Two Collections in Yunnan


A review of the Yunnan Provincial Archives (云南省档案馆) and the Yunnan Provincial Library (云南省图书馆), Kunming, China.

Archival research in Yunnan requires time, patience, and a lot of paper. Both the Yunnan Provincial Archives and the Yunnan Provincial Library are assets for scholars of local history, although they limit the use and reproduction of their holdings. During six months of dissertation research on biomedicine and public health in wartime Yunnan, I found the Provincial Library to be more open to access, while the Provincial Archives remain a unique local source of primary materials.

Editor’s Note: This introduction is part of a series called Fresh from the Archives. For more introductions to archives visit here.

The Yunnan Provincial Archives [website here] reside in a new building at No. 119 Xihua Beilu. I spent a total of four months working here over summer 2010, fall 2011, and winter 2012. Although the website gives several different (and conflicting) opening times, the reading room is actually open from 8am to 11am and from 2:15pm to 5pm Monday through Thursday, and from 8am to 10am on Fridays. Given that the midday break is three hours long—in keeping with the famously laid-back pace of life here—researchers may want to return to their lodgings for lunch. Options for eating near the archives are limited. Daguan Park is a short walk away and might provide a peaceful interlude.

To access the archives, readers need their passports and a letter of introduction (jieshaoxin) from an appropriate work unit. I used letters from Yunnan University on one trip and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences on others. On my first visit, I was stopped at the gate by guards who examined my passport, had me sign in on a sheet of visitors, and escorted me into the building. Once in the reading room, scholars register by filling out a form explaining their research interests. Upon approval one may look at handwritten catalogs (mulu) and fill out a form requesting individual juan. I prepared for this step by reading the Guide to the Yunnan Provincial Archives (Yunnan sheng dang’an guan zhinan 云南省档案馆指南). A copy is available for use in the reading room. Time between registering and receiving one’s first juan ranges from two hours to one day. Readers can request as many juan as they want, but may only use one or two at a time. It takes anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours to retrieve new materials. Digitization does not seem to exist here, aside from a typed table of contents tucked into each juan.

Access to documents varies. Qing dynasty and post-1949 archives are currently not open to foreign researchers, so these archives will be most useful to scholars of the Republican era. Since 2010, individuals’ personal files have been restricted for some record groups. I generally received most, but not all, of the juan I requested. Even limited access was very useful for me, but this issue is worth noting when contemplating a visit to the archives. Duplication of materials is also restricted. Researchers may not take photos or make copies of documents, and can only take notes by hand or computer. At the end of one trip, archivists asked me how many pages of notes I took, but did not ask to see the notes themselves. On the final day of work, readers also pay for the privilege of reading files at five yuan per juan. If you need an official receipt, you will need to pay the money at a local bank and then take a copy of the receipt back to the archives, so make sure to budget time accordingly. The archivists are very kind and do their best to facilitate the reading process—although they do not hesitate to shout at those who want to see materials without the proper authorizations.

Located more centrally at No. 141 Cuihu Nanlu next to Green Lake Park, the Yunnan Provincial Library [website here] is a rich source of locally published periodicals, gazetteers, newspapers, and books. I spent two months in early 2012 working in the Historical Materials Reading Room, which holds all pre-1949 materials. The reading room is open from 9am to 4:30pm, Monday through Thursday and Saturday. On Fridays it is open from 1pm to 4:30pm. Ostensibly there is a daily break for lunch from noon to 1pm, but in practice one may continue reading during this time. There is a wide selection of good, inexpensive diners nearby.

The Historical Materials Reading Room has a set of paper catalogs for periodicals, newspapers, and gazetteers. There is also a card catalog for pre-1949 books just outside the doors. Once readers submit a request slip for up to four or five items, the materials will generally arrive within thirty minutes. Although readers must fill out a form listing their affiliation and contact information, I was never asked for identification. However, it would be wise to carry a letter of introduction just in case. I could look at anything I wanted, as long as it was in the catalogs. As at the Provincial Archives, no materials are digitized. Reading documents is free of charge, and the reading room stays open throughout most holidays. The wide variety of rare materials is valuable for those studying local history, and this is also a good place to meet other visiting scholars.

Aside from the disruption of impatient readers arguing loudly with the library staff, the greatest challenge to working in the Historical Materials Reading Room is that scholars may only hand copy materials. All personal computers have been banned as of February 2012. Making photocopies or taking photographs of materials is also prohibited, although readers may request the librarians to take up to five photos using a library-owned DSLR camera. Each photo costs twelve yuan. Scholars who use materials at the Yunnan Provincial Library should therefore plan to stay for a while, but they will have the benefit of a relaxed, fairly enjoyable research environment.

Mary Augusta Brazelton
PhD Candidate
Department of History (Program in the History of Science and Medicine)
Yale University


Important Note: Dissertation Reviews, its members, and affiliates assume no responsibility for the accuracy of this material. Access, location, times, and other data are subject to change, and readers assume all responsibility for making direct contact with the institutions in question and double-checking all information before any visit. If you discover errors in this description, or changes to the policies or relevant information in one of the sites features on “Fresh from the Archives,” please contact us at

  1. Thank you, Mary, for your fabulous introduction to the Yunnan archives. I have just one question. It is my understanding that some scholars have gained access to post-1949 materials in the Yunnan Provincal Archives, namely Thomas Mullaney and Frank Dikotter. Is it possible under certain circumstances to gain broader archival access?

  2. Dear Randy,

    Thank you for your excellent question, and many apologies for my delayed response. Thomas Mullaney did use post-1949 materials in these archives when he researched Coming to Terms with the Nation (his 2006 dissertation, then 2011 book). However, Mullaney submitted his dissertation to Columbia in 2006, and archival access policies change very quickly. As for Frank Dikotter’s work (and I assume you are referring to his 2010 book Mao’s Great Famine): again, the archival research for the book was prior to 2010, so access policies may well have been different. In short, I can only speak to the policies that I encountered when I was in Yunnan, and these may have changed greatly even since last year. I hope this helps!

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