Shanghai Municipal Archives

A review of the Shanghai Municipal Archives, Bund Location  (上海市档案馆外滩新馆), Shanghai, People’s Republic of China.

I recently spent five months (September 2012 – January 2013) at the Bund location of the Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA) researching the Catholic Church and its affiliated charities, schools, orphanages, and hospitals in mid-twentieth-century Shanghai. I would highly recommend a visit to this location for anyone working on Chinese history since 1927, although there are documents that date from before the Nanjing Decade, particularly from the foreign concessions.  In general, Chinese is the working language of the archive, although some of the younger archivists do speak English. The volume of material available at the Shanghai Municipal Archives is truly staggering, and while there are of course still some source restrictions, there are a surprising number of open documents concerning “sensitive” topics and time periods, especially if you learn to master the Archives’ digitalized catalog and the various means of document retrieval. I hope this review can be helpful to that end.

Directions and Basic Information

The Bund location of the Shanghai Municipal Archives is located in a beige-colored building at No. 9 Second East Zhongshan Road (中山东二路9号) between East Jingling Road (金陵东路) and East Yan’an Road (延安东路), on what used to be the French section of the Bund.  It is a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest subway station, Yu Garden (豫园) on the Number 10 line, and a 15-20 minute walk from East Nanjing Road (南京东路) on the Number 2 and 10 lines, though it is easily accessible using Shanghai’s extensive bus system (bus lines 26, 42 and 926 from the direction of Xujiahui; lines 71 and 127 along Yan’an Road; lines 65 and 145 which go along the river on Zhongshan Road and up into Hongkou; and line 576 which also travels along the river into Hongkou, but begins in Pudong). A good, easy reference point is the ICBC skyscraper across East Jinling Road from the archive.

In terms of finding food in the area, the archive building does have a small cafe with some lunch options on the first floor of the building. Although the lady who works there is very friendly, the prices are not. The same can be said for the Sun Deck Café on East Jinling Road, although they do have daily specials which provide a hearty meal at a slightly more reasonable price. There are several options for a quick lunch on Sichuan Road, which intersects East Jinling Road and runs parallel to Zhongshan Road. My default option there was 永和豆浆 which is relatively clean, fast, and inexpensive. Sichuan Road also has some small shops and stands that will serve good baozi in the mornings.

The archive is open Monday-Saturday, from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, though you are usually pushed out the door around 4:40-4:45 pm. The archive does not close for lunch and although the staff thins out in the middle of the day there will always be at least one archivist at the desk and one sifu 师傅 walking around near the computers. Taking pictures with a camera or cell phone is prohibited in the archive. In general, the staff members at the archive are very friendly and professional. If you spend enough time at the archive, you can get a sense of who will go out of their way to help you and who will not. In any event, nobody is going to harass you and at the very worst will treat you with somewhat callous indifference. It would be good to make friends with the sifu 师傅, who are not only fun to chat to but will also make your interactions with the Archive’s equipment and staff much easier.

Building Layout and Registration

When you enter the building, you will need to put any bags you are carrying through a security check to your immediate right, and you may be asked where you are going by the security guards (“the Archive” is a sufficient answer). Behind the security checkpoint is a small bookstore belonging to the archive which is well worth a visit. Here you can purchase collections of transcribed archival documents published by the archive (for example 《上海解放》 and 《日伪上海市政府》)  as well as some secondary literature relating to Shanghai history, including a series containing articles published by their own archivists using materials from the archive.

To proceed to the main reading room of the archive, take the elevator to the 5th floor. You will need to leave your bag in a locker, which will give you a little ticket with a password to open the locker later. Laptops and cell phones are allowed without restriction in the archive. The first time you visit the archives, you will need to go into a registration room at the left and fill out a basic form. Perhaps one of the best features of the archive is that the only document required for registration is a passport; no letter from a Chinese danwei or residence registration is necessary. After registering, you will be given a reader’s card, which needs to be scanned every morning by the archivists behind the main desk in order for you to log into the computers.

From the entrance near the elevators and the lockers, the general layout of the archive is as follows: the registration room is to the left; the main desk is in front of you, a bit to the left; the microfilm machines are set back behind a wall on the left side behind the main desk and the registration room; behind the microfilm machines is a small bookshelf with some very useful reference books relating to the archive’s documents and Shanghai’s history; to the front and to the right are the computers; in front of the computers are some small desks for reading documents; and far to the right is a room marked 政府公开信息 which contains binders with recent government reports and statistical data and another room where you pick and pay for printed documents; and far to the right and down a short hallway is the exit and bathrooms. Other floors of the building host exhibition spaces, lecture and meeting rooms, and a video archive. According to the archive’s brochure, there’s even a multi-function gym on the 8th floor, though I never looked for it myself.


