Inner Mongolia Regional Archives, Hohhot


A review of the Inner Mongolia Regional Archives (Hohhot, China).

内蒙古自治区呼和浩特市南二环路60号 内蒙古自治区档案局 
tel: +86-47-1481-1482; website

In the cavernous, marble lobby of the Inner Mongolia Regional Archives, an LED screen blinks in red with foreboding: “Put our country’s interests above all. The responsibility of keeping information classified weighs heavier than Mount Tai. Protecting state secrets is every citizen’s duty” (国家利益高于一切,保密责任重于泰山。保守国家秘密是每个公民的义务).” This pithy saying only begins to describe the mafan of using the collections here, the most significant repository in the region, with documents in Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Japanese, and Russian dating from the mid-Qing to the present day.

I spent ten months based in Hohhot as a Fulbrighter researching for my dissertation. I look at how the Chinese Republic and Japanese occupation ‘mapped’ the relationship between land and nomad within a larger ecological crisis of reclamation and settlement in the early twentieth century. My project analyzes the emerging role of social science and land surveys in how these successive regimes situated nomadism in space and time.

The first five months in Hohhot, I waited and wrangled for archival permission. The archives have blocked access to fonds from the Japanese occupation onwards for both domestic and foreign scholars, rendering the study of modern history in Inner Mongolia a somewhat futile endeavor. Given that the deputy director of the State Archives himself became embroiled in a sex scandal this past July resulting in widespread anti-corruption campaigns, pandering to authorities with gifts of baijiu or hongbao to see off-limit documents seems out of the question. Nevertheless the county- and banner-level memorials available to historians here give a rich account of cooperation and conflict between herders and farmers at the local level.

A few years ago, the archives moved from the center of the city to its southern outskirts, into a grandiose, six-story black building complete with a ping-ping hall, dozens of empty offices, and a chandelier worthy of Bo Xilai: the Dalian Years. About half of the time, I was the only visitor to the reading room for the entire day, and the archivists left me unattended to paw through fragile scrolls. Other times, however, the reading room Cerberus barked at visitors until evening. The reading room would fill with locals who came to look up files for their danwei but instead spend their hours loudly chatting and carelessly flipping through the acid-eaten pages, or sneaking up behind the foreigner in the room and reading over her shoulder. Those days were both unbearable and memorable.

Preparation. The archivists expect researchers to know precisely which files to order when arriving, even though they refuse to make catalogs public. Two books helped me in figuring out what sort of documents to request ahead of my visit to the archives. First, Historical Treasures of China: A Collection of Rare Manuscripts from the Archives of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (中国档案精粹:内蒙古卷), held at many university libraries, highlights a few of the documents kept in Hohhot, including restricted Japanese-language materials. Second, The Survey of Archives in Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治区历史档案全宗概览) provides an in-depth description of each fond not only in the regional archive, but also in all banner and county level archives across Inner Mongolia. Unfortunately no university library in the United States carries this book. While the archives do have a copy of the second volume, they do not allow photocopies, claiming that the book remains “off-limits.” Still, second-hand copies occasionally appear on used bookstore websites.

Access. Officially, the archives require a stamped letter of introduction from a researcher’s danwei; foreigners must obtain a second, accompanying letter of introduction from the waiban or Foreign Affairs Office of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s government headquarters (内蒙古呼和浩特市赛罕区敕勒川大街1号内蒙古自治区人民政府) located halfway to the airport. In the past, some foreigners managed to circumvent this paperwork. The archives, however, have become increasingly strict, so much so that this fall an eminent professor from Japan who had visited several times over the last three decades could not see any documents, despite having powerful connections in Hohhot.

My paperwork took five months owing to a fair bit of miscommunication, incompetence, and everyone skipping town for summer vacation. Despite what a faculty sponsor might say, a stamped letter of introduction and student ID card from a local university will not suffice for archive access. In fact, archive access rests on the rare cooperation of the school waiban, the government waiban, and the archives director, all of whom liked to play bureaucratic hot potato with paperwork.

The entire process seemed deceptively simple, but foreigners cannot do anything in Hohhot without relying on local help. That is, no one listens to or believes in what foreigners say without a Chinese or Mongolian representative there to give credence to their words. First I had to draft a letter of introduction for my school waiban, the Foreign Affairs Office of Inner Mongolia University, not to be confused with the Office of International Education. The school waiban printed this request on official letterhead with a corresponding stamp. Then I had to deliver this letter along with a copy of my passport and residency permit to the government waiban through an intermediary as foreigners are forbidden from entering the building. The government waiban acts as a sort of black hole for paperwork: nothing ever comes out. Therefore, the intermediary should not just drop off the letter with the government waiban but wait until he writes and stamps a letter of approval, otherwise it will disappear into a vortex of meaningless memos and files. This stage took the longest amount of time, as finding a trustworthy intermediary proved difficult.

In my case, the government waiban rejected my first letter of introduction because the school waiban had addressed it to the wrong desk, but then failed to tell anyone about it for two months until we called him. He denied the second draft for having named the fonds, rather than describing them in detail. (This requirement completely contradicted the demands of the archives, which only wanted a short list.) By this point, the school waiban began calling the government waiban nearly every day to confirm that he had received my letter and to remind him to contact the archives. The third letter, delivered by my faculty sponsor, explained my project in the most harmonized language possible (no mention of minorities, religion, or conflict), including extensive descriptions of the requested fonds as quoted from The Survey of Archives in Inner Mongolia. Once the government waiban approved this version, he telephoned the archives director and the two discussed my case. The government waiban then faxed over both of our letters to the archives, and the director finally contacted my school waiban to let me know that I could research there.

