Chongqing Municipal Archives

A review of the Chongqing Municipal Archives (重庆市档案馆), Chongqing, China.

In 2010-11, I spent twelve months conducting research at the Chongqing Municipal Archives for my dissertation on public health in Chongqing during the war with Japan. These archives hold all Republican and Communist-era documents on Chongqing. They also have some Qing documents, though most of these are at the famed Ba County Archives, housed at the Sichuan Provincial Archives in Chengdu. I consulted the records of the Chongqing Bureau of Public Health, Bureau of Police, Municipal Government, Bureau of Social Affairs, Beibei Management Bureau, and various hospital and charitable organizations.

The Archive is located at No. 56 Shaiguangping Street (晒光坪路56号) in the Tianxingqiao (天星桥) neighborhood of the Shapingba District (沙坪坝区) of Chongqing. Tianxingqiao itself is marked by a large intersection with a pedestrian bridge. Standing on this bridge parallel to Shapingba Zheng Road (沙坪坝正街) and looking toward the flat (not steep) street, you will be facing Shaiguangping Street up ahead on the left. Pass the shopping area and turn left on Shaiguangping, from where you will enter the main gate of the archives. Stay to the left and walk up the hill all the way to the white building at the back. You will be asked to register at the small desk just inside the doorway (name, passport number, local address). Bags go in the lockers, but you can take in your laptop, notepaper, water bottle, etc. Most of the archive staff speak only the local Chongqing dialect, but it is very closely related to Mandarin Chinese and thus not difficult to understand.

During the summer the archive is open M-F from 8:30 to 11:40 a.m., and again from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. In the winter the hours are 9:00 to 11:40 a.m., and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. The staff has frequent meetings that are generally announced the day before and require the closing of the reading room for an afternoon or an entire day. There is no posted schedule of these closures. Because of the painfully long afternoon break, I advise finding an apartment nearby for longer stays (which is what I did), or staying in a nearby hotel. There is a Cignet Inn (小天鹅宾馆) at the pedestrian bridge described above, and a Rujia Hotel (如家酒店) down the street from there both have affordable rates.

Things are fairly relaxed in Chongqing, and rules are rarely followed to the letter. My English-language introduction letter from UCI, for example, was accepted with a frown and a mutter rather than rejected.  There is a very simple form to fill out upon registration, for which a brief explanation of one’s research and a local address (hotel is fine), plus all the usual stuff, suffice. You can count on being able to access documents immediately.

You can look up materials prior to visiting the archive on the website. This site includes both an electronic index (search by keyword or document number) and a very detailed description of all the archive holdings, listed by zonghao. The website also has a sizeable selection of digitized documents and photographs, also searchable by keyword, that you can read online and download directly onto your computer (as jpeg files). There are also paper indexes inside the reading room, but the index numbers and titles listed therein sometimes differ from those on the actual juan, and almost always differ from those for digitized documents. Requesting juan is a very easy, cost-free process and consists merely of writing the juan number down on a sheet of paper (though it may occasionally include some polite but insistent arguing with the staff).

The archive staff is gradually digitizing documents, during which process an entire group of records is not available for consultation for several months to a year. I tried begging and it didn’t work. Digitized records are rather less accessible than are the originals. Although the reading room now has six computers for consulting digital documents, the machines are slow and often freeze up, the user interface is clunky, and frequent power outages knock out the entire web-based system until such time as the internet repair person comes by to re-establish the network (which can sometimes take several days to a week). Moreover, since you can only look at one page at a time, and since each page takes a while to load, you can’t easily flip back and forth in a document to, for example, verify that the facts stated at its beginning and end correlate with one another. Most disconcerting, however, is the fact that the digitized documents all stand alone, completely divorced from the items that they lived alongside in the original juan, so the entire research experience is robbed of a sense of context that is so crucial to the historian’s craft.