*A note on terminology: throughout this brief guide, I will use the following order of terms to refer to files in the SMA catalog: folder, subfolder, sub-subfolder, file, subfile/individual document. For example, a file with the 档号B105-5-1553-1 is within folder B (the PRC-era city government), subfolder B105 (the city’s Education Bureau), sub-subfolder 5, file number 1553 (the number of the main file), the subfile/individual document beginning on p.1.

Once registered and checked-in, you can log into the computer using your reader card ID number and begin searching. If you encounter trouble at any time, there is always one or two sifu 师傅 roaming around the computer area to help, in addition to the archivists. In fact, if they recognize this is your first time in the archive, they will probably help you whether or not you ask for it. To actually get to where the searchable files are located, you will need to expand a series of folders, with the ultimate path file being something like 浏览查询 〉 馆藏档案及资料 〉 全宗档案及资料. What you are ultimately looking for is a list of expandable folders with a capital letter followed by a brief description of contents, listed below (in the order they appear in the SMA catalog):

A- 市委系统档案
K- 人大系统档案
B- 政府系统档案
C- 党派团体档案
D- 革命历史档案 [These are all newspapers and publications]
L- 政协系统档案
Q- 民国时期档案 [Including banks, industries, universities and civil society organizations in addition to government offices]
R- 日伪时期档案
S- 同业公会档案
U- 租界档案
T- 特藏档案
F- 专门档案
H- 声像档案  [Including thousands of photographs, often with extremely vague descriptions]
Y- 中文资料  [Includes miscellaneous publications, mostly from before 1949]
W- 外文资料

Each of these folders is further divided into subfolders, which can range from one (as in the case of the L/政协 files) to several hundred in the case of the Q and B folders. To the best of my knowledge, few to no files in folders K and F are open, though the subfolder titles can give you an indication of what sorts of files they would contain if/when they are opened. Also, as you might expect, many subfolders are completely or largely restricted, but again, the sub-file titles can give a sense of their contents. It probably will also not surprise you that many files do not easily fit into this neat categorization. For example, the Q/民国时期 folder includes files from after 1949 (often into the mid-1950s) if the organization or company in question continued to operate independently, even if in name only, after 1949.

For the reasons just stated, you will want to begin by searching all of the folders at the same time, although you can search within individual folders or subfolders (or sub-subfolders) by clicking on them. Also, you can search within results (结果内查询), which is a very useful feature. However, the search within a time period feature, which would be extremely useful, does not appear to work. In addition to searching, you can also scan folders and subfolders by clicking on them and clicking search without any search terms entered. Sometimes, particularly if it is a very large folder or subfolder, the flies and subfiles will be listed randomly, but in general you should get a list of files according to their archive file number (档号). Usually, but not always, you should see a series of subfiles with a brief description of their contents after which will be the main file containing all the subfiles (for example, B105-5-1553-1, B105-5-1553-7, B105-5-1553-11, B105-5-1553-15, with the last number referring to the page in the file at which a new document begins, and at the end of this list, simply B105-5-1553). This can be a very useful feature, as it may take some time to decipher the content of some subfiles, particularly if they are hand-written

As stated above, Chinese is a virtual necessity for navigating the archive’s computer catalog. Occasionally a file name will contain English or another Western language, but file tags are almost always a description of the file in Chinese, despite the language of the file itself. If your research includes individuals or institutions with non-Chinese names, it would be good to arrive at the archive with a list of their Chinese names (which usually can be found on Baidu-Baike, Douban, Chinese-language Wikipedia, or some other corner of the Chinese-language internet). File names also tend to follow conventions of when the files were originally archived, which in most cases was during the People’s Republic but before the Reform and Opening Up, which means the language tends to be vituperative. For example, the Wang Jingwei government is referred to as 日伪政府 or sometimes 汪伪政府, the Jiang Jieshi / Chiang Kai-shek government is often referred to as 敌伪 or 蒋匪, Western powers are often labeled as 美/英/法帝国, and so on. However, the file tags are often a direct transcription of the titles of one or more sub-files and therefore adopt the particular language of that time and regime. For example, you will see documents from the Wang Jingwei government  period refer to the 重庆 (or even 渝) 方. For my own research on the Catholic Church, the most obvious search terms like 天主教 and 天主堂 returned many results, but for the post-1949 period, the terms 帝国主义/反革命/反动 combined with 分子/组织/集团 were usually more productive searches.

