First Historical Archives & Qing History Project Library


A review of the First Historical Archives of China 中國第一歷史檔案館 and the National Project for the Compilation of Qing History Library 國家清史纂修工程圖書館, Beijing, China.

One always sits in the reading room of the First Historical Archives with a sense of accomplishment. Just being in that space is gratifying — the space where many of the great scholars of Chinese history have sat before, and where some of the richest sources of Qing history can be found. Indeed, to be among the archival catalogs at the edge of the Forbidden City has a certain mystique that can never be shaken no matter how many visits. One feels that work has already been done even though one has just arrived.

But perhaps that feeling is just as much a result of braving Beijing traffic and smog — often hours each way — arguing with the West Gate guards about what you are doing and refusing to give them your recommendation letter, and signing in four times at three different checkpoints. Yes, finally you have arrived!

I spent last year at archives in Taipei, and am this year in Beijing working with materials to further my research on the role of ritual and the Board of Rites in the formation of the Qing political structure. I work with both Chinese and Manchu language materials, covering developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and draw mainly on central government archives

Ed. Note: See also Macabe Keliher’s review of the National Palace Museum Library (國立故宮博物院圖書文獻館), the National Central Library (國家圖書館), and the Grand Secretariat Archives (內閣大庫檔案), Taipei, Taiwan.

First Historical Archives of China

The First Historical Archives of China (FHA) is located just inside the West Gate of the Forbidden City (Xihuamen 西華門), and can be accessed form the north or south. From the north, take a bus running east-west on Xi’anmen Dajie 西安門大街/Wenjin Jie 文津街, get off at Beihai 北海 and walk south down Beichang Jie 北長街 ten minutes to the west gate on your left. From the south, take the number one subway line to Tian’anmen West 天安門西站 and walk north up Nanchang Jie 南長街 five minutes to the west gate on your right.

(For reference, my daily commute from Peking University goes like this: number four subway line to Xisi 西四; up exit B and take a left. Cross Xisi Dongdajie 西四東大街 to the bus stop about a hundred yards to the left and catch a bus going west. Two stops down is Beihai. The entire trip takes about fifty minutes if I leave early enough to avoid rush hour and don’t stop for breakfast baozi on Beichang Jie)

The West Gate is an employees’ entrance, and the guards do not like the sight of strangers. They will try to tell you to go to the South Gate and buy a ticket. It is best to look like you know what you are doing and tell them you are going to the FHA. (They will undoubtedly ask if you have been there before, at which point you might consider answering in the affirmative so as to avoid an interrogation about your passport, letter of introduction, and even your research.) Sign in twice at the gate here, taking one of the slips of paper with you to brandish in case you are stopped. March through the gate and go left on the narrow concrete lane past the exercise yard and basketball courts. About a hundred yards down on the left is a grand entryway lined with potted plants and guarded by stone lions. This is the front door of the FHA.  Sign in again and follow the green mat through a maze of corridors to the reading room office. Here you can surrender your letter of introduction, show them your passport, and sign in for the last time. Leave all your belongings in the locker, since no bags, folders, laptops or cameras are allowed in the reading room. The reading room is open Monday to Thursday 8:00am to 4:00pm, and Friday 8:00am to 3:00pm. There is no forced lunch break, and staff will be on hand from opening to closing.

We have all heard the stories of stacks of documents being rolled out on carts; of seals being broken on bundles for the first time since they were bound up three hundred years ago; of overlooked memorials folded up between leaves. Those days ended in August 2008 when problems of internal theft resulted in the restricted circulation of original materials. Today all work must be done from digitized or photographed images. A list of what is currently available can be found here on the FHA website. The work of scanning and uploading to make more materials available is ongoing but not necessarily updated on the website, thus it is recommended to seek out an archivist and ask. There are also internal lists of microfilmed archives that archivists will happily let you peruse.