A total of 20 printed juan may be requested per time, per day. There are no set times for retrieving documents from storage and requests can be made throughout the day at one’s convenience. In 2010 photographs were allowed, but the archives also charged a 60 RMB per day entrance fee for foreign researchers (which was entirely against protocol). As of 2011 there is no entrance fee but no photography allowed. Photocopies (maximum 1/3 of a juan) are done quickly (day of or next day), include full file number labels, and cost 3.75 RMB per page for foreign researchers (roughly three times the charge for Chinese nationals). Printing out digitized documents is easy but costly (3.75 RMB per page for the first 50 pages, and 5.50 RMB per page after that), and smudgy prints as well as the need to write out file numbers on each page can be a pain. You can take hand-written or computer-typed notes to your heart’s content. All War of Resistance-era documents are open (开放), though the word “fake” (伪) has been added to the titles of all Nationalist government documents (so I am, for example, consulting the “Fake Bureau of Police” records). Since each juan usually consists of a highly jumbled chronology, I often come across documents from the early CCP era, but I cannot speak to the availability of later Communist-era documents. My suspicion is that, given the relaxed atmosphere in Chongqing, if you have a good local connection you will be able to see more here than in other parts of China.

The Chongqing Archive is often a rather wild place, resembling a bar more than a reading room. You will rarely meet scholars there, but you could meet half the city’s elderly if you wanted to. Elderly patrons come in groups of 3 or 4, often do not follow most of the rules (such as not answering one’s cell phone in the reading rom), talk in very loud voices, lean over your shoulder to examine what you are reading and typing, and argue with the staff. High-quality headphones, a good sense of humor, and excellent concentration are all essential for a productive work day. There are some blessedly quiet days, during which the archive’s somewhat remote and forested location makes for a very pleasant time. There is a small park right behind the archives where you can take a stroll to keep your blood flowing and give your shoulders a rest. (If going in the summer months, walk quickly so the mosquitoes don’t make a feast of you!) One other piece of advice, of particular note to me since I study public health: the restrooms at the Chongqing archive only get cleaned every few months, stink to high heaven, and usually lack soap, so I advise that you use them only when absolutely necessary and remember to bring hand sanitizer or hand wipes. You must also of course provide your own toilet paper. If you’re not afraid of filling your bladder, you can use the hot water machine in the reading room to freshen your teacup.

Due to the archives’ limited hours, quirky computers, and unannounced closures of the reading room for staff meetings and documents for digitization, I highly recommend scheduling as much time in Chongqing as possible, lest you be disappointed or have to leave empty-handed. Fortunately, the Municipal Library has better hours and houses a whole lot of wonderful Republican-era documents (I can’t speak for other time periods), much of which are also digitized. So it is also easy to switch one’s research location as need be. As long as you come prepared for a bit of the Wild West, you will have a very good time.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
PhD Candidate
University of California, Irvine
nbarnes@uci.edu

 

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9 comments

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  1. Stephen Morgan

    A most useful introduction. Did you find anything in the way of personnel or personal health examination forms for government agencies or private organisations, such as large companies? Thank you.

    • Nicole Barnes

      Hi Stephen,
      I did not find such documents because I was not looking for them, but I know that Joshua Howard cited them for his dissertation and book on the workers in Chongqing arsenals during the war. I believe that he found those documents in the Chongqing Municipal Archives. I hope this helps!

  2. Nicole Barnes

    Hi Stephen,
    Unfortunately there are no individual health records in the archives since hospitals destroyed those after a few years (20 at most). There are plenty of personnel records (including name, age, gender, home province/town, position, often salary and, in the war years, rice supports), but they are spotty so it’s virtually impossible to track personnel consistently in any one organization. There are also death records from certain organizations such as tongxianghui that record name, age, and cause of death, but again those are spotty.

    • Nicole Barnes

      Hi Tom,
      Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that in the Chongqing Archives. I imagine that such things might be in Yunnan or perhaps even Guizhou. I can put you in touch with someone who might be able to answer that question for the archive in Kunming (I’ll do that over e-mail).

  3. Linda Barnes

    Ah, there goes my imaginary ideal of you in a quiet haven reading fascinating original documents in beautifully penned characters. Altho I must admit one thing I love about the Chinese people is their desire to “butt in” and share their opinions and experiences.

    I’m left to wonder what “polite but insistent arguing” might look like.

  4. Nicole Barnes

    I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of reading many gorgeous documents in beautiful penmanship, but alas, the digital era is on the verge of removing all historians from that wonderful experience, and the Chongqing Archives provide no such quiet haven. I wrote “polite but insistent arguing” out of my own politeness, as some of the arguers just get into outright shouting matches with the staff, who true to their Sichuan-pepper-fed Chongqing selves shout right back. 🙂

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