Fujian Provincial Archives

A review of the Fujian Provincial Archives 福建省档案馆, Fuzhou, China.

I am currently in China doing research for a dissertation on the history of drug smuggling and maritime state-building in Fujian province during the late Qing and Republican periods (ca. 1830-1940). After spending the autumn in Beijing reading rooms, I chose to spend January in Fuzhou to test the waters at the Fujian provincial archives. I had spent a week there two years ago at an earlier stage in my graduate career and was able to access a few interesting criminal cases from the 1930s, but it was blisteringly hot and I felt deservedly self-conscious sweating on 100-year-old documents of uncertain relevance to what I then envisioned my dissertation to be. In the end I did not really get a good sense of what was available and what could really be done there. My goal this time around was to get that general understanding of the archive while gathering as much information as possible on drug smuggling and the prosecution of drug smuggling on the Fujian coast during the 1920s-30s.

As it turns out, the archive has moved. The old archive in the northwest quarter of the city still appears on Baidu Maps as the Fujian Provincial Archive, but researchers take note: look for the new Fujian Provincial Archives (福建省档案馆新馆) in Min-Hou County across the river to the south. The address is 福州市大学城中心共享区明德路2号, and is accessible from bus lines 42, 123, 151 and 167. The reading room is on the third floor, and is open from Monday to Friday, 9:00 am-11:30 am and then 1:00 pm-4:30 pm. Guests must sign in with the guards outside each day, and registration at the reading room on the first day takes about 15 minutes. I brought my Renmin University ID, Passport, and a letter of introduction from Renmin University, but got the sense that this might have been a bit of an overkill. The staff is very responsive and friendly, so if you are unsure about your credentials give them a call and ask. The website is http://www.fj-archives.org.cn, and the phone number is +86 0591 3826 9800.

The brand new archive is a fantastic resource: a genuinely rich historical archive in an elegant complex of buildings interlaced with koi ponds and stone walkways. Three exhibition spaces currently house a fascinating collection of old photography of the Min river, a nationalistic narrative of Fujian’s modern history (from suffering to triumph), and a remarkable exhibit co-sponsored by UNESCO on the history of remittances and correspondence between Fujian and its enormous overseas population. A cafeteria on the first floor offers lunch for 12 RMB, which while often bland proved crucial, as the archive is isolated on a dusty stretch of road surrounded exclusively by furniture workshops. I rather enjoyed reading a novel while ambling the grounds after eating lunch. The exhibitions are also open during the reading room lunch break, and a set of gymnasium/playground structures stands unused amongst the stone walkways, waiting for the stir-crazy researcher who is willing to look a bit silly.

My one complaint about the archive relates to the state of the indexes and catalogs. The catalog situation is temporary, however, and the next visitor may find that things have improved. At the time of writing, the only way to view the catalog was on the computers behind the staff counter, despite the existence of a table with several computers for guest use. Certain members of the staff were willing to re-arrange their desks so that I could reach the keyboard and keyword search on my own, but their preferred method was for me to tell them a keyword and then allow me to look over their desk and scroll through the results with the mouse. Not only inefficient, but physically and socially awkward. It is my understanding, however, that the guest computers will have access to the catalog eventually.

Files are requested on a paper form that has room for 10 entries. Because it is difficult to tell in advance how long a document or collection might be (mine ranged from a single page to several hundred), I kept my requests to around 5-7 items per time. The staff seemed to prefer I request more rather than fewer documents. It takes about 45 minutes for them to retrieve documents: the staff first has to double check your entries and then send the request along on the archive’s prized robotic document transport system. When the documents are sent back out, the staff then double checks again to make sure they are the ones requested. If you do not finish all of your items at the end of the day, it takes them about 30 minutes to bring out the documents on the following day.

The archive does allow guests to use laptop computers, and power outlets are provided at the reading room tables. Wifi is not available for public use. None of the documents I requested were digitized, and photography and photocopying are not allowed for the Republican-era archive. I saw the staff chastise another guest for secretly trying to photograph documents with his phone, and they told him that if necessary one can petition the archive to allow photography of a specific document. It is my understanding that some of the PRC-era documents are digitized, but I cannot speak to this. The website also mentions they have sources from the Qing, but the staff told me that it is a very small amount and they are unavailable to the public due to their poor condition. There is a complex pricing table for archive usage on the wall which I cannot pretend to have understood, but my tally after 15 days of viewing between 5 and 10 items per day was 270 RMB. Strangely, the receipt I received in the mail yesterday indicated that the majority of charges were for PRC-era documents (I viewed none).

The atmosphere of the archive is best described as unpredictable. The building is well-lit and cool, downright cold in January but I would imagine quite comfortable during most of the year. For certain stretches of the day it is quiet and document retrieval is efficient, but various factors conspire to break up the monotony of quiet study. Such factors include, but are not limited to: tour groups of party officials and other VIPs speaking in loud voices, taking pictures and complaining about the strict prohibition against smoking; piercing drills and saws from ongoing maintenance and construction; and afternoon singing sessions, booming choruses of revolutionary songs that echo up the cavernous interior of the building from some unknown location in the archive! The tour groups especially can tie up the staff and delay document retrieval. The singing sessions are quite entertaining at first, then become increasingly tiresome.

As for the actual contents of the archive, I found the collections far exceeded my expectations. The staff was unable to provide a complete listing of archival categories, but I managed to write down several of the 95 document types for the Republican collection while peering at the staff computers over the archivists shoulders. Categories include: 2 (福建省教育廳), 11 (福建省民政廳), 22 (福建省財政廳), 68 (閩海關及下屬支關), 80 (駐閩綏靖主任公署), 86 (福建省水上警察局), 87 (福建省高等法院), 90 (財政部福建省緝私處) and 94 (鼓浪嶼租界工部局). I found several dozen relevant opium and heroin cases in categories 11, 80, 87 and 89 as well as some fascinating semi-private correspondence between the Min Maritime Customs and outpost stations in category 68. I had a sum total of 6 document requests rejected: three were morphine smuggling cases classified as “not public” but seemingly indistinguishable from the ones I was allowed to see, and the other three were all documents on the foreign concession at Gulangyu from category 94. Much of the Maritime Customs documentation (categories 68-69) is in poor condition, and the staff warned me that I might have some requests denied. The staff also requested that when I publish my findings I change the names of people involved in criminal cases.

My one piece of advice to the researcher is to just show up, but perhaps with a one-way ticket. Until the holdings catalog becomes more transparent, it may be difficult to gauge the use of a trip to this archive before arrival. I was lucky enough to arrive and find a plethora of documents on narcotics crimes during the 1920s-30s, so my experience was extremely positive. If you are unsure that your topic will be represented among the archive’s holdings, just call and ask. The staff are all very personable, smart and well-informed about the archive and historical research in general.

Peter Thilly
Department of History
Northwestern University
peter.thilly@gmail.com

 

Image: Photograph by Peter Thilly.

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