Digitized materials and a number of compilations, such as the Shilu and all five editions of the Qing Huidian, reside on an internal network to which each terminal is linked. Microsoft Windows is the operating system, but the databases are local software programs and can be a bit clumsy — indeed, a user’s manual resides on the reading room desk for patrons. Materials are organized in the database according to their original archive, e.g. Neige huke tiben 内閣戶科題本, and although each independent archive is searchable in itself, random searching across archives is not permitted. The system is effectively a digitized form of the document rather than a navigable database.

Although laptops are not allowed, the terminals can be used to take notes with a generic text editor. At the end of the day send these notes to the front desk via the internal network, and turn in a list of what you are sending. The staff will then transfer your notes to a USB.

The printing of digitized materials is allowed. Charges are 5 RMB a page and restricted to twenty documents per research trip. Depending on the number of pending orders, and staff availability, it may take as many as three days to make the copies. There is some ambiguity about whether copies can be made from microfilm. After inquiring about the microfilms I was working with, for example, it was determined by the next day that copies could not be made. So, best to ask.

The reading room consists of rows of computers and microfilm readers on metal desks. The walls are lined with bookcases filled with copies of published documentary collections and reference books. It is functional, not serene. Users vary depending on whether some professor has a research project grant and has hired a team of local graduate students to pour over materials. If this is the case, the reading room can fill up to capacity with bodies and chatter and cell phone messaging. For the most part, however, there are usually only a few other researchers quietly navigating the terminals. Heating and cooling are not uniform and temperatures can fluctuate; it is best to prepare to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer, peeling or donning layers as necessary.

There are a number of restaurants outside the West Gate on Beichang Jie. To the right is a good noodle restaurant and a savory baozi shop. To the left are two identical local restaurants where the luncheon clientele smoke like fiends. A little further down on the left is the more upscale Zeyuan 澤園酒樓, the restaurant opened by Mao Zedong’s former cook.

National Project for the Compilation of Qing History Library

If the FHA is a document retrieval center, the library of the National Project for the Compilation of Qing History is the ideal workspace. It offers a wonderful working environment, and provides easy access to reference books, a good number of monographs, periodicals and some archival materials from the FHA. It is a small library put together to aid the Project staff in their exploration and re-construction of the Qing dynasty, and it offers almost everything the Qing historian needs. In addition to the expected official histories, imperially commissioned works, published collections of local gazetteers, as well as the recent publications of documentary collections, the library also holds a number of zhupi zouzhe and lufu zouzhe memorials on microfilm from the FHA.

The library is on the eleventh floor of an office building at 16 Suzhou Jie 蘇州街16號, which is between the back gates of Renmin University and Peking University. Buses running up and down Suzhou Jie stop right in front of the building; or take the number 10 subway line to Suzhou Jie station and walk north a few blocks up Suzhou Jie to the building on your right. One elevator serves the Project offices and will get you to the eleventh floor, where you will need to dial 6074 on the phone outside the elevator to have the library attendant let you through the plexiglass doors. Sign in at the front desk with a university ID, leave your bag at the gate, and you are free to use all the resources available to the state historians.

The library is open Monday to Thursday 8:30 am-11:30 pm and then 2:00 pm-4:50 pm, and Friday 8:30am-11:30 am. The two-and-a-half hour lunch break is a bit disruptive, but it does allow ample time to explore the area, where one can find small corners of Qing relics, like the compound of the descendants of Shunzhi regent Jirgalang. Eateries abound in the immediate vicinity, with everything from street stalls to a pricey Lanzhou restaurant right across the street.

This library is a great place to work. Patrons are Qing dynasty scholars, either staff at the Project or Renda professors and graduate students. The large tables provide ample space to stack and spread your day’s worth of references; floor to ceiling windows spanning the entire length of the reading room give excellent light and on clear days offer views of the surrounding foothills where water was once drawn for the Forbidden City. Central heating and cooling keep the library at ideal temperatures year round. There is no internet and the computer catalog consists of searching an excel spreadsheet; but the librarian is helpful and knowledgeable of the collection.

Macabe Keliher
PhD Candidate
History and East Asian Languages
Harvard University


Image: First Historical Archives of China,

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