One final point to keep in mind when searching is that terms can often be abbreviated, so it is best to search a simple phrase or even a single character and then take advantage of the very useful search within results feature of the SMA’s catalog. Mastering these conventions will probably take some time, but can make a huge difference in the amount of material you find. In general, try to be creative and search a diverse range of terms, and try to keep in mind the PRC/CCP terminology for the period you are examining, especially for the post-1949 period.

File Retrieval

Actual file retrieval falls into 3 categories: documents can either be opened on the computer, need to be found on microfilm, or can only be seen after filling out a special request form. Quite a large number of documents have been digitalized and presumably will be available online at some future date. Except for the occasional 网络问题 which renders all the computers unusable for a short time, it is very easy to view and print documents off the computers. To print, simply check the boxes on the right-hand side of the screen corresponding to the pages you would like to print and, when ready, click the 复制 button at the bottom-right. After a short wait, you should be told that your printing was successful and that you can pick up your documents within five working days. Please note that the page numbers in the PDF usually do not correspond to the document’s page numbers, so be sure to double-check before printing. When printing, you will need to fill out a basic “application” form with your personal information, the purpose of your research, and the file name and content of the documents printed (there is no need to be especially detailed). When ready, hand this to the archivists and they will put through the order for your documents to be printed. Usually, but not always, your name and reader ID will be put up on an electronic board to let you know that your documents are ready for retrieval. To pick up your documents, you will need to enter the printing-fee retrieval room (复制收费室) opposite from the main desk. It usually takes half a working day from the time you give your printing application to the archivists until your documents are printed and ready for pick-up. Printing is generally inexpensive, with different rates charged depending on if the original documents date from before or after 1949.

The second method of file retrieval is microfilm (缩微). After noting down the file number, look for the microfilm catalog which can direct you to the drawer containing the relevant box/roll (盘/卷). It seems that this index is constantly being updated as more documents are transferred to microfilm and microfilms are modified to accommodate new files. This, in addition to the fact that boxes can easily be misplaced, means that you may encounter some difficulty when looking for a certain roll. Usually, but not always, the files contained on the roll will be listed in the index and on the outside of the box. There are five microfilm machines of varying quality, though only two of them connect to printers (only one reliably so), so there tends to be a scramble for the printing-capable machine(s) in the morning. These machines take some getting-used to, but here again, the sifu 师傅 will be happy to help you. You will need to request printing paper from the archivists in 50 page increments. Getting high quality prints off the microfilm rolls can be very difficult, depending on the condition of the original document and the amount of care put in by the person who originally transferred the document to microfilm. You will probably need to print a couple of test pages before you achieve something that is legible. As with the computer, you will also need to fill out an application when printing off of microfilm. When you have finished printing and filled out the form, you can give the application to the archivists who will usually have your files ready for retrieval in a matter of minutes (they need to be counted and stamped), after which you pay for them in the same printing-retrieval room as when you print off the computer. Unlike the computer printing-requests which are stored in your online account until your application is submitted, all microfilm printing needs to be closed out by the end of the day.

Although most documents are on the computer or on microfilm, some documents are only available if requested by a special application. After submitting your application, it usually takes half a working day for your documents to arrive (presumably from the SMA’s main document collection building in Gubei, Changning District). The disadvantage to these documents is that they cannot be printed and must be transcribed by hand or on a laptop. On the other hand, you get to see and touch the actual documents, and you occasionally can get your hands on documents that probably would be unavailable if on microfilm or on the computer (see “Availability and State of Sources” section below). Like the microfilm files, these files usually contain a short, hand-written table of contents listing the title of subfiles and often which office, bureau, organization, etc. sent the document and which received it.

