood from 1949 to 1957.