Visitors to the archives first must sign in at the lobby with the guards. After the first week of use, this rule fell to the side as I got to know each of the watchmen. From the entrance, researchers should proceed to the reception room (接待室) and fill out a one-time form briefly describing their project and what fonds they would like to see, before putting away their belongings in the locker. The reading room requires one final sign-in at the front counter.

Hours. The regional archives open at 8:30 and close at 17:00 every weekday, save for national holidays and training workshops. Some days, however, the secretary does not unlock the reading room until after 10:00. In addition the staff often shuts down the reading room to run errands in another part of the building, leaving visitors waiting for up to an hour. Lunch break should run from 12:00 to 14:30 like all other public offices in Hohhot, but instead stretches luxuriously from 11:30 to 15:00, or even later. The siesta lasts long enough to take the bus or bike home for a meal and a nap.

Location. To reach the archives, take Bus #21, 66, 34, or 37 from Inner Mongolia University’s main campus and get off at the Saihan District Government stop (赛罕区政府站). From there, turn towards the Jumbotron (which in January projected daily videos of clown fish and moray eels) and follow the Second Ring Road for about 300 meters. The archives complex is to the left. Bus #5, 65, 57, and 78 also run past the archives. Bus rides cost one yuan, but a taxi trip totals fifteen yuan or so, from the city center. I ended up cycling to the archives twice a day, but had to navigate the impromptu bonfires, donkey carts, and BMWs careening down the bike line in the wrong direction.

Collections Search. The archives only keep paper records of their holdings, with each catalog entry bearing a title, date, number of juan, and the languages used in the document. Titles range from the obscure and vague (“A Letter—No Date”) to the specific and helpful (“The Heilongjiang Hulunbuir Supervising Office responds to your Honorable Office regarding Russians cutting down grass intended for sheep in the nomadic areas”). Furthermore, the archives have censored about 10% of the catalog for papers of the Hulunbuir Lieutenant General’s Office (呼伦贝尔副都统衙门档案), but they have preserved the collection in its entirety on microfilm with labels for each document describing the content in Chinese.

Nearly all fonds belonging to the Mongolian-language section have catalogs written only in Mongolian (including the dates), even if the contents themselves might be predominantly in Manchu, or bilingual in Chinese. The language used in the catalog poses serious barriers of entry to beginners of Mongolian; moreover, none of the reading room or photocopying staff can read any languages other than Chinese. The archives do allow research assistants to help with reading the catalogs. As for their paperwork, research assistants must present a stamped letter of introduction from their danwei (such as a university department) and their national identification card to the staff on their first visit.

The archives do not have an official document request form. Simply write down the titles and document numbers on a piece of paper and the reading room staff will telephone someone upstairs to find the manuscript or microfilm in storage. Document retrieval can take up to half a day. If working on a long-term project, researchers may store their material overnight for weeks at a time in a locker assigned to them in the reading room.

Fees. The fines foreign researchers must pay to read and photocopy materials at the Inner Mongolia Regional Archives are exorbitant, and most likely will go towards their chandelier fund. Expect to spend at least twice the amount a domestic researcher would. Document retrieval costs 40 yuan per juan (10 yuan per juan for locals); microfilm retrieval costs 80 yuan per roll (40 yuan per roll for locals); photocopies from microfilm cost 6 yuan per A4-sized page (3 yuan per page for locals); digital photographs cost 4 yuan per image. The number of pages in a juan vary widely, from one page to several hundred. Because I was a graduate student looking at juan consisting of only a page or two, I managed to drive down the document retrieval fee to 20 yuan per juan. The other prices remained firm.

To request photocopies, ask the reading room staff for an order form and carbon paper in order to make a duplicate. This form requires a description of the contents, fond and juan number, and page numbers. One form goes to the head of the archives for approval, a process that takes half a day, while to other goes to the photocopying staff. The director can approve or reject requests depending on the content of the documents as written on the form, but she does not crosscheck this information with the original listing in the catalog. Fulfilling photocopy requests can take several days or weeks as the staff does not come to the office daily. For this reason, do not wait until the last day to photocopy material.

I do not recommend researching at the Inner Mongolia Regional Archives without a sense of humor and patience for the situation that is Hohhot. Scholars interested in this region should consider restructuring their projects in order to work out of the Liaoning Provincial Archives or the Mongolia State Archives, both of which heartily welcome foreigners. Most of the material here remains frustratingly out of reach, and certainly so for those historians planning shorter research trips. What troubles me the most is that as long as these archives remain restricted to outsiders, the study of Mongolian history will languish as an inward-looking field. This may be the ultimate goal of the policy-makers themselves. Needless to say, I am so very indebted to my school waiban, my faculty sponsor, my research assistant, and the friendly staff of the Mongolian-language section for the great lengths they went to ensure I could see such valuable material. For further questions or concerns, please contact me at

Sakura Christmas
History Department
Harvard University

Image: Bilingual documents at the Inner Mongolia Regional Archives. Photograph by author.

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