Two Archives in Guangdong, China


A review of the Guangdong Provincial Archives and the Guangzhou Municipal Archives (China).

In Guangzhou, two excellent facilities for the study of local history are the Guangzhou Municipal Archives and the Guangdong Provincial Archives. While both are managed under the same system, there are significant differences between the two facilities in terms of materials as well as access. In light of these differences, this review will treat each archive separately,

In many ways, the Guangzhou Provincial Archives offer an ideal archive experience in China. Its location is convenient, its materials are abundant, its system is technologically advanced, and its atmosphere tranquil. The archive is located near South China Normal University, about an eight minute walk from the Gangding subway stop on line 3. Opening hours are 8:30-12 and 2-5, Monday through Friday. Lunch options are abundant, from the several hole-in-the-wall noodle stands that pepper the streets behind the archives to upscale Western dining in Taigu Hui, about a 15 minute walk towards the Shipai Qiao subway stop.

The facilities themselves are among the finest I have encountered in China. Wall-to-wall windows shine sunlight onto sleek wooden tables that host the archive’s computers and microfilm machines. Between the two reading rooms is a small table under a plant garden and skylight, where food and drinks are permitted. And, while this may be a rather trivial point to include in a review, it was a relief for me to know that the washrooms are the cleanest I have seen in China outside of five star hotels.

Registration is straightforward. A letter of introduction from a Chinese research institution is required, along with proper identification (although any type of visa is fine – I have accessed the archives at different times with both a student visa and a tourist visa). After checking your bags at the front desk, you will be asked to fill out a request form and to write, in a few sentences, your research topic as well as your intended use for the materials you find. Your form and proposal are then sent to the director for approval. Once approval is granted, you will be given an ID number to log in to the online system, through which you search for, and in many cases read, materials. You can bring all electronic devices, and there are as many outlets for laptop chargers as there are seats in the reading room. There is no internet access.

The online catalog itself is split into “open documents” and documents from the customs office. From there, the catalog is keyword searchable. Requests for documents are then made through the online catalog system. Documents shown in red are digitized; to request them, simply click on them and press the button to place them in your temporary folder. Once you have a good collection of documents, as they prefer to approve materials in bulk, go to the temporary folder and press the button that reads apply. My first batch of documents was approved within 30 minutes, but sometimes I had to wait a week or longer for subsequent batches.  Long waits were usually due the director being out of the office for a conference or vacation, but occasionally they were due to complacency. Simply inform the staff members in the reading room that you would like to see your documents as soon as possible; if the director is not away for a meeting or conference, he will likely approve your materials within the hour. After they are approved, they remain on your personal page for the duration of your research, allowing you to return to them as often as you like. Materials shown in black are either folios or microfiche, but are requested in the same fashion. Gathering these materials can take an hour or two, so plan ahead. I was, unfortunately, routinely denied access to materials. Yet I was never denied large batches of documents; rather,  they usually denied a stray document here and there (approximately 10% of all materials requested). Due to the nature of the system, it would be impossible to try and roll the dice and reapply, hoping for different results.

Photocopying and/or printing is limited to a paltry thirty pages. Moreover, you will need to apply to photocopy or print, done through the same online system, and requests are frequently denied. While they will request that you make all of your photocopy requests in one bunch, do not wait until the last day to put in your request. It often takes over a week for them to approve and print your documents, longer if you tell them you plan to take the materials out of the country. Even after that, there is a strong possibility your request will be denied (of the thirty pages I requested, I received six). A researcher’s best bet is just to transcribe the materials by hand or on a laptop.

As mentioned, one of the specialties of the Guangdong Provincial archives is their collection from the customs office. Materials here include official documents from the Qing and Republican periods on diplomatic relationships with various colonial powers, as well as information on trade and shipment of goods, specifically across the border to Hong Kong. Economic historians of the Pearl River delta will likely find a wealth of materials here. For those who are interested in the non-customs history of Guangdong province, materials from the Republican period as well as the 1950s and 60s are abundant. Beyond correspondences between various government bureaus that are so commonly found in municipal and provincial archives, Guangdong Provincial also boasts large collections of non-official sources. For my research, I found a series of hand written research proposals for provincial government sponsored surveys on local schools’ pedagogical practice, dialects, and theater, as well as book proposals submitted to local universities for publication consideration. This archive is particularly open with their post-1949 materials, and as such, makes Guangdong terrific location to study the early years of the PRC.