Availability and State of Sources

The SMA contains documents ranging from the late Qing up to the present day, though the majority of documents date from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. It is safe to assume that while the most sensitive files are still off-limits, some information is available on every aspect of the modern history of Shanghai. Out of curiosity, I spent two days searching for documents relating to the Cultural Revolution.  At the very least, one can find documents from relatively less politicized bureaus, offices, and organizations, “around the edges” so-to-speak, which point to wider phenomena. For example, I found a report to the 民政局 about barbershops being vandalized by Red Guards and files from the 教育局 about students denouncing each other as reactionaries. There are many, many files relating to the big political campaigns of the early-mid 1950s: the Three/Five-Antis, the Campaign(s) to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries, the Resist America-Aid Korea Campaign, and so on. There are also a large volume of documents relating to social and cultural policy, from government offices, party committees and sub-committees, and party-related organizations. On the other end of the Cultural Revolution, there is a significant body of documents showing how the campaign against Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four “四人帮” was propagated throughout Shanghainese society.

If a file can be found in the catalog on the SMA computers, it can be retrieved in some form. You may come across a file which is supposed to be on the computer or on microfilm but in fact is not, and in this case the archivists will allow you to request the original file from the archive. Just before I left at the beginning of February, an entirely new microfilm index was made available which should make the microfilm document retrieval process much more reliable.  To the best of my knowledge, nearly all the pre-1949 documents and most from the late 1950s onwards are available online or on microfilm, whereas the documents from the early 1950s, as well as some of the pre-1949 documents (for example, many of the French Municipal Council documents) need to be requested. The PDF files tend to be very good quality scans of the original documents, whereas the microfilms are sometimes virtually impossible to read. Unfortunately, a microfilm document being unreadable was not a sufficient excuse to retrieve the original document when I tried, although you might get a different answer depending on who is working that day.

SMA Website

Perhaps the most useful and exciting recent development at the SMA is their new website (no English-language version at the moment). At first glance, this would seem to be a downgrade from the old website which had a very easy-to-use index of folders in both Chinese and English. However, learning to use the new website can save your hours of time and lead to some great discoveries. It should be noted that the new website still seems to be under construction and sections of it will sometimes not work. When you are at the archive’s main page, you will want to use one of the three orange-colored links on the left-hand side. As the name suggests, the top one is the most useful (and only one working at the time of writing): “开放档案一站式查询”. You should be brought to this page:  This is essentially the same searchable catalog that you find on the computers at the Shanghai Municipal Archives with two very important exceptions. One is that the website will list holdings of the district (区) archives of Shanghai, dating back to when many of these areas were counties (县) and not yet districts of Shanghai Municipality. Actually requesting these documents at the district archives is very hit-or-miss and will generally be subject to a review (which  you can be sure will err on the side of caution), but at the very least, the website allows you to get a sense about what kinds of files are available in the district archives. From my experience, the district files tend to have very vague titles and have not been arranged according to the “capital-letter system” used by the main city archive.

The second big advantage of the website is that, for whatever reason, a number of restricted files will appear in the online search which will not appear on the computers at the actual archive. Now, if you actually try to go and request these documents, you almost certainly will not receive them, no matter how much you try to reason with the archivists that they are listed as open on the website. But if you think a document is worth the hassle, it’s certainly worth a shot. In any event, you can create a list of files that you would like to see in the future on the assumption that they will become available someday. At the very least, the website allows researchers to search the files available at the SMA anytime from anywhere in the world and create a list of documents to examine before coming to Shanghai, thereby saving a great deal of time.

Other parts of the website are worth a look if you have some spare time. One is the 档案指南 link, which will bring you to a page listing individual subfolders. Clicking on one of these links will lead you to a fairly extensive description of the contents in that particular subfolder. Unfortunately, the subfolder titles are not searchable, despite the presence of a search bar on the left-hand side of the page which would lead you to believe otherwise. They are not particularly well organized either, though there is a kind of nebulous arrangement according to time period. The main archive website also has links to the district archive websites which vary in quality but will generally provide some sort of 指南 and usually a more accurate list of files that are actually open to the public than the main archive’s website.


The sheer volume and availability of sources combined with the easy registration and document retrieval procedures means that a trip to the Shanghai Municipal Archives would almost certainly be of value to anyone working on twentieth-century China. Importantly, the new website permits researchers to prepare for their time in the archives in advance, allowing for relatively short but productive research trips.

Steven Pieragastini
PhD Candidate
Department of History
Brandeis University

Image: Historic photo of Shanghai. Virtual Shanghai.

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  4. Thank you for this extremely thorough explanation on how to access the Shanghai Archives. Can I emphasize how crucial it is to be accompanied by a Chinese speaker. Although I was told as a foreigner all one needed was a passport, this was in fact not so and one had to complete a form in Chinese giving details of what information one wanted to access and they would contact you.

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