Three Collections in Xi’an


A review of the Shaanxi Provincial Archives (陕西省档案馆), the Shaanxi Provincial Library (陕西省图书馆), and the Xi’an Municipal Archives  (西安市档案馆), Xi’an, China.

This review, like the archives in Xi’an, is a bit scattershot.

During the 09’-10’ academic year, I pursued archival research on late Qing and Republican Shaanxi in Xi’an. Since my research spanned the period between 1860 and 1922, I assumed that both the municipal and provincial archives would be reasonable places to begin my work. I quickly discovered that the Municipal Archives were an iron fortress; that the Provincial Archives were useless for my project; and that the Provincial Library was heavenly. In this review, I will briefly introduce each of these institutions and their potential for future research.

The Xi’an Municipal Archives [website here] are located inside the city walls, just north of the Muslim district at 159 Beiyuan Men. These archives, which claim to have documents from the late Qing on, were my first stop in the city. I arrived at the archives with my passport, a letter of introduction, and verification of my danwei affiliation with Shaanxi Normal University. I was stopped at the gate and eventually denied access to the reading room. According to the stewards of the reading room foreigners need a letter of recommendation from the head of the Provincial Archives in order to use the Municipal Archives.

After my failure at the Municipal Archives, I went to the Provincial Archives [website here], located at 63 Fifth Alley Jianguo Lu. These archives are a bit tricky to find. You have to walk down alley five for about one hundred yards. You’ll find the gate at your left.

Getting into the archives is not a problem. For reading room access, all you need is your passport (always carry a letter of introduction just to be on the safe side). The reading room is open from 9:00-12:00, closes for xiuxi, and reopens from 14:30-17:00. The archives occasionally close for meetings, usually without warning. Nothing in the archives has been digitized. The indexes did not seem to have any sort of organization, but since there were not that many of them, looking through all of them only took me a few hours. When you’ve found something that you’d like to see, you write the index number and name on a request slip and turn it in at the front desk. I never obtained requested materials very quickly. After turning my requests, the librarians generally told me that my materials would be available the next morning. Requests cost one RMB per item. I am under the impression that the fees tended to change with the whims of the archivist. I took one photo in the archives. It cost me thirty RMB.

The provincial archives contain a rich variety of material from 1927 (after the siege of Xi’an) into the PRC. Beiyang period and Qing materials were either non-existent or not listed in the mulu. The archivist at the front desk told me that most of those materials had been deposited in the Number two in the late 1990’s. After spending a few weeks at the provincial archives I asked to get a letter in order to read in the Municipal Archives. The archivists had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Despite continued efforts, I never managed to gain access to the Municipal Archives.

This brings me to my last stop, the Provincial Library [website here]. The Shaanxi Provincial Library is located at 14 Chang’an Bei Lu, right before the second ring road. The modern holdings in the library are unimpressive. However, the library has a fantastic rare books/rare periodicals collection on the third floor. Before going into the library, you must lock your bag into one of the lockers in the lobby. The rare books room has the same hours as the provincial archives. It is also open on Saturday. In terms of ease, holdings, and overall comfort, nothing in Xi’an comes close to the library. If you are interested in Shaanxi prior to 1927, this is the place to go. Nothing in the library has been digitized, so your only choice is to go through the card catalogue. A careful survey of the catalogue will take a couple of days. Once you find something you’d like to take a look at, you write down the call number and give it to the librarian at the front of the room. The librarian will hold your passport while you have anything out from the collection. It takes the librarian about two minutes to return with any request. The library fees are unbelievably low. Each item costs one Mao. Paying for the first time is enjoyably convoluted. Once you’ve finished for the day, the librarian, who still has your passport, tells you the amount you owe. With this number in mind, you go to the payments desk in the lobby of the first floor and buy tickets for the amount you owe. After buying these tickets you return them to the rare books librarian for your passport.

Overall, Xi’an is still a difficult place to do research. Recently, an American graduate student gained access to the Municipal Archives. He attributes this to a series of fortuitous mistakes (they did not initially realize he was foreign) rather than changes in archive policy. Xi’an’s local historians lag twenty years behind the rest of the country, and it seems like no one really uses the archives. If you are working on the Zhou, the Han, or the Tang, the city is a wonderful place to find like-minded scholars. The faculty I worked with at Shaanxi Normal University were confused when I insisted on working in the Municipal and Provincial archives. After a year in the city, I could see why.

Devin Fitzgerald
Ph.D. Candidate
East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University


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  1. Thanks for this, as I was considering doing some research in Xi’an, and can see now that my experience of difficulty in local archives is going to be the same in Shaanxi.

    One recommendation I might make is to try to access these archives through the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. It seems a bit convoluted, but they have an uncanny ability, in some cases, to procure the proper letters (or whatever the archivists are asking for) for admission. In Britain, the British Academy provided a scholar exchange program with CASS (and its regional academies) that was, for some mysterious reason, a very effective danwei for local archive access. Either they know the right local people (including the regional branch of the Academy), or can call on the right people in Beijing, to get doors opened for you. It can take a few months of preparation, though, so I’d get the process started well before going to China.

  2. A nice post that pretty much reflects my experiences there. The Library is great, the provincal archive was productive for me although not the cheapest place to work at, and I never got into the municipal archive, although I thought I was getting close by the end.

    They were starting the process of digitizing the provincial archive back in 2009, however, as I discuss here.

  3. Very helpful reviews. I’m curious to know if you recall from your memory any Qing governmental documents. I’d like to find about a particular person who was a houbudao in the years leading up to 1911.

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