The Guangzhou Municipal Archives, while perhaps not quite as researcher-friendly as the Provincial Archives, nonetheless offer excellent facilities and terrific material for research of local history. They have moved from their former dilapidated facility near the Nongjiangsuo 农讲所 subway station to a gleaming, elegant building in the middle of the new Higher Education Mega Center, a sprawling complex in the southeast corner of Guangzhou featuring campuses from ten different universities. Despite the obviously improved facilities, transportation to the new building is inconvenient. Getting there from nearly anywhere in Guangzhou proper involves at least two subway transfers and a bus. The best way to get to the archives is to take the subway to the Higher Education Mega Center North 大学城北 stop on line four. From there, you can walk the 3 km to the archives, take bus 381 from exit A, or hitch a ride with one of the roaming motorcycle “taxis” for about 10 yuan.

Access and registration are, like the Provincial Archives, straightforward. Guards in front of the archive examine your identification and give you a rather superfluous free ticket to the archives and the exhibitions (you are given a new ticket every day). Once you have locked up your bag, you make your way to the archive reading room located to the right of the main hall. There, staff members will ask you to fill out a registration form, photocopy your ID, and collect your letters of introduction. My passport and letter of introduction were sufficient, though I am unsure as to whether the letter of introduction is absolutely necessary (like they were for the Provincial Archives). For those who are unsure, the staff was incredibly helpful, and can be reached via their website. All types of electronic devices, and even small purses, are permitted inside the reading room, and there are outlets underneath the tables and against some of the walls. There is no available internet access.

The archives are open 9-11:45 and 2-4:30, Monday-Tuesday, and Thurs-Friday (note: they are closed on Wednesday). Unfortunately, restaurants within which to spend the long lunch break are few and far between. There is a smattering of eateries back at the subway station, and about 1.5 km down the road there is a McDonalds and a rotary sushi restaurant. While the archives are technically closed during the lunch break, the building is not. As such, for the researcher who wants to maximize his or her time, one can use the lunch break to go through the card catalog, located in the corner of the reading room.  I also spent many a lunch break in the reading room with my computer organizing notes or doing various other tasks that did not require the internet.

The catalog is still in card form, organized by government bureau. According to the archivists, they plan soon to digitize their catalog, but as of now there are no concrete plans to do so. The archivists will provide you with a form to request materials, with slots for twenty documents (though you can obviously submit more than one page). Materials are gathered anywhere from five minutes to half an hour after submitting the form. Bounded materials, such as the photocopied volumes of Guangzhou shi gongbao 广州市公报 and Guangdong sheng gongbao 广东省公报 , organized by date, tend to be delivered faster than loose leaf archival collections. Photocopying requires no application process, but like the provincial, is limited to thirty pages. Fortunately, however, they seem much more relaxed about the photocopying process; the staff photocopied my documents  behind the counter on the spot for me. Ultimately, while there is always the potential for denied access, these archives, unlike the Provincial, granted me access to all of the documents I requested.

My research was primarily focused on the 教育局, the 文化局, and the 社会局, so my generalizations about the types of materials found will obviously be based upon my experience. The overwhelming bulk of the documents held there are from the Republican period; in particular, those who do research on the 1940s will find a wealth of material. There is also quite a lot of material on the Nanjing decade, and some from the early years of the Republic. Materials from the post-1949 period are few and far between. The archives hold a complete collection through 1949 of Guangzhou shi gongbao and Guangdong sheng gongbao, which are helpful for tracking changing legislation in the city and the province through the ‘30s and ‘40s. From the Department of Education, there were also drafts of surveys conducted throughout the city and province, usually by researchers from one of the several universities in Guangzhou, on topics ranging from citizen education levels, backgrounds of police officer, agricultural production, to urban planning, among others. There is also a treasure trove of materials on federalism and the provincial self-rule movement of the 1920s and 30s (Guangdong difang zizhi 广东地方自治), though because materials are organized by bureau, information on the self-rule movement are scattered throughout the catalog.

My experience with these two archives was generally positive: the staff was friendly, the environment was comfortable, and access was rather straightforward and transparent. I found the materials at the Provincial Archives to be more abundant, especially since the Municipal’s materials post-1949 are so very sparse. On the other hand, I found the Municipal Archives more open and accommodating. What is fortunate about both of these archives is that it seems quite feasible to accurately estimate research potential and timelines with only a few hours with the Provincial’s online catalog, or a couple of days with the Municipal’s card catalog. As is the case with most Chinese archives, it is impossible to know just what sorts of materials one might find before arriving; as such, it is wise to keep one’s timeline flexible. Nevertheless, I found I was quickly able to grasp the big picture of the work that needed to be completed at both, a luxury not always possible at archives where materials are often mysteriously destroyed or unavailable, facilities are suddenly closed, or access is unevenly permitted. In this way, Guangzhou is an excellent location in which to conduct  research on a local province and offers confidence in knowing that one will be able to predictably and efficiently access materials.

Gina Russo Tam
PhD Candidate
Department of History
Stanford University

Image: Guangzhou Municipal Archives. Photograph by author.

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