A review of Jiangsu Provincial Archives 江苏省档案馆, Nanjing, Jiangsu and Wuxi Municipal Archives 无锡市档案馆, Wuxi, Jiangsu.
I’m writing this after a day spent in the Jiangsu Provincial Archives, my third visit in five years. While I’m happy to have come away with a few precious sheets of photocopies, I’m concerned at how anything that might be described as a personal file is suddenly inaccessible. Still, given the long and increasingly irate discussion that an elderly Chinese gentleman was having with the archivists about the need to seek permission from the work unit responsible for the files he wanted to look at, it seems that my trials and tribulations are common to all.
My research explores the urban history of China, focusing on the city of Wuxi in the first half of the twentieth century. I am also interested in the history of urban sociology and urban planning in China more generally. Both archives have been important to my research, although clearly information in Wuxi is limited to that city. Access to this archive required a letter of introduction from the provincial level, so I have decided to deal with them together.
The Jiangsu Provincial Archives are hidden away at number 1 Qingdao Road (青岛路). If you come out of the Guangdong Road gate of Nanjing University, turn right and walk past the children’s hospital, Qingdao Road takes you up the hill on the right. The archives are about 200 meters up on your left hand side, set back slightly from the road. Opening times are 8.30 – 11.30 in the morning and 3 – 6 in the afternoon, and they are completely closed during the lunch break. On entering the archives, you will be required to put your bag in lockers outside the main room, and have to sign in. You will need an introduction letter from the foreign affairs office of the institution you are affiliated with in China. This should state your research interests and the reason for your visit. There is some flexibility in what you are allowed to look at, so you can afford to be a little vague, but without the letter you won’t be able to look at any files. You will also need your passport, but there is no need to book in advance.
The catalogue for the Republican era (1911-1949) is handwritten, but legible, and divided into government agencies. It contains very little from before 1945, but is an absolute treasure trove for anyone wanting to do research on the late 40s. There are masses of files on the post office system alone, and plenty on subjects such as irrigation, road-building, banking and finance. I was able to gain important insights into provincial official’s views on urban planning and infrastructure development across the province. Those interested in the Maoist era are blessed with an extensive printed catalogue. Nothing is available electronically, although digitization is planned. You can order up to twenty files at any one time and they arrive quickly. Provided the director of the archives agrees, and she will look carefully at your request, photocopies are allowed, cost a very reasonable two yuan an A4 page, and are delivered promptly.
Although it has become more difficult to gain access to materials, the archives are an enjoyable place to do research. Apart from the odd mosquito they are very quiet, and there are rarely more than two or three other scholars in the room. Being close to Nanjing University, there are innumerable coffee shops, bars and cheap restaurants, not to mention some excellent book shops. The campus itself vies with Beijing University for the title of the most beautiful in China. All it lacks is a lake!
Access to the Wuxi Municipal Archives, which I last visited in 2010, required two separate introduction letters, one from the institution I was affiliated with, and one from the Jiangsu Provincial Archives. It is worth mentioning that the staff at the provincial archives were unaware of this. After several conversations with different people, they eventually dug up the rule book, nodded sagely and proceeded to make several phone calls until the right person was found. He was very obliging, and a week later I was able to pick up my letter. It is worth emphasizing that things may have changed in the last two years. I would strongly encourage scholars interested in municipal and county archives in Jiangsu and other provinces in China to check what letters are required before they go.
The Wuxi archives are located behind the Wuxi library, which is on the south side of Taihu Square (太湖广场). It is next to the Wuxi Museum, one of the most impressive architectural structures I have ever seen, although the inside leaves a lot to be desired. There are buses to and from the railway station and it costs about thirty yuan to get there in a taxi. You will be required to sign in at the doorway and proceed to the second floor, where you will have to present all your documents to the director. Don’t forget your passport! There is an electronic catalogue of sorts, but the file numbers do not correspond to those on the massive spread sheet the archivists use. I simply wrote down the titles of the files, and asked them to check the numbers. You can pretty much order as many files as you want, and two years ago most were accessible, although this may have changed. Photocopies are allowed, and from memory the price was not too extortionate in comparison to elsewhere in China.
The archives are open from 9 am – 4.30 pm, and although they close for lunch, they will let you work through. This is a good thing, since Taihu Square, while being picturesque is bereft of good places to eat. There is dining hall of sorts in the library, a large mall down the road with a bakery and the very expensive Kempinski hotel across the square.
Centre for Urban History
University of Leicester
Image: Photograph from Nanjing. Wikimedia Commons.
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